The Red Kimona

Directed by Dorothy Davenport and Walter Lang

Central Question: Can a silent-film car chase anticipate proto-feminist values?
“Mrs. Wallace Reid” on women in filmmaking: “I believe it takes a woman to believe in a woman’s motives, and every story intended for the screen should have a woman working on it at some stage, to convince the audience of women”; The New York Times’s 1925 appraisal of the film’s frank depiction of prostitution: “There have been a number of wretched pictures on Broadway during the last year, but none seem to have quite reached the low level of ‘The Red Kimona’; Point of the film, according to Reid’s title-card outro: “Remember the deathless words of the Carpenter of Nazareth—‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.’”

A  social-conscience movie billed in its opening sequence as a “startling human document,” the 1925 silent film The Red Kimona tells the true tale of the fall and redemption of a sex worker and murderess named Gabrielle Darley. Underage and unloved by her family, Gabrielle is seduced by a blackguard who lures her to New Orleans, where he forces her into prostitution. Upon learning of his impending marriage to another woman, she follows him to Los Angeles and shoots him dead. An anguished trial ensues, during which opportunistic society lady Beverly Fontaine takes up Gabrielle’s cause for its reflected notoriety. To even her own shock, Gabrielle is acquitted, but finds herself friendless, penniless, and with nowhere to go and no honest means to capitalize on her celebrity. She reluctantly accepts the invitation to stay on Fontaine’s sumptuous estate, where the socialite exploitatively parades her in front of her wealthy female friends, a gaggle of limousine liberals avant la lettre who use the misfortunes of the underclass to demonstrate their own high-mindedness while doing very little to help anyone concretely.

At first it seems like writer-producer Mrs. Wallace Reid—in reality Dorothy Davenport—is poised to deliver a knight in shining armor in the form of Fontaine’s humble chauffeur, Fred. When Gabrielle loses her benefactress’s support and finds no one willing to hire a woman with a criminal record, she makes for the train station to head back to New Orleans, where the only avenue open to her would seem to be more prostitution. Fred learns of her plight and rushes to the station to stop her, and here the film does something surprising even by today’s standards: he doesn’t catch her. Gabrielle returns to the red-light district; once there, though, she finds she can’t bring herself to return to her old degraded ways and, through a series of twists, winds up scrubbing floors in a city hospital. On beautifully written title cards, she asserts that she wants to “do some useful work—earn my redemption.”

The failure of Fred’s chase indicates an understanding on Reid’s part that was well ahead of its time: that a movie in which a heroine is corrupted by a bad man and redeemed by a good one has no significant moral content, because the heroine has no agency. (Fred eventually does track Gabrielle down at her new workplace, but only months later, and he is about to depart for the western front of World War I, so the possibility of their one day being together is anything but certain, certainly not what “saves” her.) Gabrielle Darley does not merely have attitudes, as is too often the case with female characters in films: she makes choices, and The Red Kimona allows her to experience their consequences.

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—Kathleen Rooney

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press. Her debut novel, O, Democracy!, is forthcoming, in April 2014.

March/April 2014
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