Never Quite Right: Week of May 21st, 1921

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reviewed a film based on two beloved novels, and showed just how difficult it can be to satisfy fans:

Phantom children of Barrie—Tommy, Grizel, Elspeth, the Painted Lady, Dr. McQueen—phantom children, who peopled Sentimental Tommy and Tommy and Grizel, how long we’ve loved you and cherished you in our hearts, with all your quaint wistfulness and whimsical humor and poignant humanity! But phantom children still you are, for it was your souls, your minds, which Barrie gave us. And phantoms and souls are of too tenuous and illusive stuff, alas, to film with superlative success.

Yet Sentimental Tommy, the film, is a great picture, despite Sentimental Tommy, the book, is far greater. The screen adaptation opened yesterday at Grauman’s, and lovers of Barrie, as well as those who haven’t had the happiness to know him, will, I’m sure, find the picture a very wonderful one, with as much fresh charm of the original sustained as was possible.

To give the adaptation due credit, it has been as admirably done as it could be. I believe, however, that it will be the Barrie lovers who will get the most out of it, because they will bring to it their memory of the rich touches of character, which is not possible to put on the film, either because of its limitations of expression or of time. The eliminations have left us a clean-cut and entirely engrossing story of the complex-natured Tommy and of Grizel, the pathetic little daughter of the despised Painted Lady, who thought it would have been “just sweet—to be respectable.”

An admirable fact about the screen story is that, despite it marching swiftly, it has managed to convey a real sense of the quality of the boy born with the imagination which made him often do injustice to others through his impulses, born of sympathetic insight which crowded him on the express things he really did not feel. Tommy was bewildered by his own sympathies and impulses, but the trouble is, he was also an artist and as such was analytical of his own feelings—which led him into a quagmire of self-admiration and self-pity.

The more people love a work, the harder it is to satisfy them with another version. Unlike so many original version fans who simply grumble “the book was better,” Kingsley recognizes there are just some things the movies can’t do.  She admired all of the performances, photography, and set design and concluded: “Rich promise of very fine things indeed for the future screen drama, Sentimental Tommy brings to us. And nobody should miss seeing it.” Unfortunately we can’t; it’s a lost film.

Set in a Scottish village, Tommy tells the story of a girl, Grizel, ostracized because of her mother’s reputation, and her friendship with an imaginative newcomer, Tommy. Years later, after misunderstandings, his success as a novelist, and her temporary loss of sanity, they marry.

Naturally, all the other reviewers mentioned James Barrie: he was a hugely popular novelist and playwright at the time. But they seemed much less attached than Kingsley was to the original work. Edward Weitzel in Moving Picture World wrote that the film captured the “essence of Barrie’s two books.” Furthermore:

Lovers of the Scotch novelist’s delightful characters will find them on the screen, living and loving in the Thrums of which Barrie knew every stone in the street and which he describes with such tender fidelity.

1923 trade ad

Film Daily thought that Barrie’s admirers would simply “have a delightful treat in store for them.” They remembered the people who managed that feat:

Considerable credit is due Josephine Lovett, who had the difficult task of writing the scenario, and considering that she had such a wealth of incident to combat with, Miss Lovett has done very well. But it remained for director John S. Robertson to do the big job and it is doubtful it could have been done better. All the quaint charm of Barrie has been transferred to the screen, and both in handling of the cast, exterior and interior settings, the matter of detail and other whatnots that make real pictures, Robertson has again proven himself one of THE directors.

1934 trade ad

Lovett and Robertson were a married couple who often collaborated (he directed 18 out of her 35 screenplays). They were both former actors who met while working at Vitagraph, and in 1916, they moved behind the camara to make a short, Love and Trout. After Tommy, Lasky’s sent them to London to make two films (Love’s Boomerang (1922) and The Spanish Jade (1922)); while they were there James Barrie saw their version of Tommy and liked it enough to invite them to discuss his upcoming film project, Peter Pan. However, a different writer and director were hired for that, and Lovett and Robertson went to Los Angeles, where they made Mary Pickford’s second version of Tess of Storm Country. They continued to mostly adapt sentimental stories until 1927 when Annie Laurie didn’t sell many tickets, and Lovett changed her style completely to suit the new times. She wrote an original, Our Dancing Daughters (1928), and had a great big risqué hit. They both continued to work until 1935 when they retired.

“Famous Authors on Lasky Staff,” Motion Picture News, May 28, 1921, p.3311.

“Has a Place Among Year’s Best Pictures,” Film Daily, April 3, 1921, p.2.

Edward Weitzel, “Sentimental Tommy,” Moving Picture World, April 9, 1921, p.626.

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