#336) Stark Love (1927)

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#336) Stark Love (1927)

OR “Backwoods and Forwards”

Directed by Karl Brown

Written by Brown and Walter Woods

Class of 2009

The Plot: In the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina resides a primitive culture where – and I’m quoting the movie here – “Man is the absolute ruler, woman is the working slave”. Dreaming of going to school in the city, Rob Warwick (Forrest James) has learned to read, and passes on some of his knowledge to his neighbor Barbara Allen (Helen Mundy). Forrest sells his horse in town to pay tuition, but decides to let Barbara go to school in his place. When he returns, however, Forrest learns that his mother has died and that his father (Silas Miracle) has chosen Barbara as his wife to take over the household chores. Strap in for one of filmdom’s weirder love triangles.

Why It Matters: Well someone at the Library of Congress really liked this one. The NFR write-up calls “Stark Love” “[a] maverick production in both design and concept” and “an illuminating portrayal of the Appalachian people.” They can only come up with a plot recap for most of the more popular titles, but this obscure entry gets a heap of praise.

But Does It Really?: Full disclosure: I normally hold off reading the official NFR entry on each of these films until after my viewing, so as not to cloud my own opinion of why this film should be on the list. About halfway through “Stark Love” I found myself so disinterested in the film I looked up the NFR description. “Stark Love” is definitely on the list for what it represents rather than what it is. On top of its status as the directorial debut of cinematographer Karl Brown, as well as a look at Appalachian life, this film was considered lost until a single print was discovered in the late 1960s. Longtime readers know I’m willing to give films a slight pass with a convincing argument, but “Stark Love” is testing those limits.

Everybody Gets One: Karl Brown got his start in the lab at Kinemacolor Film Company, eventually becoming a camera assistant for G.W. Bitzer on such films as D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance” (he was even allowed to shoot some second unit footage on these films). After Kinemacolor folded, Brown found himself at the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation (later Paramount). It was during filming of the 1923 western epic “The Covered Wagon” that he learned of a primitive Appalachian culture in North Carolina and traveled there after filming. Brown was so impressed that he convinced Paramount to finance his film, even though he didn’t have a script yet.

Other notes

  • In addition to being filmed entirely on location in North Carolina, “Stark Love” features a cast entirely of non-professional locals. I have to say; this group of non-actors is no more stiff and awkward on camera than your average silent film actor.
  • Right off the bat, I can tell what’s wrong with this movie, and it’s the same problem that most silent films have: too many intertitles. It’s somewhat ironic that a cinematographer’s first time directing relies more on words than visuals. With “Stark Love” Brown shows he is good at shooting beautiful settings, but not necessarily shooting visual storytelling.
  • That being said, Brown later said in hindsight that he should have waited a few years to make “Stark Love” in order to take advantage of both sound and color development in films.
  • Her name is Barbara Allen? Like the song?
  • So even back in the ‘20s people knew how stupid the concept of chivalry was?
  • “Stark Love” is another one of the “two steps forward, one step back” films I’ve come to expect from movie feminism. Barbara is learning to become more independent and free from a patriarchal society, but she is still very much in a patriarchal society.
  • Among the Appalachian terminology this film taught me was “wild marriage”; two people living together without being legally married. Who knew that’s what it was called?
  • Brief, uncomfortable almost-nudity? Sorry, movie, you’ll have to do better than that.
  • Ah yes, death by intertitle. Back in the 1920s, expositional intertitles were the third leading cause of death, behind infectious diseases and bathtub gin-related accidents.
  • The river flooding is a major plot point. Quick, someone call the TVA!
  • My note during the finale was “Do something, Barbara!” She does eventually, but not much. I’m not enjoying this pattern of films with female leads that become uncharacteristically passive during the third act.
  • Having now finished this viewing of “Stark Love”, I can think of at least two things wrong with that title.

Legacy

  • Karl Brown spent the next decade writing and directing a series of B-movies for Poverty Row studio Monogram. There were a few more screenplays into the ‘40s, and a few early episodes of “Death Valley Days”, but Brown’s career more or less petered out after the Monogram days.
  • Shortly after production wrapped, Helen Mundy was brought to New York, met with Paramount executives, and signed a one-year acting contract. Nothing seems to have come from it, as “Stark Love” is Mundy’s only film credit.
  • Even the film’s Wikipedia page devotes space to how obscure this movie is. “Stark Love” premiered in 1927 and quickly disappeared. Presumed lost for decades, the Czechoslovakian Film Archive found a print in their vault, which was restored by the Museum of Modern Art and the American Film Institute. After that, and again, this is from the Wikipedia page, the film “went back into obscurity” and “is still widely unknown.”
  • The film’s history and production is documented in the 1995 J.W. Williamson book “Hillbillyland: What the Movies Did to The Mountains and What the Mountains Did To the Movies”. It’s long out of print, but you can track it down wherever obscure books with the word “hillbilly” are sold.

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