It could have been a lurid, “ripped from the headlines” melodrama from a studio known for its cheap genre films. Instead, The Goose Woman (1925) became one of Universal’s “Jewels,” a prestige production with a better than average script, an excellent cast and production values, and an up-and-coming director.
German immigrant Carl Laemmle opened the 230-acre Universal City on the north side of the Hollywood Hills in 1915. It was one of the largest motion picture production facilities in the world, with its own municipality, post office, police, and fire department. By 1925, Universal’s output of 51 feature films was exceeded only by First National’s 52 and Paramount’s 72. “In marketing terms, Universal was the Woolworth’s of the motion picture business,” according to film historian Richard Koszarski. Laemmle “produced his films cheaply and in quantity, realizing economies by keeping salaries low and employing mass-production techniques.” But the studio also invested considerable money and effort into its Jewel productions such as The Goose Woman.
While Laemmle was building Universal, director Clarence Brown was serving as an apprentice. A University of Tennessee engineering graduate, Brown had worked as an auto mechanic and salesman. He later claimed that a visit to a nickelodeon on a lunch break convinced him to become a filmmaker. At 24, he moved to Fort Lee, New Jersey, then the nation’s movie capital, and approached director Maurice Tourneur with a nervy proposition: “Why don’t you take a fresh brain that knows nothing about the business and bring him up your way?” To Brown’s delight, he was hired at $30 a week. “Maurice Tourneur was my god,” he told film historian Kevin Brownlow during an interview in the 1960s. “I owe him everything I’ve got in the world.” After flying with the air force during World War I, Brown returned to Tourneur’s sets, assisting on The Last of the Mohicans (1920), The Great Redeemer (1920), and other films known for their use of light to enhance mood and intensify drama. “Whenever we saw a painting with an interesting lighting effect, we’d copy it,” Brown told Brownlow. “We had a library of pictures. ‘Rembrandt couldn’t be wrong,’ we’d say. At least we stole from the best!”
Brown eventually left Tourneur to accept a contract at Universal, where young promising directors often cut their teeth. Because of its voluminous output, the studio provided valuable training to other well-known directors like John Ford and William Wyler. A string of successes led Brown to a project of intense notoriety and readymade publicity. Rex Beach loosely based his short story “The Goose Woman” on the gruesome 1922 Hall-Mills double murder of a New Jersey Episcopal priest and a woman rumored to be his mistress. The suspects were his rich widow and her two brothers. All these details, however, were absent from Beach’s story. Instead, he took his inspiration from supposed witness Jane Gibson, whose occupation raising hogs earned her the nickname “Pig Woman.” Her accounts of what she saw and heard kept changing, and the press swarmed around her in fascination.
While the film was in production, the murders had not been solved, so Brown and scenarist Melville Brown had to be cautious not to duplicate the facts of the crime and incite libel suits. In the short story and film, opera star Marie de Nardi loses her voice after giving birth to an illegitimate son. Overwhelmed by scandal and bitterness, she changes her name to Mary Holmes, rejects her child, and retreats to a shack in the New Jersey marshland. Her life is reduced to swilling gin, raising geese, and playing old recordings of her once glorious voice. When a murder occurs nearby, she lies to the prosecutor to gain publicity and renewed fame.
In the title role, Louise Dresser brought scant film experience but had had a long career in vaudeville and on Broadway. Jack Pickford, younger brother to Mary, was cast as her son, and the beautiful square-jawed blonde Constance Bennett, who came from a prominent theatrical family, played his love interest. With his characteristic attention to detail, Brown made a radio broadcast requesting geese as extras and, when he saw the perfect shack “off in the country somewhere,” he had it relocated to Universal’s back lot.
Carl Laemmle had to avoid offending Will Hays, head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, who had warned studios not to mock the 18th Amendment, which, in 1920, outlawed the production, sale, and transport of alcohol. The Goose Woman features an abundance of empty gin bottles, but barely a hint of imbibing. When Mary lifts a bottle to her lips, she turns away from the camera, throws her head back, and shudders. The only time she is shown taking a drink, her face is obscured. Desperate for a calming shot during a makeover, she swallows high-proof hair tonic, then coughs in disgust, her entire head wrapped in beauty gauze.
Tourneur’s influence and Brown’s sure hand are obvious throughout, in the striking close-ups, sensitive performances, fluid camera, and evocative lighting. Much of the film’s success, however, has been attributed to Dresser. “Her performance is so remarkable that it has been the talk of Hollywood for the last six weeks,” reported the New York Times soon after the premiere. “Louise Dresser was one of the best actresses in the history of cinema,” wrote film historian DeWitt Bodeen in 1982. “No one who saw her in The Goose Woman could forget her.” When Brown moved to United Artists for The Eagle (1925), he enlisted the versatile Dresser to play Catherine the Great.
Dresser earned an Academy Award nomination for A Ship Comes In (1928), played a memorable supporting role in The Scarlet Empress (1934), and retired in 1937. Constance Bennett enjoyed a major career in sound, excelling at sophisticated comedies and tearjerkers. The thrice married Jack Pickford was plagued by alcoholism, bankruptcy, and syphilis. He died at 36 having “play[ed] the roulette of life,” as screenwriter Frances Marion put it. As for the Hall-Mills trial, the real-life Pig Woman’s changing testimony destroyed the prosecution’s case, and the suspects were acquitted. The crime has never been solved. Like The Goose Woman, RKO’s The Past of Mary Holmes (1933) was based on Beach’s story rather than the actual crime.
Brown moved to MGM, where Greta Garbo and John Gilbert displayed a potent erotic chemistry in his Flesh and the Devil (1926). He went on to a long distinguished career that included A Free Soul (1931), Anna Karenina (1935), National Velvet (1944), and The Yearling (1947). In his seminal text on silent film, The Parade’s Gone By, Kevin Brownlow called Brown “one of the great names of American motion pictures—one of the few whose mastery was undiminished by the arrival of sound.” The Goose Woman had a particularly profound effect on Brownlow himself, who credits The Goose Woman as the first film to reveal the potential riches of American silent-era cinema to him. In a 2004 interview for the British Film Institute, he recalled seeing it for the first time: “I knew nothing about film history and was discovering it on the fly. When I opened that parcel and projected that picture, I suddenly realized the incredible range of American silent films, and I felt, ‘My God, I wouldn’t mind spending the rest of my life discovering them,’ which is really what happened.”
Presented at SFSFF 2011 with live music by Stephen Horne