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October 16, 2008

Silent Reflections – The Wicked Darling (1919)


A crime melodrama slash romance with a contemporary setting, The Wicked Darling is a vehicle for Priscilla Dean, a forgotten star of the late 1910s. Its primary interest to silent movie buffs is its early pairing of Lon Chaney and director Tod Browning, in a film made when Chaney was on the cusp of stardom.

The title refers to Dean’s character, a pickpocket named Mary who reforms for the love of a good man. Chaney plays the heavy of the piece, Mary’s former partner in crime and would be lover. While his gallery of grotesques became his most famous roles, Chaney made many films playing “normal” characters like his malicious, petty criminal in The Wicked Darling.

In fact, the most striking thing about the film is just how normal everybody and everything seems. The plot is fanciful, but the actors and settings – tenement apartments, saloons, a restaurant where Mary gets a job as a waitress – are almost aggressively ordinary. There is neither glamor nor squalor on display. Dean was not a great beauty (or a great actress; she is not due for re-discovery). I find her rather plain, although attractively full-figured. Chaney stands out, but for his performance and charisma. In appearance, he fits right in. The actor playing Dean’s love interest is positively homely, stocky and with a heavy, fleshy face. The supporting cast and bit players look in every way like people you might have passed on the street in 1919; adjust the costumes and hairstyles, and you might pass them on the street today and not look twice.

Chaney’s part, while pivotal, is unfortunately rather small. The story’s focus is on Mary and her humdrum romance; its highlights are her interactions with her criminal cohorts, Chaney’s tough guy and the pair’s fence, a small-time pawnbroker. Its only surprise, and it is a considerable surprise, is that the bad guy’s only “punishment” for his misdeeds is his failure to get what he wants. After Chaney’s performance, the film is most worth watching for incidental moments like the ex-boxer turned saloon keeper admonishing a customer for smoking in his dive bar (“what do you think this place is, a dump?”) and the landlady who, upon seeing her tenant has been shot, immediately looks around for something to catch the blood before it drips onto her rug.

Note: The film is available on DVD from Image Entertainment. The disc is from the sole surviving print, a slightly abridged export version held by the Netherlands Film Archive. It is very watchable despite noticeable damage in some places. Appropriately enough given the film’s everyday quality, the score is a compilation of popular incidental cinema music of the day. Included on the disc is a second feature, Victory, also with Chaney in a prominent supporting role.