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Wicked Darling, The
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by Doug Bentin

"The promise is here, but not much else."
2 stars

Between her screen debut in 1912 and her last appearance 20 years later, Priscilla Dean made 88 movies. The only one with any claim to fame was “The Wicked Darling,” one of the seven pictures she made in 1919, and it isn’t remembered because it’s a Priscilla Dean starring vehicle but because it marked the first time Tod Browning and Lon Chaney worked together.

Dean plays Mary Stevens, a young woman who, as they used to say, is no better than she has to be. She is a thief and pickpocket working with “Stoop” Connors (Chaney), a rough street villain who combines the more charming qualities of Fagin and Bill Sykes.

Browning wastes no time in letting us know why the film’s working titles was “The Gutter Rose” as he opens the picture with a cross fade from a flower in the street to Mary, who manages to steal a string of pearls at a fancy reception. When her victim realizes who the culprit is, Mary rushes away. She evades her pursuers by slipping through the open front door of a brownstone. (The house’s occupant, Kent Mortimer [Wellington Playter, a stolid, blocky actor] has left if open while he pays for a cab ride.)

When Kent finds her in his house, Mary makes some weak excuses for being there and then begins to play up to the apparently wealthy man. He appears to be slightly older than she, but not so much that flirting seems too obvious. She friendlies him along with the intention of returning later to burglarize the house. When she leaves, she sneaks photos of Kent’s girlfriend out with her.

Dean may seem to a modern audience like an unusual choice to play a lady crook who uses her good looks to put potential male victims off their guard. Her face is interesting but not really pretty. Her profile if flat and, while the sharpness of her features are not pronounced enough to be described as “hatchet-faced,” her face is definitely long.

As a result of her association with Kent, Mary decides to go straight. She falls in love with the guy and takes a job as a waitress. Her affection for him is shown when he comes in to eat at the café where she works and she inadvertently drops his steak on the floor. We know that for other customers, a quick brush-off is all that’s required to make a dropped steak edible, but for Kent, she goes back to the kitchen for a fresh one.

Browning’s humor is also evident after Kent loses his money and is reduced to living in a cheap boarding house. (Yes, it’s one of those stories.) He’s shot on the street by Stoop and when he goes back to his room he tries to keep his landlord from finding out about his wound. (He’s several weeks behind in the rent. I told you it was one of those stories.) Browning gives us a shot of Kent bleeding into his chamber pot in an attempt to keep from staining the floor.

The plot is fairly routine for melodramas of this period. Stoop and his minions are set on dragging Mary back into a life of crime—or at least get those stolen pearls from her--and will do what they need to do to Kent in order to accomplish this goal. Stoop sometimes seems to be in love with Mary, but mostly he just wants to reclaim something he thinks belongs to him. It’s an illogical motivation that Chaney will rely on frequently in the years to come. Other of his characters will pursue petty and seemingly pointless goals out of pure obsession.

The film’s two points of interest are its naturalistic depiction of street life and small time crime immediately after The Great War, and Chaney’s growing confidence in larger roles. Browning’s eye for shabby gentility and gutter existence is as keen as D.W. Griffith’s in “Musketeers of Pig Alley” or Raoul Walsh’s in “Regeneration.” His streets don’t look like sets dirtied up to approximate the real things. The stench of decay and crushed dreams comes right off the screen.

Unfortunately, one of the tools Browning uses is a reliance on racial stereotypes. One of Stoop’s partners in crime is Fadem, a Jew with a large nose and money-grubbing ways. Actor Spottiswoode Aitken lays the clichés on so thickly you can almost hear him moaning “Oy” every time he enters the frame.

As for Chaney’s performance, no one played intensity like he did. His Stoop Connors is such an ominous presence it’s hard to imagine him ever seeming to be a nice guy. But lots of actors can play tough. What Chaney played so well—and didn’t seem to mind playing—was the kind of low-life that makes your skin crawl just to be near him. He snivels and creeps so well. He may be the best film actor ever at presenting the pettiest elements in human nature, sort of an Elisha Cook, Jr. who looks fit and strong enough to be a tiger but prefers to be a cockroach.

“The Wicked Darling” only rewards viewers who want to follow the Browning/Chaney partnership from its beginnings, or those with a sociological interest in the years immediately following World War I. As a stand-alone entertainment it is lacking in almost every way.

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originally posted: 09/12/05 23:18:28
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  DVD: 25-Jan-2005



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