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Milestone Film & Video presents
Through the Back Door (1921)

"She bore Jeanne, but I have reared and loved her as my own, and she belongs to me."
- Marie Gaston (Helen Raymond)

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: June 09, 2005

Stars: Mary Pickford, Gertrude Astor, Wilfred Lucas, Owen Moore
Other Stars: Helen Raymond, C. Norman Hammond, Elinor Fair, Adolphe Menjou, Kate Price, Isabel Vernon, Inez Marcel
Director: Alfred E. Green, Jack Pickford, James Kirkwood

Manufacturer: Deluxe
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:30m:28s
Release Date: May 24, 2005
UPC: 014381198126
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ BBA- B+

DVD Review

Sentimentality and melodrama were nothing new in the world of Mary Pickford; such had been her stock in trade as far back as her original stint with Biograph in 1909, and they served her well into the 1920s. But with Through the Back Door, a rarely-seen film from 1921, the pathos meter is plunged firmly into the red in a tale of motherly love gone badly awry.

In 1903 Ostend, Belgium, the widow Louise Bodemere (Gertrude Astor) is preparing to get married to Elton Reeves (Wilfred Lucas). But Elton is selfish, and arranges for Louise's five-year-old daughter Jeanne Bodemere (at first an uncredited child—not even Mary Pickford would attempt a five-year-old girl) to stay with servant Marie Gaston (Helen Raymond). Louise, poor mother that she is, agrees and ends up not reclaiming little Jeanne until she has grown up into a teenager (now comfortably Pickford). But Marie will have none of it, and cruelly informs Louise that her daughter has died, sending her off in tears and leaving Jeanne none the wiser. But in 1914 the impending clouds of war change the complexion of things, and Marie sends Jeanne to America to live with Louise and Elton in New York. Nonetheless, Jeanne is too frightened to admit the truth to her mother, and becomes a mistreated servant in the Reeves household instead.

There's plenty of opportunity for weepiness in such material, and directors Alfred E. Green and Mary's brother Jack Pickford milk it for all its tear-jerking possibilities. At the same time, it's kept from being unbearable by some light moments of comedy, such as Mary's struggles with a mule (illustrated on the keepcase cover) and a classic sequence in which she scrubs a floor by strapping brushes to her feet and skating about the room. The last, in particular, seems to bear the earmarks of Chaplin's involvement; during this period Pickford wrote that he had become part of their family and it would not be surprising to find him offering up business for such a scene, which frankly wouldn't be out of place had it been enacted by the Little Tramp instead.

The story tends to be a bit plot-heavy, with a minor story in the American segment that features Adolphe Menjou and Elinor Fair as a scheming couple trying to seduce and blackmail Elton Reeves. The situations that prevent Mary from declaring her identity are rather strained, however, producing a sense of impatience in the latter sections of the film. Up until the time she leaves for America, however, it's a marvelous little piece of extreme if not drippy sentimentality that showcases Pickford's talents well. It would have garnered an A rating had it been 15-20 minutes shorter.

There are a few questionable moments in the film that don't quite sit right. The first is a distasteful sense of class genetics, with the implication that Jeanne's upper-crust blood destines her for grander things than her rather impoverished surrounding with Marie. There are also some surprisingly risqué suggestions regarding two ragamuffins that Jeanne looks out for and takes on as her own charges; she is defiant in declaring them to be her children, which leads to all sorts of misunderstandings that are more a function of requiring complications in the story than any sort of natural progression. The title has a dual significance: Jeanne must enter what should rightfully be her home through the servant's entrance, and a title proclaims Ellis Island to be the "back door of America," which in retrospect doesn't make a lot of sense. Perhaps like the scenario for the latter part of the film, a bit more thought could have been put into these titles.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The full frame image is slightly windowboxed, with nice textures and good black levels and greyscales. There's the expected flicker, speckling and dirt, but considering the age and rarity of these films this presentation is better than acceptable.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0(music only)no

Audio Transfer Review: Robert Israel provides an orchestral score in the grand manner on the main feature, while Donald Sosin contributes a synthesizer, voice and harp score for Cinderella. Both sound quite nice, and are appropriate for the subject matter. Hiss and noise are practically nonexistent. There's little directionality apparent on either track, however.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 10 cues
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Cinderella (1914)
  2. Picture gallery
Extras Review: There's a splendid extra on this entry in Milestone's series of Pickford DVDs: the exceptionally rare 1914 version of Cinderella (512m:01s) she did for Famous Players/Lasky (later to become Paramount), directed by James Kirkwood. It's a fairly straightforward retelling of Perrault's tale, with some added business involving fairies, goblins and a witch to fill out the running. The ball sequence is rather static, and the magic is represented by very basic dissolves, but there's an amusing dream sequence with an animated clock that shows some creativity and verve. Pickford herself is highly charismatic here and is perfect casting for the title character. Prince Charming is played by her then-husband Owen Moore (whose brother oddly enough would play the same role in Paramount's A Kiss for Cinderella 11 years later). The character design seems to owe quite a lot to the engravings of Gustave Doré, particularly in the noses of the evil stepsisters. The only serious shortcoming is a set of ugly video-generated intertitles (indicating this is probably sourced from the one of two surviving period prints that was held in a Dutch archive and has only Dutch titles). Frankly, on the whole I preferred this to the main feature. The other extra is a still gallery that includes a set of lobby cards, over a dozen promotional postcards and various other publicity paraphernalia.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

Two very rare Mary Pickford films, in nice shape and with good scores, make for a good family double feature, but don't forget your handkerchiefs.


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