Sylvia Sidney, here exquisitely lovely as well as delicately poignant, gives her finest performance in the title role of Jennie Gerhardt, based on Theodore Dreiser’s 1911 novel. Dreiser, who didn’t think much of the novel, his second, nevertheless admired the film, which he described as “beautifully interpreted.” Director Marion Gering gave this piece of work an authentic Dreiserian texture; Leon Shamroy’s faded gray cinematography, keyed to the bleak, moralistic world in which poor, young Jennie moves without much protest, contributes much to the film’s aura of defeat, helplessness and sacrifice.
Jennie’s odyssey finds her becoming the lover of two auspicious men: a retiring Ohio state senator who showers her and her family with kindnesses when she is scrubbing floors in a posh hotel, but whose middle-agedness and unhandsomeness make Jennie doubt she will ever be able to reciprocate his love for her, and who in any case dies in an accident before they can marry, leaving her alone and pregnant; Lester, the flippant brother of the wealthy woman for whom she works as a housemaid, whose love for her she doubts, even though she also loves him, and whose marriage proposal she rejects, sending him into an unhappy though socially respectable marriage. As long as she could, Jennie kept her illegitimate daughter, Vesta, hidden from her moralistic father (played beautifully by H. B. Warner, no less)—a denial of sorts. Like her father, Vesta dies in an accident. In the novel, both father and daughter die of typhoid.
As is its practice, Hollywood strips the novel bare: eliminated are Jennie’s numerous siblings and the orphans Jennie adopts after Vesta’s death. On this occasion, however, the whittling down works, inflicting perpetual loss and loneliness on Jennie. This is a very sad film—and a recognizably critical one targeting the moralism to which women were bound in the time that the film covers. Here I should note that the film extends the time in the novel to include the “present”: the early 1930s.
What a splendid movie—and one sparked by Sylvia Sidney’s superlative acting.
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