July 13, 2017
Star Prince, The – US, 1918
They don’t make ‘em like they used to. It’s a cinematic cliché, but in the case of author- filmmaker Madeline Brandeis’s 1918 film The Star Prince, the sentiment seems wholly appropriate. The film is set in a fairy tale world that will appeal to young children, and just so happens to have a cast made up of exclusively children, many of them in adult roles. For contemporary viewers, this may make the film something more akin to a public school theatrical performance than a major motion picture, but the casting decision was not all that uncommon in the past. Many musicals were variations of the “Let’s put on a show” theme, and sentiments may have been such that seeing children cry out, “I’ll love him forever” may not have provoked the uncomfortable feelings that it can today. In fact, I highly doubt a film like The Star Prince would get the green light today.
The film follows the exploits of a young boy who falls to earth – literally - and is adopted by a poor family in the woods. The boy senses he is different and grows up to have quite a sense of entitlement and superiority. In one scene, we see him commanding his brothers and sisters as if they were his subjects and he their king. The story kicks into motion when he and his siblings bully a poor woman who turns out to be the boy’s birth mother. This sets in motion a tale of redemption and ultimately love and acceptance.
The film is a lavishly costumed affair, and if you allow your mind to wander, it isn’t hard to picture the bright and vivacious colors that went with the character’s splendid attire. The film also has its share of cuddly animals, some that are integral to the plot and others that seem to be there to elicit oohs and ahs from an audience enraptured by such sights as playful bear cubs frolicking near a waterfall. One can even see the hands of a magician behind the camera, and although I have no way of proving this, it seems clear that Brandeis had been inspired by the work of Georges Melies.
I wish I could say that I liked the film a great deal, but even at 58 minutes long, it simply seemed direction-less. Plot points are established and then resolved a few minutes later, and half way through the film it turns into one of those stories in which two people are determined to be together even though society seems intent on keeping them apart. The boy’s quest for his mother seemed entirely forgotten. At one point, the Star Prince is asked to find a hidden cache of gold by a witch who is imprisoning him, and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why. Then confounding the situation even more, the boy gives the gold away, returns to the witch empty-handed, is threatened with annihilation, and decides to run away. Just why he journeyed back to the witch’s den in the first place is beyond me. I also grew tired of the animal interludes, the brief breaks in the action during which the audience sees deer going about their normal business in a forest. Again, in 1918, audiences may have been much more receptive to moments like this.
Have said this, I thoroughly enjoyed the world depicted in the film. I got a kick out of the talking squirrel, was awed by the clever editing that makes it appear that magic is indeed being performed on screen, and generally liked the over-the-top performances. In fact, I would expect nothing less from a cast of children playing adult characters coping with adult emotions as well as with what to children would be very unfamiliar situations. Brandeis shows real talent here as a director and a creator of new worlds. The problem with the film is the script, which Brandeis wrote. It goes in too many directions and comes together in less than satisfactory ways.
People often forget the role women played in early Hollywood. Before it became the place of multimillionaires and lucrative contracts, women wrote many of its screenplays and were given more of an opportunity to direct. When the money began pouring in, many of these early film pioneers found themselves on the outside looking in. Hollywood became much more testosterone-driven. It’s a shame. Hollywood – and by extension moviegoers – truly missed out. While The Star Prince didn’t completely work for me, it more than adequately demonstrates the unique eye that Brandeis had as a director. Sadly, it was the only film she made. Our loss. (on DVD as part of Flicker Alley’s Early Women Filmmakers box set)
2 and a half stars