2 July 2006 | boblipton
There are a number of problems with this production: first is the way that Claude Gillingwater's role is written: an expert for twenty years in playing a range of grouches, here he is just out-and-out mean for no good reason. He starts mean, he gets meaner and it ends with him protesting at a baby's being baptized Perhaps as the plot-activating villain of the piece, reducing him to a purely melodramatic villain might be considered an option. Gillingwater is too subtle an actor to pull this off -- yes, it sounds like a paradox, but it's true. The other problem is some unnecessary idiot plotting. At one stage, Tess takes an oath on the Bible to keep a secret. When she is asked to reveal it, she remains silent, instead of stating that she had sworn to keep it a secret. Surely this could have been fixed?
Now that I've gotten the weak points out of the way, let me mention the two real strong points: first and foremost is Janet Gaynor's performance. Miss Gaynor, by this stage, was able to read the most googly lines with a simplicity that showed her conviction; and she could move on the screen only as someone who had learned how to do so in silent movies could do so; yet in her talkies even the large movements of silent movies are toned down and simplified in a way that shows you exactly how the character thinks and, more importantly, feels. Miss Gaynor is worth the whole show by herself; true, she is teamed with long-time co-star Charles Farrell, but, while he is adequate, the movie focuses on Tess and her relationship with her father, played wonderfully by Dudley Digges, a skilled actor who rarely got a chance to strut his stuff.
The other thing that lifts that movie out of the ordinary is Hal Mohr's beautiful keylighted cinematography. Happily, the recent (2006) restoration of this movie by UCLA has located excellent elements to work from. To be appreciated, it should be seen in a theater. Check your local film museums.