Sunday, June 2, 2024

NFR Project: 'Stark Love'


Stark Love

Dir: Karl Brown

Scr: Karl Brown, Walter Woods

Pho: James Murray

Ed: N/A

Premiere: February 28, 1927

70 min.

Independent productions were rare once the mechanics of Hollywood film production were established, by the early 1920s. This interesting film, saved from oblivion almost by chance, shows that quality movies could be mounted by committed people outside the purview of the big studios.

The filmmaker involved was Karl Brown, who had a long history in cinema. He found a job working with D.W. Griffith, serving as assistant to Griffith’s cameraman, Billy Bitzer. He developed into a skilled cinematographer, his best-remembered work being that he did on James Cruze’s epic Western The Covered Wagon (1923).

Brown cast primarily amateur actors in and around Robbinsville, North Carolina, set in the Great Smoky Mountains, to make this picture of hillbilly life. The story is of a young man whose ambitions stretch beyond the narrow confines of the valleys he calls home. He reads and studies, planning to get out of the mountains and into a settlement, joining the mainstream of life.

He is taken with a neighbor girl, who is limited by the lack of opportunity in the remote country where they live. When the young man’s mother dies, his father seeks to marry the neighbor girl to make her a slave to take care of his house and children. Her violent rejection of him leads to the escape of the two young people.

The film takes a semi-documentary approach, and its vision of mountain life is bleak, though not condescending (although the title cards are in dialect). The film stands as a screed against the oppression of women. As one of the opening titles states, there “MAN IS THE ABSOLUTE RULER – WOMAN IS THE WORKING SLAVE.” Its depiction of men as generally reprehensible morons is so grim as to be almost humerous.

In the end, it is the proto-feminist heroine who wields the axe that frees her from her servile situation. She, improbably, flees down the swollen river on a log to safety, taking finally the path that leads to small town they perceive as a wondrous city.

The camerawork is fresh and efficient, equal in skill to that of contemporary industry-made features. It received limited screenings at its premiere, but in 1968 film historian Kevin Brownlow found an original copy in the Czechoslovakian film archives, saving for posterity. It’s worth it to see a strong, simple story told in an authentic regional landscape.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Sunrise.

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