“In search for new ideas we found a piece of early American history concerning a slave ship full of white women landing in the south. I played a Russian girl brought over to ease the female shortage which had reached the starvation point. The girls were sold for any purpose. Ours was the drama of being sold for marriage, a small section of the past that our people of today have inherited.” (Dorothy and Lillian Gish – 1973) A poor Russian girl’s beauty leads her unscrupulous uncle to bring her to the United States. There he is going to sell her into a marriage with a rich old man she has never met. But her lover, an returning immigrant visiting Russia from the U.S., sails on the same ship. When they arrive he learns, to his surprise, that the American police, unlike those of his native country, are not oppressors of the poor, but friends that will aid in securing the release of his beloved Maria. – Written by Les Adams Director: Christy Cabanne (as William Christy Cabanne) Writer: William E. Wing (story and scenario) Stars: Lillian Gish, Frank Bennett, Walter Long By 1916, approx- imately one of every eight persons living in the United States was a first- gener- ation immigrant, with a million more arriving every year, and given that most studio owners were themselves immigrants, it should come as no surprise that the daily lives of immigrants was a frequent topic of movies throughout the decade. Sold For Marriage is specifically about Russian immigrants, a substantial community of over 3 million mostly Jewish, Ukranian and Belarusan peasants and laborers who between 1881 and 1914 had arrived in the U.S. seeking political and religious freedom and economic opportunity. The story opens in Russia with Gish playing Marfa, a young woman on the verge of being sold into an arranged marriage to the town’s most eligible bachelor, a short, fat “beast” who nevertheless promises wealth and social standing. Predictably, Marfa prefers Jan (Frank Bennett), a young, handsome—and poor—laborer.
Following a narrow escape from a lusty army officer who won’t take no for an answer, Marfa and her family immigrate to the U.S., where once again a struggle ensues between Marfa’s desire for Jan and her family’s desire to arrange a profitable marriage. Even though Sold For Marriage was directed by Christy Cabanne, the ending is straight out of the D.W. Griffith playbook, with classic three-part intercutting between Gish and her tormentors as her would-be savior rushes to the rescue, the sort of sequence Griffith more or less invented in 1909 and repeated many times, including in Gish’s very first film, 1912’s An Unseen Enemy. What makes Sold For Marriage worth tracking down is Gish’s performance. Not only is it good—as you would expect—but it reveals a side of her I can’t say I’ve seen before. She’s sullen, she’s petulant, at times she funny, and more to the point, she’s flirtatious and sexual, for example, clinging to Frank Bennett with a hunger that is as refreshing as it surprising. Even her performances in The Scarlet Letter and La Boheme, a pair of romances from 1926, didn’t prepare me for the notion that Gish as an actress could ever be particularly comfortable as a romantic lead. While we think of Gish from this era as D.W. Griffith’s go-to girl—e.g., The Birth of a Nation, Broken Blossoms and Way Down East—her chief collaborator in 1916 was a Griffith protege, director Christy Cabanne, and maybe this accounts for the uncharacteristic nature of Gish’s performance. While Cabanne isn’t nearly as imaginative a director as Griffith, perhaps he didn’t so narrowly conceive of Gish as the embodiment of a virginal Victorian fantasy, allowing him to see in Gish possibilities Griffith never did.
Miss Lillian Gish, Marfa Herself in Sold For Marriage
Fine Arts – Griffith Stars
Dorothy Gish, Seena Owen, Norma Talmadge
Robert Harron, Harry Aitken (producer), Sir Beerbohm-Tree, Owen Moore, Wilfred Lucas
Douglas Fairbanks, Bessie Love, Constance Talmadge, Constance Collier, Lillian Gish (Marfa in Sold For Marriage), Fay Tincher, DeWolfe Hopper
Photograph – Raymond Lee of Roy George Association