Lillian Gish (1893-1993) spent seventy-five years in motion pictures, starting with DW Griffith in 1912. She was quite possibly the greatest actress in the history of film, and was known as ‘The First Lady of American Cinema’.
At the point of her career that she made ‘Annie Laurie’ she was in something of a decline at MGM, but she has star quality that reaches down through the years and continues to engage and move audiences.
She can achieve more in a smile, a wistful glance, or eyes full of tears, than any of her peers, and does it effortlessly. And in this film she was not even firing on all cylinders, due to personal troubles with her mother’s illness during production, yet she is still mesmerising.
At the Barbican Centre after showing at the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Falkirk earlier this year, this BFI print was accompanied by live music composed by Shona Mooney and performed by her with Alasdair Paul and Amy Thatcher.
The score, which was fiddle-led and included the title melody itself along with ‘The Campbells Are Coming’ and other traditional snippets, fitted the film very well and made this epic (not 90 minutes as billed, but in fact nearer 120 minutes) a perfect Sunday afternoon wallow.
‘Annie Laurie’ is basically the story of the feud between the Campbell and MacDonald clans with a large amount of artistic licence, as the centerpiece of the Glencoe massacre is presented within the framework of a romantic triangle in which Annie (Gish) is courted by Donald Campbell (Creighton Hale) – who despite playing the lute and singing her praises doesn’t shrink from committing mass murder on behalf of his monarch – and desired with rather more wildness by Ian MacDonald (Norman Kerry), who wears a kilt and not much else with some panache.
Incidentally while Gish remained in feature roles for several years, Kerry’s career came to an end shortly after the arrival of sound, and although Hale remained in pictures, it was largely in uncredited roles until the end of the 1950s.
Both actors are rather broad players to modern eyes, but you can see what female audiences might have seen in Kerry, who appeared to good effect in ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ earlier in the decade.
It’s Gish who holds the interest here, though, flirting, worrying, grieving, and finally making her final run to save her man from certain death (leading to a charming two-strip Technicolor finish where all ends well – this film would have looked wonderful with colour throughout).
The only other female role goes to the rather insipid Patricia Avery, in her first of only four films, as the Campbell girl who is taken off in the arms of the virile Alastair MacDonald (Joseph Striker, who is guilty of a bit of over-acting) and then declines to go home.
Although Scotland may be portrayed with a Hollywood tinge, where everyone wears kilts, sword-dances, caber-tosses, and in the case of the MacDonalds, just stop short of ripping animals apart for food with their bare hands, the very basic plot does convince, and the bits of comedy from John Ford alumnus Russell Simpson as Sandy fit well against the more melodramatic passages, the rather sweet interplay between Gish and Kerry as they reluctantly fall in love, and the drama of the final battle.
Incidentally, let’s consider fact from fiction here. ‘Annie Laurie’ uses the real Glencoe massacre as a major plot point on which to hang its fictional characters.
- In the film, Annie Laurie is courted by both Donald Campbell, son of the Campbell Chieftain, and Ian MacDonald, son of the MacDonald Chieftain. False. Although Anna Laurie was a real person, she was not involved directly with either clan and in fact married Alexander Fergusson, 14th Laird of Craigdarroch. She was however courted by William Douglas, a Jacobite, at one time. Both Donald and Ian are fictional characters.
- In the film, Enid Campbell is abducted by Alastair MacDonald, and falls in love with him, bearing him a child on the eve of the massacre, and dying in childbirth. False. Enid did not exist. Eileen MacGregor (sister of Rob Roy) and relative of the Campbells, was married to Alexander MacDonald, youngest son of the chieftain – he escaped with his life, whereas in the film he dies.
- In the film, the MacDonalds win the day, and kill Donald Campbell and some of his men. False. No Campbells were slain in the massacre, and the MacDonalds were practically wiped out. This is alluded to in the film when we see the slaughter of the young child who has stamped him foot earlier when prevented from fighting with the Clan, but there was no happy ending.
- In the film, the MacDonalds do sign the peace treaty with King William III, but arrive late due to a storm. True.
- In the film, the Campbells follow the direction of their King in heading to the MacDonald castle, taking shelter, and then killing their hosts, because they had not signed by 1st January. Partly true. The issue of the MacDonalds being Jacobite followers of King James II while the Campbells took the new King’s shilling is not made clear.