Manslaughter/The Cheat 1922/1915

“Don’t you think this is a case for mercy rather than justice?”

This double feature DVD from Kino includes two silent titles from director Cecil B. DeMille–Manslaughter (1922) and The Cheat (1915). Of the two titles–both morality tales–Manslaughter–is the stronger film.

Manslaughter is the tale of a shallow, self-centered Jazz era heiress, Lydia (Leatrice Joy) whose life is one long wild party. District Attorney Daniel O’Bannon (Thomas Meighan) loves Lydia but strongly disapproves of her behaviour. After she accidentally kills a motorcycle policeman, O’Bannon is determined that Lydia must pay her debt to society, and his goal is to send Lydia to jail in order to “save” her from herself.

Manslaughter is a wonderful film built on a great story, and the idea that O’Bannon vigorously prosecutes Lydia is never presented as Conflict of Interest–something of course, that immediately occurs to the viewer. O’Bannon is a rejected suitor, so there’s possibly another motive for his intense desire to see Lydia behind bars. O’Bannon compares Lydia’s wild parties to drunken Roman orgies, and DeMille, using O’Bannon’s mind for flights of fancy, includes scenes of decadent Roman orgies (and these must be seen to be believed).

Manslaughter examines how class affects the justice system. Lydia’s maid is found guilty of theft, and her sentence is exactly the same as Lydia’s manslaughter charge. There’s one scene when O’Bannon eyes the stacks of Lydia’s clothes, shoes and perfumes, and asks her to show mercy towards the maid’s crime, but Lydia is too superficial to even grasp the idea that poverty that might drive another to steal. The film goes overboard with the entire redemption issue, however, and at one point, Lydia praises prison as her personal “life preserver.” Manslaughter–while an indictment of the selfishly wealthy–pulls back from delivering a complete coup-de-grace against a society ruled by the upper classes. Ultimately the film maintains its hierarchal equilibrium, and it’s morally acceptable, according to the film, to be Lady Bountiful in silks and ermine as long as you feed the poor and forget the parties.

People often ask me how I can stand silent film, and my answer is that with a good silent film, it never occurs me to think I ‘miss’ the dialogue, and Manslaughter is a wonderful example of this. The film has a marvelous soundtrack that matches the mood of the action, and this epic tale–of wealth, bad luck, decadence, guilt, corruption, and redemption–provides music for almost every mood under the sun. Another really wonderful feature of the film is the performance of actress Leatrice Joy. Her facial expressions capture her complete lack of sincerity when she professes regret for causing the death of Officer Drummond. To her, everything has a price, but it doesn’t occur to her that she’ll have to pay with something other than a pearl bracelet, a smile, a flutter of her eyelashes, or even a fine.

The second feature The Cheat is the tale of a spoiled stockbroker’s wife who won’t stop spending money. Her shopoholic ways cause her to steal from the Red Cross, and she borrows a large sum from a “Burmese Ivory King” in order to cover her crime. Unfortunately, he interprets this to mean several things–all of them quite unacceptable and shocking to the upper class, spoiled and spendthrift stockbroker’s wife. The film’s final scene–a riot–is the crowning point of this film, and I loved it.

Visually, The Cheat is better quality than Manslaughter. During some scenes in Manslaughter the film flickers from time to time, and in other scenes, faces are bleached out. Keep your eyes open for the interesting use of veils in the courtroom scene of Manslaughter.

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