In the late 1800s, young Lady Catherine (Joan Crawford, in the first role for which she received billing) is married to a man named Clive (Derek Glynne). In a bit of misleading foreshadowing, Clive is pointing guns around when we meet him, explaining that their previous owner used them to scare away a man who was trying to steal his wife. Despite Clive’s penchant for guns (and potential for revengeful action), Catherine leaves her husband and son to run away with her lover, Hughie (Frank Braidwood).
Thirty years later, history is coming close to repeating itself. Catherine’s son has grown up without a mother and is now married to a girl named Elizabeth (Eleanor Boardman). Elizabeth, Arnold (Creighton Hale) and Clive (Alec B. Francis) still live in the house that Catherine left. Elizabeth is carrying on with a lover (Teddy Luton, portrayed by Malcom McGregor), just as Catherine did.
Arnold’s mother is expected to visit soon, bringing Hughie with her. Elizabeth and her lover decide that if “Kitty” (Eugenie Besserer) and Hughie (George Fawcett) are still in love after 30 years, then they should run away as well, completing this family’s never-ending cycle of infidelity. Will history repeat itself, with Elizabeth making a run for it with Teddy?
Frank Borzage (1932’s A Farewell to Arms) directs 1925’s The Circle, a dramatic silent film based on the play by W. Somerset Maugham. (This is a review of the version that ran on TCM in June, featuring a beautiful and mood-appropriate new score by Garth Neustadter.)
Despite all of the love triangles which may seem complicated on paper, the premise and big question of The Circle are very simple. Though simple, the film is still very interesting to watch and does deliver a few good surprises. The fact that Clive’s early gun scene and many references to shooting are included leads overzealous audience members such as myself to expect a catastrophic death to occur, which gives the film a lot of tension.
A great sense of drama is built by the actors as well. Creighton Hale in the role of 30-years-later Albert is fantastic, giving off a perfect sense of suspicion and a somewhat sinister mood. He seems emotionless when he finally sees his mother, and the character has trouble sharing his emotions in general, leaving the audience absolutely clueless in terms of how he’ll react to the story’s events or what he’ll do next. Eleanor Boardman provides a very well-suited enemy of sorts for him. She gives off a slight air of innocence despite the fact that she’s obviously an adulterer, and her character is extremely shallow, which becomes apparent when she is disgusted to see that Kitty and Hughie aren’t as beautiful as they used to be.
The interactions between the actors do a lot to heighten the mood, in addition to their individually great performances. This is particularly true for the early interactions between Elizabeth and her emotionally scarred father-in-law, which are full of tension.
Many moods are at play in this film: drama, thrills, laughs and romance. (Most of the laughs stem from the character of Hughie, who is the perfect grumpy ol’ high-strung man.) This combination really keeps the viewer hooked. The story seems full and is very exhilarating despite its short running time.
I expected The Circle to be a very moralistic tale, but whether or not it actually has morals is up to the viewer’s interpretation. I tend to see it not as a tale of morals, but a tale of how flawed both sides of the husband-versus-lover argument are. [HEY, HERE’S A SPOILER OR FIVE!] Catharine and Hughie are huge hypocrites, having run away together themselves but then trying to point out that it’s wrong for Elizabeth to leave with Teddy. Elizabeth chooses to leave with Teddy, which would make it seem like she’s the one with no morals, but she’s then chased down by Arnold, who beats Teddy and forces her to come home. He can’t exactly be considered a moral character either with that kind of temper in him. Elizabeth may not have made the best decision, but everyone in this story is at least a little bit crazy, leading me to the conclusion that there is no character that can take the moral high road here. [HEY, THE SPOILERS ARE ENDING!]
The Circle has instantly become one of my favorite silents. It’s a highly engrossing melodrama with hints of many genres mixed in, very well preserved and boasting impressive performances along with a great story. The score: 5/5!