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An idyllic small-town romance turns tragic in Fred Niblo's 1924 melodrama The Red Lily. Jean Leonnec (Ramon Novarro) is the son of the wealthy mayor, and Marise La Noue (Enid Bennett) is a peasant girl. Enmeshed in dreamy romance, they are oblivious to the world around them (cleverly illustrated by the leisurely pace at which their horse cart crosses the train tracks, as a locomotive rushes toward them). Reality wakes them from this amorous stupor when Marise's father dies suddenly. Sent away to live with her relatives, including the abusive D'Agut (Mitchell Lewis), Marise flees and returns to Jean, causing malicious gossip and raising the ire of Jean's class-conscious father, Hugo (Frank Currier).
The innocent lovers flee to Paris, where the small-town lovers' luck turns worse. They are separated and spend years searching for one another. Marise becomes a drudge, while Jean falls in with a wily thief, Bo-Bo (Wallace Beery). Tiring of hard labor, Marise becomes a "hostess" at a sleazy bar (where, among other things, she must resist the obnoxious advances of Greed's (1924) Gibson Gowland). Jean, meanwhile, spends a year in jail. When Jean and Marise finally meet again, they hardly recognize each other, and Jean is shocked at what he perceives to be Marise's moral downfall. Jean spurns Marise, and is shot while evading the police. "Like a faithful dog," Marise nurses Jean back to health, in spite of his insults. They go to Jean's underground hangout, where he encourages the others to taunt Marise, and "gives" her to a Chaney-esque villain known as the Toad (Dick Sutherland). With Marise ominously locked within the Toad's chambers, Jean experiences the last pangs of compassion. But any sympathetic feelings are interrupted when the police arrive to arrest Jean, and he leads them on a chase through the sewers beneath the city. Once again Jean is imprisoned, and Marise is left alone, to wonder if she will ever again see her childhood sweetheart.
Mexican-born Ramon Novarro (who had changed his name from Ramon Samaniego) was one of several actors who attempted to assume the throne of the world's greatest lover in the mid-1920s. A vacancy had opened up when Rudolph Valentino engaged in contract disputes with Metro Studios and later Paramount Pictures. Rather than give in to the studios' demands, Valentino pursued independent film and stage projects, which caused him to be absent from the screen for months at a time.
After his successful appearance in Rex Ingram's The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), Novarro was hyped as "The New Valentino." Niblo had directed Valentino in the 1922 version of Blood and Sand, and at times one can detect shades of Rudolph in Novarro's tempestuous performance. Over time, however, Novarro developed his own screen persona. In 1925, he starred in Niblo's monumental adaptation of Ben-Hur and forever left the shadow of the screen's notorious Latin lover.
Novarro's career continued well into the age of talkies, but he always felt a preference for his silent work. "With the exception of The Pagan (1929), in which I only sing... and some of Son of India (1931), and a good part of Feyder's Daybreak (1931)...I didn't like any of the talkies in which I starred," he told DeWitt Bodeen in Films in Review.
Born Federico Nobile in York, Nebraska, director Fred Niblo began his career as a vaudeville performer, and briefly worked with the legendary Four Cohans (and was even married to George M. Cohan's younger sister Josephine, who died in 1916). When he found work at the Thomas Ince Studios in 1917, Niblo was more interested in filmmaking, and quickly established himself as a reliable director of high-profile productions. His best films are those with charismatic leading actors. In addition to the Novarro and Valentino vehicles, he directed two important films starring Douglas Fairbanks, which launched his career as a storybook superhero: The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Three Musketeers (1921). Niblo also directed two of Greta Garbo's lesser-known films: The Temptress (1926) and The Mysterious Lady (1928).
One of Niblo's stars who never ascended to the same heights of stardom was The Red Lily's Enid Bennett. In addition to starring in several of his films, the Australian-born Bennett was also Niblo's wife. She met Niblo after responding to a casting call for one of his films. Bennett appeared in several important non-Niblo films. She was Maid Marian in Fairbanks's Robin Hood (1922) and was Lady Rosamund Godolphin in Frank Lloyd's The Sea Hawk (1924). After her divorce from Niblo, she married producer Sidney Franklin.
Novarro's life ended tragically on October 30, 1968. He had apparently befriended a 22-year-old drifter (a "street hustler" by one account) named Paul Ferguson and welcomed him into his home. A few weeks later, Paul's 17-year old brother Tom arrived in town. The brothers believed Novarro was hiding a stash of money in his Laurel Canyon home and proceed to torture the 69-year-old actor mercilessly to find its location. Because there was no such money, they never got its location from Novarro, who was found dead the following day (Halloween) in his ransacked home. Each brother blamed the other for the torture in court, both received life sentences (Tom was tried as an adult), and both have since been released. Tom's whereabouts are unknown but Paul was convicted of rape in 1989 and is today serving time in a Missouri prison.
Director: Fred Niblo
Screenplay: Bess Meredyth, based on a story by Fred Niblo
Cinematography: Victor Milner
Production Design: Ben Carre
Music by H. Scott Salinas (2005)
Cast: Ramon Novarro (Jean Leonnec), Enid Bennett (Marise La Noue), Frank Currier (Hugo Leonnec), Wallace Beery (Bo-Bo), Gibson Gowland (Le Turc), Mitchell Lewis (D'Agut), Dick Sutherland (The Toad)
by Bret Wood