Painted Lady, The (1912)

US / 13 minutes / bw silent / Biograph Dir & Scr: D.W. Griffith Cine: G.W. Bitzer Cast: Blanche Sweet, Madge Kirby, Charles Hill Mailes, Kate Bruce, Joseph Graybill, William J. Butler.

A strict father (Mailes) sternly instructs his submissive elder daughter (Sweet) not to use makeup, like trollops do, and the girl meekly obeys. Her younger sister (Kirby), by contrast, has a sort of to-hell-with-Papa attitude and splashes the stuff on merrily: “Oh, you must paint and powder to be attractive!”

Painted Lady - 1 Younger sis left advises older to use makeup

The younger sister (Madge Kirby, right) advises her elder sibling (Blanche Sweet) on the wisdom of face-paint.

And it would seem she’s right, because at the Ice Cream Festival all the men gather eagerly round the vivacious younger girl and pay little heed to her mousy elder sister. Here, of course, Griffith was playing a game with us, for Sweet was one of the most popular actresses of the day and is quite clearly the lovelier of the two players.

Forlorn, the older girl is consoling herself with a bit of weeping in an arbor when the Minister (Butler), another attender at the festival, takes pity on her and introduces her to a handsome young man, the Stranger (Graybill). He tells her (we deduce) that she looks lovely the way she is, her face fresh and makeup-free, while also weaseling out of her the fact that her father is a wealthy man.

Painted Lady - 2 Father discourages stranger

The Father (Charles Hill Mailes) tries to discourage the Stranger (Joseph Graybill) from pursuing his daughter (Blanche Sweet).

That night, in love for the first time, the daughter is outside her father’s study when she hears a noise within. She fetches a gun, goes into the study and finds there a masked intruder—who is, of course, the Stranger dressed in his special burgling coat and hat. He tries to wrest the revolver from her, it goes off, and he falls dead. (A noirish trope!)

Painted Lady - 3 The masked intruder

The masked intruder (Joseph Graybill).

Painted Lady - 4 Daughter gets her gun

Hearing a noise, the Daughter (Blanche Sweet) gets her gun.

Devastated by the fact that she has slain the only man who ever showed her affection, and even more so that plainly he was a false lover, pretending devotion purely to further his wicked plan (which might have been okay had it been the wicked plan she possibly had in mind), she goes crazy, returning ever and again to the arbor where she and the Stranger first met, holding conversations with . . . with whom? His ghost, perhaps . . .

Painted Lady - 5 Daughter is inconsolable

The efforts of the Father (Charles Hill Mailes) to console the Daughter (Blanche Sweet) go all in vain.

This short melodrama, one of many that Griffith created for Biograph, boasts an astonishing number of then-current and future cinematic luminaries in uncredited bit parts, almost all as participants in the Ice Cream Festival, among them Lionel Barrymore, Christy Cabanne, Harry Carey, Josephine Crowell, Dorothy and Lilian Gish, Robert Harron, Walter Long, Jack Pickford and Henry B. Walthall. Kate Bruce plays the part of the two girls’ hatchet-faced mother.

Painted Lady - 9 Mum & Dad witness final tragedy

Mother (Kate Bruce) and Father (Charles Hill Mailes) witness the final tragedy.

The movie seems somewhat muddled, as if thrown together in haste (which it probably was). Muddledest of all is the moral. Presumably Griffith was trying to convey to us that it was right and proper for virtuous young women to forgo the face-paint, and yet the reward he metes out to the elder daughter is loneliness, rejection, betrayal and ultimately a premature death. Her supposed floozy of a sister, with her wicked, makeup-wearing ways, has, by contrast, a whale of a time surrounded by eager admirers, and will probably continue to do so for many years after a respectable period of mourning for her deceased big sis. Which of these two options would any young woman with a brain select?

What makes the movie worthwhile is Sweet’s performance. There are those moments of hammery that you expect in early silent movies, but they’re few and far between. Her biggest triumph here is in conveying really quite subtly the pathetic desperation of the girl as she loses her wits. Many of her contemporaries might have covered the screen in histrionics, portraying a caricature of A Girl Gone Mad, but Sweet’s depiction is far more convincing than that. She was a major star of the silents era who, for no particular reason, didn’t survive the transition to the talkies. She lived long enough to witness the “rediscovery” of her work in the late 1960s, and the acclaim that came with it.

Painted Lady - 6 A tryst with the invisible stranger

The Daughter (Blanche Sweet) has a tryst with the invisible Stranger.

6 thoughts on “Painted Lady, The (1912)

  1. Well I just watched it (why not at that length?) and I agree that Sweet is wonderful. Yes, amazing when you consider Lionel Barrymore and others went on from here. Not exactly a polished Griffith, but certainly engaging. What IS polished is the fantastic review you wrote for it here, which coaxed me into viewing the you tube.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Sam. For sure the movie’s of no great significance, but I thought it’s an interesting curio — and, as you say, certainly worth the investment of 13 minutes!

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