Directed by William de Mille
Produced by Famous Players-Lasky
Premiere: November 8, 1920
Cast: Thomas Meighan (Conrad Warrrener), Margaret Loomis (Rosalind, Lady Darlington), Kathlyn Williams (Mrs. Adaile), Mabel Van Buren (Nina), Mayme Kelso (Gina), Bertram Johns (Ted), Charles Ogle (Dobson), Ruth Renick (Tattie), A. Edward Sutherland (Conrad at 17)
For anyone over, let's say, 40, "Conrad in Quest of His Youth" strikes a familiar chord as we see much of ourselves in the title character. Most likely everyone has looked back at younger days with fond memories and a few regrets - and usually through rose-colored glasses. That's the story of Conrad Warrener - a man who tries to relive his youth only to find that the parade's gone by.
The film is based on, what was then, a very popular novel by Leonard Merrick, first published in 1918. Having been based on a novel, it's not surprising that the film is episodic in construction. The first section finds Conrad trying to recapture his youth by inviting one male and two female cousins to the old vacation home. Sitting at the same little child's table, serving the same food (porridge), playing the same games, singing the same old songs - well, it just isn't the same! Their boredom is evident as they make excuses to go to bed early which then leads to the "final straw" - a leaky roof that makes sleeping a nightmare!
In the second attempt to relive his youth, Conrad finds an inscription from a former girlfriend in an old book. He locates her only to find that the petite young girl he once knew is now a hefty and matronly married mother of three. The afternoon tea certainly doesn't resemble anything that he remembers from his past.
In a third episode, with the lovely Kathlyn Williams, he tries to recapture the same sentiment he had when he was 17 and in love with an older - and what appears to be, married woman - during a trip to Italy. The intertitle tells us, "And he remembers the last night of his stay - his hopeless love - and what she risked to comfort a boy's pain." Then, in a flashback, we see him as a teenager in his robe at his desk in his room, face down in his folded arms. The lady comes in looking behind to see if anyone has seen her before closing the door. The exchange of words is not conveyed by intertitles, but the message is evident - what he wants can never be. She kisses him a last kiss - and when he tries to caress her, she pulls away and goes quickly out the door.
Conrad decides he will travel to Italy to recapture that youthful infatuation - and he does and succeeds in finding Mrs. Adaile - apparently a widow now. She is older, wearing glasses and knitting, but she is still attractive. For several days, he tries to bring back the romance of his youth, and she obviously enjoys the attention of the younger man. After a few days, he asks her to come to his room once again at night - as she did all those years ago. He nervously waits, but soon falls asleep in a chair. When she arrives and sees him resting peacefully in the chair, she realizes what they both are attempting is futile. She leaves a note that says, "Dreamer, there is no road back to seventeen." This segment is at once sad yet beautiful. Much credit for the beauty of this segment goes to Williams who plays it with tenderness and does a superb job of portraying a woman who has advanced 20 or more years from her first appearance on the screen in the flashback sequence.
Although it dosen't contain the lyrical beauty of the previous sequence, the final third of the film is by far the best. Dejected after another failure to recapture some of his youth in Italy, Conrad is laid over in a small town on his way home due to a "bad train connection." Exploring the new surroundings, he encounters two ladies who appear to be members of a performing group whose show is about to close. What he doesn't realize is that one of the ladies is actually a very young titled widow - Rosalind, Lady Darlington, who is visiting her actress friend. The difference in Rosalind's and Conrad's ages is not entirely clear, but he does comment at one time that he is old enough to be her father. Well, no need to explain this episode further. Obviously, Conrad can't relive his youth, but he does find that love for a younger woman washes away any concerns about the passing of time.
The story holds up well throughout although there is somewhat of a slow start as the story establishes its premise and theme. The story becomes successively more engaging, though, as we watch Conrad go through one unsuccessful experience after another. As noted, we can sympathize because we've all tried to relive our youth in one way or another - maybe not the extreme of Conrad - but possibly something as simple as reminiscing over old photographs, a song, or something else that may revive a sweet memory.
