Contemporary critics had a hard time describing the appeal of the on-surface simple, yet daringly radical domestic drama, The Home Maker. “A simple little tale” (Evening Journal); “Just a human story … but it’s one of the most gripping things seen on Broadway” (Evening World); “It hasn’t a villain nor a vamp; there isn’t any triangle or a shipwreck, but it’s a good story” (New York Graphic).
It’s true, the film has none of the razzle-dazzle that has turned other silent films into enduring classics; there are no visual pyrotechnics, no bravura star turns, no shocking plot twists. Instead, it tells the story of an ordinary couple struggling with mundane problems—household chores, tantrum-prone children, the boredom of office routine, and the anxiety of never having quite enough money. In other words, life, as most of us experience it. And it makes these quotidian details completely absorbing.
Eva (Alice Joyce) and Lester (Clive Brook) are familiar types. Eva is an ambitious woman who feels trapped as a housewife. She turns her pent-up energy into a perfectionist obsession with cleanliness and order. Lester is a poetic dreamer who loathes his job as accountant in a department store. He only comes alive reciting rhymes to his children. The frustrated dreams of husband and wife have turned the whole family sour; parents and children are all tense, miserable, afflicted with a host of psychosomatic illnesses (early in the film one of the stressed-out kids upchucks his meal after a particularly fraught family dinner). The family’s affairs are going from bad to worse when an unexpected accident forces Eva and Lester to switch roles; she goes to work and he stays home with the kids. Like magic, the family is soon flourishing in direct proportion to their previous misery.
The credit for this subversive little fable and its critique of marital gender roles goes primarily to Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who wrote the 1924 best-selling novel The Home-Maker, which the film follows faithfully, beginning to end. In addition to writing dozens of popular novels, Fisher was a classic 1920s progressive; she supported prison reform and adult education, as well as proselytized for companionate marriage through her best-selling romances. On a trip to Italy she became interested in Maria Montessori’s theories of education and wrote two nonfiction books on Montessori methods and worked the educator’s ideas into a few of her novels, including The Home-Maker. Fisher’s reputation has taken a hit in recent years, because of negative stereotypes of Native Americans and French Canadians that also found their way into her books. However, even if she did not manage to transcend the racial prejudices of her home state of Vermont, she was ahead of her time when it came to gender roles.
Historian Diane Lichtenstein suggests the novel was also a critique of the new, ever-higher standards that were imposed on housekeepers in the 1920s by experts of all kinds. It was an era that saw the professionalization of housekeeping, with Home Economics established as a college major and “scientific household management” the latest buzzword. As usual when women emerged from the home, as they had during World War I and the following decade, there was a media campaign to drive them back inside to scrub floors—Home Maker the movie opens with Eva slaving to eradicate a stubborn grease spill. When Lester takes over housekeeping, his first step is to relax the standards of cleanliness that have made the family miserable. In a scene that is both comic and moving, the two older children conceal dirt from their now working mother by hiding it under a couch pillow. She moves the pillow and brushes the crumbs absentmindedly to the floor, as she tells her family stories about her day at work. The two kids exchange a look of amazed relief.
The miracle of this film is how many things could have gone wrong with the story during its transition from book to film that didn’t. The gender-role switch could have been played for Mrs. Doubtfire-style laughs (a common approach to role-swapping films, both then and now). The film could have turned Eva into a villain à la Craig’s Wife, or any number of monstrous movie mothers. It may be a backhanded compliment to congratulate scenario writer Mary O’Hara and director King Baggot for not messing up Fisher’s book, but the ability to get out of the way of a good story is rare, especially in the ego-driven business of filmmaking.
O’Hara may have understood the material. She was a divorced mother when she wrote for films in the 1920s; she left Hollywood with her second husband for a ranch in Wyoming and future fame as author of the children’s classic My Friend Flicka. Director Baggot’s evident sympathy for the novel’s subject is harder to fathom. In 1925 Baggot was a motion-picture warhorse; he’d worked in the business as actor, scenario writer, and/or director since 1909. Possibly Baggot felt a kinship to dreamy, out-of-step Lester, dismissed by one of the film’s townspeople as “a useless man.” Once a hugely popular star, Baggot was on the downslide when he made The Home Maker. He struggled to find a place in the rapidly changing business that had, literally, left him behind—his reluctance to move west with Universal had hastened the end of his acting career. His record as a director was uneven, perhaps partly because of the alcoholism that led to the breakup of his own family in 1930. Historian Kevin Brownlow described Raffles, the film Baggot made just before The Home Maker, as one of the worst silent movies he’d ever seen; he called The Home Maker “a forgotten classic.”
When the film was released in the summer of 1925 the reviews were mostly positive, with only Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times exhibiting his usual wrong-headedness. He titled his review “A Cowardly Husband,” decreeing that “the utterly impossible ending should also have been changed for the picture” and complaining squeamishly about the “unnecessary details, some of which are repellent,” meaning, of course, the scene where poor Henry (Maurice Murphy) gets sick to his stomach. Household drudgery and the messy side of raising children were clearly foreign topics to Hall. The Times critic admitted the actors were talented but said they were wasted in the film. In fact, Clive Brook and Alice Joyce, both cast against type as a decidedly unglamorous couple, give subtle, riveting performances. They are matched by child actor Billy Kent Schaeffer playing their furiously bad-tempered youngest son.
Universal’s ad campaign did its best to exploit the film’s radical aspect. “It will take your town by the ears!” one spread blared, predicting, “It will be the most discussed picture of the year.” Exhibitors Trade Review agreed that was the angle to exploit: “Stress the idea of women’s equality, and bring up the question as to whether or not woman’s sphere should be confined to the home.” Variety, however, thought that conversations did not equal dollars: “it is the type of picture that will be much discussed in certain circles, but will hardly figure as a strong box-office proposition.”
Fisher wrote in the novel that it would be more acceptable for Lester to rob a bank than to stay home and care for his children, if he was healthy and capable of finding work. Given such rigid conventions, one might expect to find more evidence of movie-sparked controversy—letters to the editor or sermonizing in church—the kind of free publicity that Universal hoped for. Whatever spirited discussions The Home Maker provoked have been lost to time, and the contemporary critics contented themselves with describing the film as “unusual” in their mostly positive reviews. Perhaps the lack of controversy was a sign of just how immovable gender roles were; they needed no strident defense because the book and the film were no real threat. The Home Maker’s continuing power lies, in part, in the timelessness of its critique. We have only to look at the families around us to see that, for most, domestic gender roles have changed little. This is part of the film’s magic. It offers us the uncanny spectacle of current social issues flickering on the screen from across a gap of almost a hundred years.
Presented at SFSFF 2019 with live music by by Stephen Horne