The plot thickens…
Love and Tragedy in The Woman Suffers now turns to Revenge.
Philip has just discovered the body of his dear sister, Joan, floating Ophelia-like in the river. As he lifts her to the side of the river, Philip notices the portrait of her lover Ralph still clutched to her: ‘And there in the presence of the dead he swore to be revenged on the man who had betrayed her.’
The audience is transported to Melbourne Cup Day at Flemington. When Philip spots Ralph’s sister, Marjory, a terrible plan of revenge flashes through his mind.
Using the pseudonym of ‘Jack Dalton’, Philip approaches his innocent prey, Marjory. Our sympathy already lies with Marjory as the unwitting victim of a cruel plan of revenge. Her innocence, not only heightens the melodramatic tragedy, but also satisfies the demand of the day for women to be pure and virtuous.
Marjory proves an easy target for seduction. Her initial reluctance to succumb to ‘Jack Dalton’ renders her ‘winsome and innocent’, although ‘easily beguiled from the path of virtue’. 1 Marjory’s eyes ‘fall shyly before his gaze’ as she ‘listens to his flattering praise’. All the while, the audience is privy to close-up views, hidden from Marjory, of the vengeful look in Philip’s eye. His fierce intent on revenge is unmistakable.
The seduction scenes that follow are set against a backdrop of the Adelaide hills, a surrounding heralded in the promotion of the film. One reviewer suggested the scenery was truly awe-inspiring. 2 It is here that ‘Jack Dalton’ carries out his plan by telling Marjory that he loves her.
Marjory appears distinctly apprehensive at ‘Mr Dalton’s’ testimony of love. He, growing increasingly anxious to carry out his plan, forces a kiss. Marjory lowers her head and turns away. As a storm nears, they both run to a nearby cave and in this surrounding, Marjory finally succumbs to Philips advances. Here initial reluctance undoubtedly increases the pathos for the audience who are well aware of the fate which is soon to befall her.
Annette Kuhn, in Cinema, Censorship and Sexuality 1909-1925, refers to the distinct sequence of shots, frequently used in seduction scenes 3
- The man looks at the woman
- The woman looks away
- The man continues to look
- And the woman again looks shyly away
Kuhn argues that an obsession with female sexual purity is a defining characteristic of silent film. It is signified by an association between looking and sexual pleasure. This thesis was further explored in her book, The Power of Image, where she contended that women characters in films are constructed as spectacle. 4 She quotes Laura Mulvey as illustrative of her point: women are constructed by the image ‘as to-be-looked at and confirmed as such not only by the spectator’s gaze but also by that of the male protagonists of the fiction.’ 5
The scenes depicting the seduction of Joan and Marjory in the film support Kuhn’s contention. Although the men often look directly at the women and directly at the audience, the women can often be seen to cast their eyes downward. This not only emphasises their role as innocent victims, but allows the audience to empathise with the virtue of the heroines.
Once her ‘pitiful condition’ is realised, Marjory too becomes the victim of her misplaced love and the cause of family disgrace. In a powerful scene not appearing in the film, Marjory attempts an abortion:
She finally becomes desperate, she goes to the chemist shop and procures some medicine, that night she goes to her bedroom and we see her taking a dose of the medicine, and kneeling down by the bedside in the moonlight she prays to God for help in her hour of distress. 6
The scene was most likely deleted from the finished film in light of censorship decisions. Abortion was a controversial issue at the time, as it is still today. Abortion and the prospect of unmarried motherhood were matters for great concern toward the end of the 19th and into the 20th century. In 1903, the Royal Commission on the Decline of the Birth-rate received evidence of large numbers of practising abortionists in the Sydney area. It also left no doubt as to the agency of women in using this method as well as birth control to restrict the size of their families.
The average family in the 1920s had declined from 7 to 3 children. 7 As Kereen Reiger documents in The Disenchantment of the Home, the nature of the family had changed with the considerable urban growth of the 1880s and again post-World War I. 8 The bourgeoisie, as the leading social class of the 19th century, had emphasised the home as the refuge and the family as a natural entity centred around women’s perceived role as home-maker and mother.
However, the family had been profoundly affected by developments in the industrial sector of production, by public health provisions and by diminishing supply of domestic servants. 9 It was no longer economically viable to have a large number of children. Traditional family structures were seen by pro-natalists, who included clergymen, politicians and other public figures, as coming under attack due to ‘the pressures of urban, industrial life and women’s move into the public sphere’. 10
Their reaction was to elevate motherhood to a universal ideal. The Royal Commission’s conclusions were that all family limitation was a national peril and that abortion and the use of contraception were great moral evils. 11 It is probable that including an abortion scene in this social context would have been thought, if not actually to provoke censorship action, then at least to jeopardize an audience’s empathy with the character of Marjory.
When Ralph learns that ‘Jack Dalton’ is really Philip Masters, Philip declares:
‘You had no mercy for my sister. Why should I have mercy for yours? Men of your type, Ralph Manton, consider that with the exception of their own sisters, women are mere playthings to be used and cast aside.
an eye for an eye
a tooth for a tooth.’
Philip has had his revenge. Marjory gives birth to a baby boy and her life hangs in the balance. Her last wish is to see the man she still loves. Marion, her stepmother, confronts Philip: ‘Speak man, what prompted you to inflict such terrible suffering on an innocent girl?’ As Philip relates his story, Marion notices the medal of her late husband and realises that Philip is her son.
With this knowledge, all thoughts of vengeance cease and Philip is overcome with remorse. At Marjory’s bedside, he declares, ‘Marjory! Marjory! I claim you for my own wife. Mine forever: until death do us part’. The news of marriage reaches Ralph and as he looks toward the heavens, his jubilant cry: ‘Thank God! Thank God!’ is projected on to the screen. 12
Next: The Woman Suffers is banned.
- The Critic, 27 March 1918, p16 ↩
- The Advertiser (Adelaide) critic as quoted in Mervyn J. Wasson, ‘The Woman Suffers. Why ever was she banned?’ in Cinema Papers, no.46 July 1984, p158 ↩
- Annette Kuhn, Cinema, Censorship and Sexuality 1909-1925, Routledge, London and New York, 1988, p36 ↩
- Annette Kuhn, The Power of Image, Essays of Representation and Sexuality, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1985, ch.3 ↩
- Laura Mulvey ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ quoted in Kuhn, The Power of the Image, p66 ↩
- Synopsis, Raymond Longford. Copyright material on The Woman Suffers, Australian Archives (Canberra) Series A1336/1, Item 6509, p8 ↩
- Judith Allen, ‘Octavius Beale reconsidered, infanticide, babyfarming and abortion in New South Wales, 1880-1939’ in What Rough Beast? The State and Social Order in Australian History, Allen & Unwin, Sydney 1982 ↩
- Kereen M. Reigner, The Disenchantment of the Home, modernising the Australian Family 1880-1940, Oxford University Press, Melbourne 1985 ↩
- Kereen M. Reigner, The Disenchantment of the Home, p32 ↩
- Kereen M. Reigner, The Disenchantment of the Home, p37 ↩
- Kereen M. Reigner, The Disenchantment of the Home, p110 ↩
- The scenario adds: ‘A happy flash, six months later: and the intertitle, ‘Every dark cloud has its silver lining’, Raymond Longford detailed synopsis of the film, copyright material on The Woman Suffers, Australian Archives (Canberra), Series A1336/1. Item 6509, p11 ↩