There are some films that are so well made and acted that even if the story is not that outstanding they are still good. Secrets is one of those films where the direction was great and the acting perfect and the story just a touch melodramatic that turned out to be very good.
In the mid-1800s a young girl named Mary Marlowe (Mary Pickford) is forced to marry a man she does love by her affluent parents. While she and her mother are riding in a carriage to visit her father at work. Riding beside the carriage on a bicycle is a young man named John Carlton (Leslie Howard). There is a bee flying around their heads. Poor John is stung in the eye and falls off his bicycle.
At the office Mary sees that John works as a clerk for her father. John drops Mary a note to say that if he does not see her that night he will drown himself. That Mary impatiently waits for John in the garden of her house. John finally arrives. They both plan on meeting again.
Soon, Mary’s father finds her letters to John. He fires John and refuses to give him any recommendation for other clerk positions. He tells Mary that she is a disgrace to the family and will not hear her protests against marrying the man they have chosen for her. The father also tells her that if he sees John around her he will have the young man whipped and dragged out of town.
A party is thrown for Mary’s engagement. John sneaks onto the property and catches Mary’s eye by the back door. Mary pretends to faint from too much excitement so she can be carried up to her room. She sends her maid, the only person on her side about John, to find him in the garden. Before she can turn around she hears something at her window. John found a ladder and climbs up to her. He tells Mary that he is going away to California there is nothing in New England for him and he wants to make money so he can come back and marry her. Mary does not want to wait that long she wants to go with him. He tells her their life will not be easy they will be starving and she will have to do everything herself. Mary does not care just as long as she can be with John. As John helps her change, her father comes upstairs to check on her. Mary hides John behind her clothes on the floor! They manage to get away by climbing out of the window and they elope that night.
The journey out west was difficult but once they settle down they are happy in their home with their baby son. John plans on becoming governor of California one day.
One day while John is away, a band of cattle thieves comes to the house looking for food. Mary tries to make them go away but they threaten the baby. On their way home, John and his friend Sunshine run into their cattle and the thieves. When John returns neither he nor Mary mention what has happened at first. John asks his wife if she would want to go back to New England. Mary replies she would never dream of it. They both finally talk about what has happened with the thieves. Mary mentions to John about taking the law into their own hands as the only way to stop the thieves. John rounds up some men and goes after the thieves.
John is away for two days. When he comes home a doctor is at the house for the baby who has been sick with a fever. He has gotten some of the thieves including the brother of the head of the thieves. The doctor tells John to prepare for a war. John asks the doctor to send Mary and the baby back to New England if anything happens to him. Not long after the doctor leaves the thieves come looking for John. Mary braces the room where the baby is and goes out into the front to stand by John. The thieves want John to surrender himself or they will come in and kill everyone. Mary refuses to let her husband surrender. If he does she will come out with him she will go with him she could never live without him. She yells out to the thieves that John is not coming out. A gun fight erupts. Mary goes to check on their son who has not made a sound. The baby has died from his fever. Mary sits in their room holding the baby with tears in her eyes. When John comes in she just tells him their son is sleeping. She puts the baby down and goes back out to the front. She grabs the other rifle since Sunshine is hurt. She hears someone on the roof and comes back to find the head thief coming in through the window aiming his gun to shoot John. Mary points the rifle at the thief and kills him. Help soon comes in the form of the doctor and a few other men from town.
Years go by. John and Mary have four more children and John runs for governor. At a party for the social elite of the town, a Spanish woman comes with an escort. Everyone at the party, including Mary, knows that the woman is the one John has been seen with. Mary is upset and goes into another room. The woman comes in to speak to her. Mary tells the woman that if she really loved John she would not have shamed him at his own party in front of his family and friends. The woman tells Mary that John has wanted to leave her (Mary) but she will not let him to do so and that is ruining his happiness. John comes into the room and tells the woman what he has told her was lies that he loves only Mary. The woman promises to destroy John with letters he has sent her.
When the woman leaves Mary and John have a talk. She knows there have been other women. There was even one when they were in New York together. He says it might be better if she does leave him he does not want her name and their children’s name to be ruined. Mary sticks by his side even when the newspapers smatter their names all over their pages. Despite the scandal John is nominated to governor.
As the years go on, John is elected to senator for several years in a row.
In their old age John and Mary want to return to California. Their children are vehemently against them traveling back to the west. They are more worried for their mother they think she has done everything for their father and he has done nothing for her. Mary comes out of their room where they locked themselves away from the children and tells them that she and John have their own secrets that they have never shared with them. They want to be able to talk about their secrets without their children being around them.
I cannot even begin to explain how much I enjoyed Mary Pickford in this film. The only other sound film I have seen of hers was Coquette and she was not very good in that. Her voice was awful and her acting was something to be desired. But in Secrets Mary Pickford was fantastic. Her acting was spot on it was not over dramatic or flawed. Her best scene was when Mary Marlowe finds her baby has died. Pickford was heartbreaking in her silent grief. She did not cry over dramatically she just held her baby and cried silently with tears down her face. This was Pickford’s last film of her long career. It is a shame that she did not continue with her career she could have made a few more great movies or could have had a second career as a great character actress. Her career could not have ended better her acting was fantastic. Leslie Howard I am not a fan of but he was actually better good in this as well. Howard usually over acts or just seems like a big moping mess. His character was good he was not supposed to be poetic or sad or philosophical. I thought Pickford and Howard’s best acted scene together was when John helps Mary change her dress. It was like a scene out of one of Pickford’s silent comedies with them scrambling and John hiding under all the undergarments on the floor.
Frank Borzage’s directing was beautiful. One of the best scenes I have ever seen in a film was when John and Mary bury their son. It was filmed from far away as if we were intruding on this sad moment. We see John take Mary in his arms and walk away from the gravesite. In this scene there is no music, there are no words. Another greatly filmed scene was when Mary finds the baby has died and when she carries the baby’s body out of the fire-engulfed room after the fight. Borzage’s direction and Pickford’s acting combined to make a beautiful scene. The more I watch Borzage’s films the more I see his genius. His direction really enhanced his characters more than the stories.
Secrets was a very good film. The story was melodramatic as I said but the direction and acting made up for it. I feel that had there been other actors who played the characters or another director that it would have wound up as a forgettable melodrama. I was not crazy about the story line where John cheats on Mary and she then forgives him when he confesses that the other women meant nothing to him that he loves her more than anything. Other than that the story was alright. I liked the story most when Mary and John had met and when they travel and settle out west. Secrets is currently available to view on Youtube in parts. I highly suggest heading over there and watching the film as soon as you can.