Fifty Years and Fifty Films - Gretchen the Greenhorn (1916)

Gretchen the Greenhorn (Triangle 1916)

I've long had a desire to see more Dorothy Gish films. I've seen her in Orphans of the Storm, some of the Biograph shorts and also in The Bright Shawl. In my quest, I was hopeful to see some films not directed by D.W. Griffith. This is not to say that I do not like Griffith films. Lordy, I do, just not all Griffith. For the record there are plenty I do like and quite love.
My point for seeing non-Griffith directed films has everything to do with Dorothy being famous for comedy and D.W. Griffith was not. When Griffith was working with Triangle in 1916 his mind was elsewhere. Other films were farmed out to other directors and Griffith was a "supervisor." At the time Dorothy was filming Gretchen the Greenhorn, Griffith was fully engaged in the film that would become Intolerance. The directorial duties for Gretchen the Greenhorn were performed by the brothers Sidney A. and Chester M. Franklin.

Gretchen musing during the crossing

I've got to say that the pickings are mighty slim for the home viewer and fan of Dorothy Gish. Happily, The Film Preservation Foundation included the UCLA restored 1916 Triangle picture Gretchen the Greenhorn in the second DVD set More Treasures From American Archives. The film stars Dorothy Gish, Ralph Lewis, Frank Bennett and a very nearly svelte Eugene Pallette. A good number of the Biograph stock players fill out the cast.

Ralph Lewis as Papa Van Houck

The story begins with Dutch immigrant John Van Houck (Ralph Lewis) having saved enough to send for his daughter Gretchen (Dorothy Gish) to emigrate to the United States from Holland. Ralph Lewis does pretty well with warm and fuzzy here (very unlike his role as the greedy and nasty father to Alice Terry in The Conquering Power - in which he was wonderful and nasty).

Gretchen arrives in stereotypical Dutch wooden clogs and carrying a duck, of all things. No customs, no Ellis Island, wham, just walks off the boat. No TSA in sight. This was filmed in Southern California and the budget just did not cover a trip to Catalina to emulate Ellis Island. Gretchen wanders about the dock area looking for her Papa and Papa wanders about looking for his Gretchen. She tries to ask directions from the local cop, but the language barrier proves too much. Miming does not help. After a few tense moments, Gretchen and her adoring papa are reunited. Interestingly, the shots of the reunion begin with the two of them in medium closeup and as they run to one another, we are treated to a view of the intimate reunion from the distance of a rooftop rather far, far away.

Gretchen and her duck having a bit of a language problem
with the local cop on the beat.

Gretchen is introduced to the neighborhood and meets Pietro (Frank Bennett), you can almost see the sparks fly. She meets the Widow Garritty (the always wonderful Kate Bruce) and her brood of children. The neighborhood hosts a welcome party and much merriment is had by all.

Papa is an engraver by profession and Gretchen takes over the daughterly duties of cooking, cleaning and making friends with all the neighbors. She falls in love with Pietro who reciprocates the feelings, but they're both more than a little shy about it. Their brief flirting scenes are utterly charming.

Frank Bennett as the amiable hero Pietro.

Enter bad guy Rogers (Eugene Pallette) who has moved into the tenement to scope out the engraving skills of Papa. Poor papa desperately wants a contract with the U.S. Government and is duped. He soon is working hard creating an engraving a plate from which counterfeit money indistinguishable from the real thing can be made.

In the meantime, kindly widow Garrity dying asks Gretchen to watch over her brood of children.

A buff Elmo Lincoln and Eugene Pallette conspire.

Rogers retrieves the bogus plate and he and his cronies in crime print off a bunch of funny money. Not wanting to implicate himself testing out the phony cabbage, Rogers gives a hot bill to Gretchen to buy groceries, and hopefully return with the change. The ruse works and the phony baloney bill is accepted as genuine. When Gretchen and Papa realize how they have been used, they make plans to expose Rogers. He's a crafty devil and he finds out their plans and he drags them to his hideout and locks them in.

