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The Miller’s Daughter

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 28, 2015

An adaptation of Steele Mackaye’s Hazel Kirke, eh? Cf., extremely reminiscent of, Lottie Blair Parker’s Way Down East. Rip-roarers, in other words. It’s tempting to key on the implausibilities, the coincidences, the stick figures and the threadbareness. The principles may be true, and the patterns, or at least the possibilities, do exist. But melodrama can be so preposterous! If audiences and producers saw and intended this kind of material as verisimilar, then it is hard to see it now as much more than a curio, or a silliness. But if these melodramatic components are actually part of a didactic communication, or a Sunday School sermon, then we’ve got to allow for a certain stylization or artificiality. The melodrama may still pall—and it certainly does—but convention is different from pure documentation, or even from that which is perceived to be such.

A stylistic or grammatical point: the visual distinction, disjunction even, between inside and outside scenes is still very marked. Most of the exteriors are really fresh, not at all fussy or over-composed. They are not, as can be the case at this time, inertly framed, or stodgy in terms of what’s going on inside that frame. Rather, they are actually beautiful, kind of wonderfully glancing, and if there’s a sense that the actors are slipping a bit self-consciously into this reality, then that is no disadvantage. These vivid locations are in heavy contrast with the film’s interiors—the barn where they stage a tremendously energetic, comical and probably emblematic dance sequence, the dad’s parlour—and with the very stylized, artificial site of the attempted suicide. An inconsistency then, and a sign that this film, films generally, are still striving for consistency, for a degree of medium coherence.

Back to melodrama: it does teach its lessons, and it can do so powerfully. It can do so sincerely too, but when it’s at its worst the distortions of the form, the very wrong-headedness of its assumptions and its insisting, can really hobble communication and inhibit instruction. Here, this bigamist artist is ridiculous (cf. Parker/Griffith’s Lennox Sanderson). The heroine’s gullibility is ridiculous. The dad’s unyielding and unforgiving reaction is really ridiculous, so that his last minute change of heart—the baby does it; very nice!—not only doesn’t convince, it doesn’t move or instruct either.

Still, good movie.