“I believe it takes a woman to believe in a woman’s motives, and every story intended for the screen should have a woman working on it at some stage to convince the audience of women.” – Dorothy Davenport
Dorothy Davenport was somewhat of an early trailblazer in the arena of women filmmakers. Her third picture, 1925’s The Red Kimona, is credited as being one of the first independent film productions ever handled predominately by women. Davenport was credited as a producer & a writer for the film, among other female voices, and acted in an uncredited role as the film’s head director, often nixing ideas from first time director Walter Lang she didn’t approve. Much like Davenport’s first film, the drug addiction drama Human Wreckage, The Red Kimona garnered a great deal of controversy in its time, to the point where it was even banned in the UK. Released years before the alarmist “road to ruin” movies of the 30s & 40s, the film was way ahead of its time in terms of racy content in the silent era, remarkable for its pedigree as a woman’s tragic story told by a woman filmmaker in a time where they were a rare breed.
Telling the real-life story of Gabrielle Darley, a woman tricked into a life of prostitution in 1920s New Orleans, The Red Kimona depicts the ramifications of “years of bondage-sorrowful-sordid.” When, early in the film, Darely discovers that her boyfriend/pimp is using money earned through her sex work to purchase a wedding ring intended for another woman, she flips out & shoots him dead. In a California Supreme Court case that made national headlines, Darley was acquitted of the crime because of what the deceased put her through in New Orleans. The movie mostly tackles what followed Darley’s infamous fall from grace, depicting a world of closed doors & unwelcome faces as she tries to piece her life back together following the trial. She finds a brief respite as a wealthy socialite’s publicity generator (which in its own way is like being pimped), but she finds this prospect exhausting & frivolous: Darley longs to “seek redemption” in servitude as a nurse, but she discovers that not many employers are willing to give an opportunity to a woman with a public record of murder & prostitution.
The Red Kimona is a difficult film to pin down. I initially watched it to see a 1920s depiction of New Orleans’ famed Storyville district, which has a very Old World Europe look to it here, but most of the film is set in California. Despite the expectations set by later “road to ruin” films, which would’ve ended with a guilty verdict at Darley’s murder trial & a firm warning to young love-hungry girls not to follow in her path, the film avoids themes about the evils of sex work & instead focuses on charity, poverty, exploitation, and the lack of opportunity for a woman trying to make it on her own. The writing can be really sharp sometimes, like when the preying pimp creepily urges Darley to “be a good little girl”, but sometimes the prose gets mighty purple, like in the line “Three words – I love you – sometimes as beautiful and sacred as a prayer, sometimes a cowardly lie.” And even though the film isn’t quite as creative in its political moralizing as Häxan‘s tirade against the way we deal with mental illness, it does have its own interesting visual touches, especially in the way that the Storyville district’s (literal) red light, the distant glow of warfare, and the titular red kimona are all hand-colorized to glow red while the rest of the film is a contrasting black & white.
The movie also proved frustrating for Davenport herself. Even though everything depicted about Darley’s real life Supreme Court case was a matter of public record, she was still successfully sued for making the film without her subject’s permission. The financial blow was substantial, but Davenport still went on to produce more Big Issue films & started a drug rehab program designed to help relieve the “upward struggle of such unfortunates” depicted in her Human Wreckage film. The Red Kimona is far from a forgotten masterpiece, but it is an interesting early example of a female protagonist struggling with some difficult, salacious issues in a way that isn’t as dismissive or moralizing as what you’d typically expect from 20s cinema. If you’re a fan of subtly transgressive films from the silent era, Davenport’s The Red Kimona might be well worth your attention.