The facts . . . and the truth
Mark Pruett | 07/25/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"The 1925 lobby card chosen as the cover art for this Kino release describes THE RED KIMONA as "A Smashing Exciting Thrilling Drama," a breathless burst of praise somewhat at odds with Kino's own more reserved judgment--that it is "clearly a heartfelt film made from a woman's point of view." Both descriptions are accurate, sort of.
A few reviewers have apologized for the melodrama, as if it somehow gets in the way of the message. The events leading up to Gabrielle Darley's 1917 trial and subsequent acquittal for the murder of her pimp were true, they point out, but the ensuing narrative, well over half of the movie's running time, was entirely cooked up to satisfy the audience's need for romance, sensationalism, and pulse-pounding chases.
But if any part of the movie seems unlikely or lurid, it is surely the true part. Gabrielle's degradation, her transformation from wide-eyed innocent to New Orleans prostitute, is never dramatized. Howard Blaine, whom she regards as a swell guy, takes her away from it all (the small town, her abusive family) and, because she is convinced that he loves her, she . . . consents to sell her body to repulsive men like Mr. Mack? How did she get from there to here? To match the improbability of the situation, Priscilla Bonner's acting, in the early scenes, is over the top. Her Gabrielle emotes in the style of early Biographs, with peeled eyeballs and extravagant gestures.
Our patience, however, is rewarded. During the trial, the exaggeration melts away, and Bonner and the film come to life.
The real subject of THE RED KIMONA is not prostitution, it turns out, but the continuous exploitation of the fallen, the vulnerable, and the dispossessed, often by those who are in the best position to help. In one of several expertly conceived scenes, Gabrielle, freed from prison, is presented as the "guest of honor" at a ladies' parlor luncheon by Mrs. Fontaine, the wealthy pseudo-philanthropist and publicity seeker who has taken her in. A sympathetic maid watches from above as Gabrielle descends the staircase and stands nervously amid the overdressed matrons, who are agog with lascivious curiosity. As the maid's gaze becomes ours, the scene dissolves to reveal a circle of cats pawing a dead mouse.
The writing in this scene is ingenious. When a dowager torments Gabrielle with prurient questions, the intertitles capture the woman's salacious prattle without the use of a single censorable word. That this wealthy, complacent social milieu is so masterfully skewered suggests that the writers knew it very, very well.
The video restoration by Bret Wood, resulting in stable, clear images with minor speckling, makes the DVD a pleasure to watch. The infrequent splashes of red--emblematic of Gabrielle's shame and notoriety--are vivid and genuinely startling, as they are the only color tints in the film."