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The Mating Call (silent, 1928)

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Producer Howard Hughes, director James Cruze and actors Thomas Meighan, Evelyn Brent, and Renee Adoree made a singularly modern movie in 1928. The titles were written by Herman J. Mankiewicz, who wrote the original screenplay for "Citizen Kane," which got him an Oscar for best original screenplay. (The Mankiewicz family had something in its genes, by the way. They had writers and directors all over the family tree.)

Our introduction to the characters begins in Europe at the end of World War I. Leslie Hatten (played by Meighan) is getting ready to return home to his wife, Rose (Brent). What he doesn't know is that his marriage to her was annulled by her parents (she was a minor when they married without parental permission) and that she has remarried to Lon (played by Alan Roscoe). When Hatten discovers this, he sets about getting over the surprise by running the farm and finding another woman. Hatten gets another wife by finding an immigrant family and marrying their daughter, Catharine (Adoree).

Rose and Lon are not happily married, and Rose attempts to seduce Hatten upon his return; Rose is a very sophisticated teen, if we are to believe the script that she's a minor, but Hatten withstands her considerable charms. We learn that Lon is cheating on Rose with Jessie (Helen Foster). When Lon learns that Rose still is interested in Hatten, Lon calls out the local decency posse and makes threats to Hatten. Since Lon is an adulterer, the hypocrisy is obvious.

"The Mating Call" is a very interesting silent movie on a number of levels. It was made before the movie codes were enforced. Hence, the temptation of Hatten by Rose, his former wife, is very realistic and erotic. We also get a chance to see Catharine bathing nude in a pond. Jessie finds that Lon is unfaithful to her in their affair and kills herself. The issues are very adult and are dealt with frankly and with great care by Cruze.

There are some problems with the movie. Modern viewers are not accustomed to the conventions of silent movies, but the acting here is very natural without the mugging common in many silents (Mack Sennett comedies and Rudolph Valentino come to mind). Although Rose is said to have been under age for her marriage (putting her in her mid to late teens), Evelyn Brent was about 30 when the movie was made, and Meighan was 50 - both were clearly too old for the roles, but the sophistication of Rose matches the actress's actual age, so I overlook the age issue.

Additionally, although set in the late Teens, the costumes are current to the year of the film - Rose is dressed as a flapper with a short skirt and bare arms, instead of in period costumes with floor-length skirts, high collars, and long sleeves. Again, though, using current attire lets Rose be as modern in her approach to men as she is in the movie.

More difficult to overlook is "the Order," the local decency posse resembling the KKK in its menswear. They enforce a code of conduct which prohibits men from not supporting their mothers and from beating their wives, in two of the examples we see.

All in all, I can either dismiss the anachronisms or incorporate them into my understanding of the film. The presentation of the many problems the characters face seems to me entirely modern, even here in the early 21st Century. Although silent, "The Mating Call" transcends its time, one of several silent films still well worth watching.

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