|Man, Woman and Sin (1927) – Silent
Run time: 1h 10min | Drama
Director: Monte Bell
Writers: Monte Bell, John Colton, Alice D.G. Miller
Stars: John Gilbert, Jean Eagles
If the provocative title of the film is not enough of a clue, the explicit brothel scene near the beginning should establish it as having the kind of subject matter that inspired the imposition of the Production Code a few years later. John Gilbert plays a young man from an impoverished background who takes a job in a newspaper office to earn enough to buy a house for himself and his mother. He becomes infatuated with the beautiful society editor, played by Jeanne Eagles in her first screen role, but does not realize that she is the mistress of the married managing editor. The gulf between rich and poor, and the resulting social tensions, provide an undercurrent throughout the film.
After her initial six silents spanning 1915-1920, Jeanne Eagels became a Broadway legend, creating the role of Sadie Thompson in RAIN. After conquering Broadway she returned to Hollywood. This silent film is one of three she made before she died of heroin overdose. A print is housed in the George Eastman House, Rochester, N.Y. Her second film THE LETTER is the only extant talkie of Ms. Eagels (JEALOUSY is a "lost" film.) Interesting to note that Bette Davis went on to do remakes of both THE LETTER and JEALOUSY (renamed DECEPTION).
This is a short film (65 minutes), establishing a son’s devotion to his widowed mother re taking odd jobs to save money toward buying a house. As an adult the role is taken over by John Gilbert sans moustache. This bland innocent gets a job on a newspaper and falls for the society editor (Eagels), who is having an affair with the married overall editor. She plays him along as she is being neglected, but eventually falls for him. He falls for her in a big way, spending all the saved household money on a bracelet for her. When he discovers the truth about her situation he accidentally kills the editor when they are discovered together, goes to jail and is condemned to die. It is only the mother’s intervention with Eagels that results in the latter’s exoneration of Gilbert (self-defense).
Gilbert is completely unappealing in this performance – indeed, here it is hard to see why he was a star – he is incredibly bland looking and not much of an actor. The film would have been entirely forgettable except for the presence of Ms. Eagels, who is not only stunningly beautiful but absolutely in command of her craft. What a talented actress she was – her facial expressions and her intensity are right on the money and she convinces us in the role of a not too terribly bad woman trying to make a go of it in a man’s world. There is a remarkable piece of cinematography near the end. The camera is positioned at the rear window of her car. She is in the far right side of the window, partially seen from behind. Her driver is on the left and in the middle of the window we see Gilbert and his mother emerge from the prison. After a tracking shot with them out of frame, we suddenly return to this shot and Eagels quickly turns her head to look at him for the last time – what a close-up and what a moment!!!!
Do seek this one out (one of only three extant Eagels performances)and one of two available currently on video.
I have just watched this twice and while the title is misleading, the film if actually good.
The film boasts moody dark photography and eerie light effects (especially in the ghost house) that is quite striking. When Eric Von S did it critics raved and this director does it better despite not being known by the critics. The director also does gritty slums scenes and newspaper scenes with gritty details you don't expect in 1920 movies from MGM. His script is honest too. The vamp is not really a vamp and the boss is not a bounder despite keeping the vamp as a mistress. There is no 'happy ending' tacked on. The boy and girl walk away and continue living their lives wiser if not more happy.
J Engels is a cult now because of her short life and tragic talent and she is good as the society writer determined to survive in an exploitative world. She is never melodramatic and the last sight of her peering out of a back window of her limo is striking. The woman is not good. She is not bad. She is just a surviver. The 1920s usually does not show that aspect of working women so that is unusual.
Gilbert did this film the same year as 'Show' which features him in an gaudy cad role of a sexy bounder. That makes this film interesting because Gilbert is trying to do the exact opposite of the Show: playing a naive 18 year old kid who falls head over heels in love with the first girl he dates after an aborted visit to a brothel he is too scared to consummate. Sure the kid is a sap and a 'mother's boy' but why did Gilbert try the role? Gilbert plays the kid very callow, naive, and unhand some (Gilbert is clean shaved and so very unhand some) and he is no catch. When he panics after killing the boss he runs away and hides in the ghost house. The moody light effects are very effective as he cowers in the shadows, his white handkerchief fluttering like a ghost. When his mother comes with the police in tow he cowers in her arms like a little boy. Not heroic but his fingers patting and stroking her sleeve are tiny touching details.
Gilbert plays the part of the kid very well (even if it is not a sexy, swaggering part) and it is to his credit he tries this part at all. He does not make the boy brave and ends the film only a little wiser and much sadder. You wonder what will happen to the mother's boy next. He does not seem promising. The movie offers no happy ending or promise of a future happy ending. So you are left to wonder.
The writer director based it on a book so he was limited. He should have made the prologue of the boy and girl from opposite sides of the tracks the same two grown ups seen later. That would have been more effective. But apparently the book does not say that even if the film would have been more effective if liberties had been taken.
Ignore the title and give the film a chance and be surprised. I think (despite the bad quality of the print and pasted on can music) you will like it.
J E F Rose
Do you have a copy of this film?
No, TFS saw this film at the George Eastman Museum. I don’t believe it’s available on DVD at this time.