Updated: Jun 2, 2020
A few years ago I noticed an uptick in the amount of people who were using Kickstarter to launch new vintage movie projects. One of the most lauded contributors was Ed Lorusso who began putting out rare Marion Davies films that had been restored by archives but never released. Several of his releases were picked up and screened on TCM and released by Undercrank Productions. Anything bearing his name is sure to be quality.
One of his most recent Kickstarter projects was a film from 1916 called The Innocence of Ruth. On the surface it is an unremarkable movie with a cast whose names might ring a bell only to a devoted silent movie fan. The plot rests heavily on melodrama tropes that make it feel dated. But if we look closer, there are many pieces that make this an enjoyable choice for anyone interested in films of this era.
First lets consider Viola Dana. Many of her films exist in vaults in various film archives, but few of them have seen commercial release. (One role that is available is in stark contrast to the Ruth character here. In Children of Eve, available on Kino-Lorber's The Devil's Needle... set, and made just one year prior with the same director, she plays a prostitute.) She was a plucky actress with a wide, charming smile and piercing blue eyes. Most film fans know her not from her silent film work but for the interviews she gave to Kevin Brownlow in the HBO Hollywood documentary series. Her heartbreaking recollections of the loss of boyfriend Ormer Locklear are unforgettable. She worked in the industry through the maturity of the silent film era and contributed a great deal to the documentary. It is nice, after having such affection for her from that series, to see her in her youth.
The restoration for The Innocence of Ruth was beautifully done by the Library of Congress. It shows off the lush sets to perfection. The story concerns a teenage girl named Ruth (Dana) recently orphaned and sent to live with her father's rich friend (Edward Earle). She disrupts his routines and annoys him with her kiddie antics, but after performing in a charity theater act and impressing the society patrons, she becomes quite popular and he becomes more protective. He warns her against one man in particular (Augustus Phillips) who has sinister motives to lure Ruth away from her wealthy benefactor and into his own den of iniquity. The plot moves predictably, but the opulence of the film and the way it represents its time is fascinating. We often hear that kids these days grow up too fast (although we also see photos of elementary school aged children working in factories from this time period). Films reflect the attitudes of the day, and adolescence really wasn't acknowledged as a transitional period. Instead, you were either a little girl in curls and bows playing tricks and getting the brush off from men, or you were an object of lust. There was no in-between, as seen in this film. It also represents the styles of the era. The walls are elaborately decorated with carved wood and printed wallpaper. The clothes are beautifully made with rich fabrics and lots of details. (I found myself itching to watch Titanic after seeing these gowns.) In other words, if you like looking at backgrounds, this movie gives you a lot to see.
This movie also gave me a taste of Cinevent, because the score is performed by David Drazin. His music is always lively and distinctive. It took me right back to the dark screening rooms of many Memorial Day weekends. Since this year's event has been cancelled, it was nice to get to experience that feeling at home.
In the past few months, Americans have been hearing a lot about Covid 19, or coronavirus, and there have been more than a few comparisons to the Influenza epidemic in 1918, both in regard to how society needs to best react to reduce the number of casualties and as a reminder of the potential for losses if the right actions are not taken. A century feels like a long time ago, but when we see how easy it is to relate to films such as this one, it feels less distant. Consider the fact that the director of The Innocence of Ruth, John H. Collins, who was married to his cute leading lady and in the prime of his life died in the 1918 epidemic at age 28.
As a bonus feature on the DVD, Lorusso compiled the melancholy score for Brother of the Bear (1921), a short film credited as Mary Astor's first screen role. She already has her trademark regal beauty at age 15 playing the daughter of a lumber mill owner who is in love with the foreman. The scenery is lovely and makes this forgettable short film worth watching.
This film has not yet been picked up for a formal release, but it is indicative of the kind of interesting rare film you are promised to be treated to when you back one of Lorusso's projects. He puts them out regularly and I recommend them.