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Discontent (1916)


Long shot, this one. Old Jack here saw some white hair float by on the YouTube and thought, in memory of Silent Steve, let’s give it a go. And damn me if this isn’t a fun twenty-five minutes of an old soldier, unhappy at the home for…let’s go with American Civil War vets, picked up by his rich nephew and family. It’s the dream in these corridors, of course. Let’s get out of the magnolia hell of the home and go somewhere with thick curtains, four floors, mighty gardens and family and servants accommodating every grumpy twitch, grouch or sneer. Oh yes. Find somewhere fancy to expose your Discontent.

The film starts in the vets’ home. A bit more military than this establishment (no actual chaplain sat outside tapping her feet to the Lord’s Prayer…waiting…), what with long rooms of metal beds and ancient men gossiping and bitching like downtime in the TV room. Of course, being 1916, our hero (J. Edwin Brown as Pearson) can’t gather the literate boys and beautiful crumbly girls into the emotional embrace of a film. Dragging them to town may have been an option, sticking a nickel in a nickelodeon and waiting for the giggles before hunting down some beer; but that’s not what happens here. For Pearson is permanently doing an Albert Steptoe fifty years early: teeth may be missing so his jaw hags out in a grouchy grimace. His uniform is still there as is his whinging about rich family.

Who take pity on him. Oh yes.

The family come and get the old git in a motorcar of its moment. He tenders a soulless goodbye to the friendly men who had surrounded him in the home, heading off with la-de-dah airs and a resolute wave to a life of luxury at his nephew’s house…

Now, look, old folk, there’s a number of lessons in these few minutes of telling mime: stop bitching, love your family, be nice and don’t get catty with everyone you meet. Pearson pitches up in the family estate knowing none of them. He’s snotty with the servants (a racial flinch at how he treats the butler turns out to be treatment of general flinchworthiness: he’s horrible…). So, he tells the daughter of the house she’s a big girl and her boyfriend is too small for her: not a nice touch, and history makes it rather more sour. Marie Walcamp‘s career floundered until she took her own life twenty years later. Pearson drives his nephew’s wife into a state of paranoid loneliness by pointing out her husband is at the club most nights…another sour note from real-life as Katherine Griffith died five years later in her forty-fifth year. While here, she gives sad and nervous with an innocence that brings out a sensitive relationship with Charles Hammond as her husband and the Glowy-haired Bastard’s nephew. Hammond lived, by the way, and was still making films in 1931. The imdb doesn’t know when he died, so it’s perfectly possible he’s well on the way to 150.

All this is very clever: there’s a deft understanding of emotion in the writing and direction; and no small amount of social commentary regarding the treatment of the old in the plotting. Even if the oldsters can be a tad…tosserish. The film resolves this the way life should, with a clear structure ahead of its time – albeit Pearson has to recognise his real home first. And the value of everyone around him. And, ok, just watch the thing. It’ll be over in 25 minutes and you can huff and puff at his behaviour for yourself.

Now – history time! Old Jack did a bit of research. This is a film by one of the – at the time – several female directors in America. Lois Weber wrote and directed it, one of many she produced at that time. In notional cahoots with her husband (although a shufty online suggests he did nothing), she did it all: writing, directing, acting, producing at a rate so prolific and so timely it’s amazing she isn’t a name we all know. She annoyed the censors with her social ministry and the first full-frontal female in film (with added worthiness, but, you know, thanks Lois), invented split screen, equalled D.W. Griffiths in volume and range, was the first woman to own a studio and direct a full-length feature. And made the first Tarzan. Really. Look her up, note the uncanny link to Alice Guy-Baché, and remember her name. Lois Weber was important.

Which all goes to make Discontent look a bit small: no lectures on abortion or birth control, here; rather, a confusion of comedy and drama as an old man goes from rude and selfish to selfish and rude.

But be kind to him, eh? He might be ten days short of senile.

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