The Garritty children reappear and witness the abduction and so alert the amiable Pietro. With the help of the police, he captures Rogers and then frees his sweetheart and her beloved Papa. Not so soon afterward, Pietro and Gretchen tie the knot. Happy days!

The 35mm print was in very good shape with some original tints. I have to say, this film does whet my appetite to see more of Dorothy Gish. She was fun and much more subtle than the modern film fan might imagine. What would have been a much more fluttery heroine than under Griffith’s direction at this point, she shows spunk, considerable charm and none of the what I like to call "Ooh! A bunny!" heroine. Perhaps because her character came well prepared and armed with duck in hand. She played shy, slightly hoydenish very well, the scenes of shy embarassment were punctuated by the quick darting out of her tongue as she laughed nervously. Hard to describe, but the effect was cute and natural.

The direction of the Franklin brothers was pretty intimate. Kate Bruce’s death scene was handled beautifully. Dorothy Gish had some room to move about and create her character. It was enormous fun to see Eugene Pallette in such an early role, not quite padded out for his later turn in The Three Musketeers with Douglas Fairbanks (or the very portly Friar Tuck in the 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood).

Dorothy Gish is so completely underappreciated and under-represented since so very few of her starring films survive. She was a gifted comedic talent, no question about it. One of the most sought after films is the single directing effort of her sister Lillian that starred Dorothy entitled Remodeling Her Husband. Lillian never made much to say over her own skill as a director, but she really praised Dorothy as an able comedienne. Nell Gwyn does survive, but I've missed all the screenings in the US, much to my regret. High on my wish list due to the Valentino connection is Out of Luck, only extant in stills. I'd also love to see Clothes Make the Pirate, not merely for Dorothy and Leon Errol, but for the chance to see Nita Naldi in a rare comedy.

I've also seen Dorothy as I mentioned above in The Bright Shawl. I enjoyed the film, but really feel that Dorothy was miscast and doing a Pola Negri Spanish Vamp impression. William Powell was excellent as the villain and Edward G. Robinson can be seen in a small character role, which was pretty neat. Romola is sister Lillian's film, but Dorothy and (again) William Powell totally steal the movie and have much better roles in this really dull as dishwater Henry King costume epic. I adore Ronald Colman, but not in this film, his regrettable wig has more life than he.

I have had the pleasure of hearing some interviews conducted with Dorothy in the 1960s and can only state she was a smart cookie, a delightful story teller and has a very musical and endearing laugh.

Our friends at the National Film Preservation Foundation are responsible for making this film available and they do such fine work. It's always a good thing to pass a little (legit) cabbage in their direction if you can afford it. The phrase "Nitrate Can't Wait" is entirely accurate and many a film or film fragment can be saved and preserved with your help. You can find a link to their wonderful DVDs on their website, another good way to support the efforts of film preservation. Must also give a shout out to our friends at UCLA who restored the film, thank you UCLA!

Fifty Years/Fifty Films is my non-time-critical journey through the first fifty years of films. I'll be watching films that I've never seen or will be revisiting some very old friends. My original goal was to do this for the last six months of 2009 and you can see how well that went.


Sounds fabulous! I wish Dorothy and her work were more celebrated, but she is always overshadowed by her equally talented sister. I will definitely look for this film. Thanks!
Rebeccake said…
I need to see this film. Love the Dutch hat. And the duck.
Greta said…
Haven't seen Ralph Lewis in very many roles when he wasn't an evil capitalist. But Dorothy is delighful. And I adored The Bright Shawl!
rudyfan1926 said…
Well Greta, I will have to revisit it if I get the opportunity. That was many a Cinecon past for me.
Hollywood Props said…
It's a treat.As the “little disturber”, a street singer, her performance was the comic highlight of the film, and her characterization in this role catapulted her into a career as a star of comedy films.

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