Part 4: Ameera Was A Teenage Beauty Queen, Tota A War Orphan
We have come to the end of this series on Rudyard Kipling’s brief screenwriting career. When Without Benefit of Clergy released in 1921, there was talk of more Kipling scripts in the works, but those films were not made. Kipling praised Without Benefit of Clergy, and from the cast he appreciated the heroine, Virginia Brown Faire, the most.
“Mr Kipling is especially pleased with the remarkable work of Virginia Faire,” said The Washington Herald of August 14, 1921.
For Virginia, a 17-year-old American beauty queen, to play Ameera, a Lahore girl sold as the wife of an English engineer, was not easy. She had to learn Indian mannerisms and facial expressions laid out in Kipling’s copious notes, for example:
“All Ameera’s movements, except when she is running toward or actually embracing Holden, are slow and supple. When she feels it in herself to move, she is as quick as a flash, but without any sort of fuss, as conveying the idea of rapid, flurried movement to the eye. Most of the time, while in her man’s presence, she keeps her eyes down; but when she lifts them or looks directly at him they burn slowly.”
The American press lavished praise on her:
“Miss Faire, the youthful star, who is still in her teens, is pretty and pathetic as the Oriental maiden and has winsome love scenes with her British engineer that ought to win a vote of confidence for her from all the June brides,” said The New York Herald.
The Evening Public Ledger’s correspondent seemed besotted with her: “She has dark hair and large, languorous eyes, with a girlishly rounded face.”
Or, he might have been paid to eulogise her beauty: “She is of an extraordinary beauty, sculptural, classic. Artists pronounce her close to perfection. She has the exquisiteness of youth. She has a super-delicate sensitiveness, easily — and rarely — lent to dramatic art. She is finely different, because of her sense of innocence and touch of the young Madonna in poise and feature.”
Virginia’s success has become the template for many film heroines — vivacious girl wins beauty contest, then bags a role in a top-banner movie. At 15 she won the ‘Fame and Fortune’ contest conducted by a magazine, ahead of 50,000 entrants. Then came the screen test at Brunton Studios, where she was picked for Ameera’s role from a lot of 50 candidates.
“Each of these in turn was costumed and made up for the pathetic figure of the little dark-skinned Hindu (Muslim, actually) maiden and required to act several scenes of varying emotional intensity in sets ready for the actual ‘shooting’ of the picture.”
Thomas Holding, who played British engineer John Holden, was already a veteran of “blighted romances,” so his “long-suffering countenance” was an easy fit for the tragic role.
The choice of Ameera and Holden’s infant child, Tota, fell upon Philippe de Lacy, who had lost his mother and siblings at birth during a German air raid at Nancy, France, in 1917. The newborn was rescued and adopted by an American nurse, Edith de Lacy, and went on to have a long career in films, of which Without Benefit of Clergy was the second.
As for the ‘extras’ who populated the city of Lahore created in Brunton Studios, they were all hired from the “the Hindu (read Indian) colony of Los Angeles”.
Lastly, Without Benefit of Clergy also changed the course of its production company, Pathe Exchange. On the day it was released — June 19, 1921 — “the American stockholders and American management of Pathe Exchange, Inc., independent distributor of films… acquired control of the company from Pathe Cinema, Ltd., of Paris.” Its French founder, Charles Pathe, however, retained “a large share of the stock in the American concern.”
Almost a century has passed since then, and Kipling’s movie, its actors, and the production house are all forgotten now.