ROMANCE OF HAPPY VALLEY, A (D.W. Griffith, 1919, USA, 60m, BW)
Cast: George Fawcett, George Nichols, Bertram Grassby, Kate Bruce, Lillian Gish, Robert Harron, George Pawcett
Director: D.W. Griffith
Running Time: 60 min.
To pursue his ambitions, country boy John Logan Jr. (Robert Harron) moves from Kentucky to New York City. But Logan has to leave a lot behind in his search for wealth and fame -- namely, his girlfriend, Jennie Timberlake (Lillian Gish). Once ensconced in the metropolis, Logan works hard to become a rich man. But it takes far longer than the single year he promised his loved ones -- so long, in fact, that when Logan finally does return home, his own father (George Fawcett) doesn't recognize him.
A Romance of Happy Valley was made by D. W. Griffith during his white-hot streak between the enduringly controversial Birth of a Nation (1915) and his epic of the French Revolution, Orphans of the Storm (1921), a period that also took in Intolerance (1916), Broken Blossoms (1919) and Way Down East (1920), and essentially laid the template for cinema as we know it. Set in the Kentucky where he grew up, it's notably less ambitious than almost all of those films (Broken Blossoms is the only one on a similar scale): a gentle, pastoral comedy-drama about a farm labourer (Robert Harron) who goes off to seek his fortune in New York, leaving behind the lovestruck, pure-hearted and relentlessly stoic Jennie (Lillian Gish), his childhood sweetheart.
It's corny in places, predictably racist in a couple of others (uh-oh, a white guy in blackface who's greedy and feckless), and saddled with an overlong, melodramatic and improbable climax, but it's also extremely involving and often very moving, with an unexpectedly wry, even occasionally subversive sense of humour. Harron provides plenty of those virtues in a committed, appealing performance, while Gish is as transcendent as ever, whether bidding him an awkward, adoring goodbye, seeing off 'a descendant of Judas Iscariot' who fancies getting off with her, or romancing a scarecrow that's dressed as her lover, a touching, understated sequence that influenced 7th Heaven and then The Artist.
Her singular artistry and Griffith's trendsetting direction - rich in close-ups, including an unforgettable flourish featuring the lovers' hands, and still yet to be emulated let alone overhauled by his European rivals - make this a little gem, despite a bit of his signature silliness. The story is a simple one and personally close to Griffith's heart - a Kentucky lad, played by Robert Harron, is an inventor and hears of opportunity in New York. Although the townsfolk, his mother and father, and his sweetheart, played by Lillian Gish, all try to restrain him from leaving Happy Valley, he does so. In New York, the boy works tirelessly on his invention for eight years and resists a number of temptations. Little does he know that back home, his sweetheart is struggling with similar issues, and when the foreclosure notice comes on the family home, his father, whose opposition to the boy's departure to New York was particularly noisome, experiences a major crisis of temptation himself. The title card identifies this as a "Griffith Short Story" vehicle, and it plays like one of Griffith's Biograph shorts, only much longer.
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