At the 2011 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Clarence Brown-directed 1925 Universal release The Goose Woman was introduced by author and film historian Kevin Brownlow. For me, Brown's family drama was the best film I saw at this year's festival. [Spoilers ahead.]
Based on a Rex Beach story (itself inspired by a real-life murder trial), The Goose Woman stars future Best Actress Academy Award nominee Louise Dresser as Mary Holmes, a former opera star known as Marie de Nardi. Once the toast of Paris, Mary is now a drunken slattern, living in an old farmhouse where she raises geese. She openly resents her son, Gerald (Jack Pickford), whom she bitterly blames for ruining her career when he was born for she lost her singing voice at the time.
Gerald, for his part, is in love with well-to-do Hazel Woods (Constance Bennett). He intends to marry her, but his enraged mother tries to spoil his plans by revealing to him that he is an illegitimate child.
When a neighbor is found dead, Mary is hounded by newspaper reporters. Thinking that the publicity would restore her lost fame, she concocts a story about witnessing the murder. The District Attorney (Gustav von Seyffertitz), who remembered her as the famous Marie de Nardi, believes her fabricated tale and sets her up in a fancy hotel where she is bathed and dressed, and returned to her former glorious self.
Lucky for Gerald, his fiancee accepts his questionable background and still consents to marry him. But unlucky for him, his mother's false testimony frames him as the murderer. Mary is horrified when she discovers she has inadvertently accused her own son. Needless to say, mother love prevails.
Director Brown spares no details of Mary's sordid life. She looks unkempt and slovenly, right down to her filthy fingernails and muddy boots. Her environment is cluttered and dirty. In one revealing moment, a visiting detective opens a window because of the smell, only to find a pig pen on the other side. Credit must be given to art directors William R. Schmitt and E. E. Sheeley (a.k.a. Elmer Sheeley) for the realistic interior of Mary's cabin.
All the performances are fine, especially Louise Dresser's. But I should add that Jack Pickford is also given one of his rare chances to shine. I always thought Pickford had a good screen presence, but in The Goose Woman he displays a vast range of emotions and shows what he could do with a good role. The lovely Constance Bennett is fully convincing as his love interest.
© Danny Fortune
THE GOOSE WOMAN (1925). Dir.: Clarence Brown. Scr.: Melville W. Brown, titles by Dwinelle Benthall; from Rex Beach's story. Cast: Louise Dresser, Jack Pickford, Constance Bennett, Marc McDermott, George Nichols, Gustav von Seyffertitz.
Note from the editor: The Goose Woman was remade in 1933 as (the currently hard-to-find) The Past of Mary Holmes, starring Helen McKellar, Eric Linden, and Jean Arthur. Harlan Thompson and Slavko Vorkapich from a screenplay by Marion Dix and Edward Doherty.