Pearl McCormack in The Scar of Shame (1927)
approximately 5 minutes and 4 seconds on-screen
roughly 7% of film's total running time
Since its rediscovery in the basement detritus of an abandoned Detroit movie house in 1969, The Scar of Shame has emerged as perhaps the emblematic example of "race movies" in the silent era. One of at least three films produced by the Colored Players of Philadelphia, The Scar of Shame's all-black cast improvised their scenes, following the guidelines of their Italian American writer and director. Even as the earlier work of independent black auteur Oscar Micheaux has deservedly garnered the most interest among critics, scholars and audience, The Scar of Shame remains one of the only surviving examples of a commercial black cast film in the 1920s that featured middle-class characters and targeted an African American audience. (note)
The haltingly plotted melodrama stirs "uplift" with social Darwinism and color heirarchies in the black community to mix a story that is at once impossibly complex and soporifically simple. (Silent features of the late '20s are so good at that.) Harry Henderson plays Alvin Hillyard, a well-educated concert pianist and "race man" who rescues Lucia Lynn Moses's Louise from the lascivious clutches of her stepfather. Alvin marries Louise, but keeps the marriage secret from his family. A whole bunch of drama unspools and Alvin ends up in jail for shooting some guy (it's a set up of course). Alvin escapes prison, flees to another city, and -- under an assumed name -- sets up shop as a music teacher, where he meets and falls in love with the daughter of a prominent black politician. (Of course, the wrinkle is that Louise, Alvin's wife has also migrated to this new city, become a night club vamp, and has taken up with that same politician.)
Pearl McCormack plays Alice Hathaway, the young woman who's both Alvin's "social equal" and the subject of his growing affection.
A sometime stage actress (about whom StinkyLulu knows little), McCormack is a smoky eyed, light skinned beauty with wavy hair and aquiline features. As dark and as light and as beautiful as silent superstars like Clara Bow, McCormack animates her scenes with a ready impetuousness, infusing her character's purity with an energetic womanliness that sparks the film to life in its final act. McCormack's Alice has little to do. She is, after all, mostly there as moral counterpoint to Moses's Louise. While Moses gets to gamble, drink, flirt and dance, Alice radiates goodness playing classical piano at home.
McCormack's Alice does get a good hysteria scene, though, after Alvin has revealed his past but before her father reveals Louise's climactic sacrifice. And even then, as the concluding action wheezes through its perfunctory woman-sacrificing plot machinations, McCormack's Alice gives the scenes their only verve. In The Scar of Shame, Pearl McCormack's animated performance emerges as one of the treats in this halting B-movie melodrama. (The other treats are in the excellent club scenes, where unnamed and mostly dark-skinned characters get all vice-y -- good stuff.)
An editorial aside: If you take it upon yourself to watch The Scar of Shame (it's fairly accessible since its Library of Congress restoration/release in the early 1990s) StinkyLulu strongly recommends that you do so with the sound turned down. The piano score by silent movie music legend Philip Carli is shockingly enervating (banal and sleep-inducing, really). The film becomes much more engaging without Carli's track -- not sure why...
Be sure to spend time with the Goatdog's assemblage of interesting posts at the 1927 Blogathon Headquarters...