Meighan is excellent in the Cecil B. DeMille features he made such as "Male and Female" (1919), "Why Change Your Wife?" (1920) and "Manslaughter" (1922). So, it's no surprise we find him here in a film directed by Cecil's brother, William. Meighan was a man's man in his films, distinguished because of a bit more age than the average leading man (he was actually 41 when he made "Conrad"), yet still able to pull off a romantic lead. Reviewers seemed to be consistent in their praise of Meighan. The New York Times said, "Thomas Meighan makes the part of Conrad something more than that of a standardized hero, more human . . ." (1) Variety agreed and complimented the entire cast. "Thomas Meighan and the accomplished cast who supported him, all who brought real talent to bear upon it, deserve a vote of thanks." (2)
Margaret Loomis is Lady Darlington and, as a minor star in the silent era, is surprisingly charming in the final episode. She exudes a dignified, quiet beauty, and her decision to allow Conrad to continue with his misconception that she is a down and out actress is great fun. The relationship is a little disconcerting as we realize a romance is blooming, yet he tells her he's old enough to be her father and then proceeds to look after her and her friend in what is implied as a fatherly fashion. Sure, we know what is going to happen, but the eventual coming together of the two seems to throw the point of the story awry. Rather than having Conrad come to terms with the fact that he can't regain his youth and life should move on, the message seems to be that he can (and did) recapture his youth by marrying a much younger woman.
Unfortunately, we are not aware of another of Loomis' films that's available for home viewing. Her career was short with only 26 films from 1916 to 1925, having come to motion pictures from a dancing career in vaudeville. Why she left films at that time is not known, but she did live until 1969, passing away at the age of 76.
Reviews seemed to be generally positive and praise the film itself; however, some reviewers tended to have a problem with the fact that the film wandered too far away from the book's narrative. The New York Times said, "Those who have read the 'Sentimental Journey' . . . will certainly be offended by the way in which the photoplay turns Merrick's keen and often cutting humor into broad comedy. They will doubtless be contemptuous of the standardization of Conrad as an immaculate movie hero whose romantic adventures with Mrs. Adaile and Lady Darlington are made acceptable in the best neighborhood circles by the careful deletion of Mr. Adaile and Lord Darlington . . . But taking 'Conrad in Quest of His Youth' simply as a motion picture is another matter. It is not a translation of Merrick's novel, but it is a relatively good photoplay." (3) Motion Picture Classic was equally upset. "The relentless teeth of the film machine have torn into the fragile fabric of Merrick's whimsical but keen 'sentimental journey,' and the novel has been diluted until it really isn't the original. Considered as a motion picture play, this 'Conrad' is an entertaining opus but it will offend lovers of Merrick. The whole thing has been screen standardized into conventionality." (4)
As noted, the film received generally good reviews. The New York Times gave a realistic appraisal with "'Conrad in Quest of His Youth' ranks above many of its contemporaries," (5) as did Harrison's Reports - "It is wholesome entertainment and should be enjoyed by all." (6) However, Variety literally "gushed" over the film. "Since the earlier Douglas Fairbanks features with Marjorie Daw, nothing so charming as this Lasky production of Leonard Merrick's classic novel, 'Conrad in Quest of His Youth,' has been seen on any screen. Artistically, it is a picture to be proud of . . . Here is a better picture than has been made by any director or firm at any time, relatively speaking. It is a step in advance. It is no sweeping melodrama, but it is the school of suggestion and delicate imagination in evidence at its best." (7)
Grapevine Video once again deserves credit for bringing a silent film to home video that has been hitherto unavailable. David Knudtson continues, too, to offer original, well-scored, appropriate organ accompaniment adding much to the enjoyment of these films. Film quality is good with only a couple of unfortunate sequences where decomposition interferes with the viewing, but, overall, viewers will find "Conrad in Quest of His Youth" a very enjoyable 76 minutes of storytelling.
1. "Conrad in Quest of His Youth" review. New York Times. November 8, 1920.
2. "Conrad in Quest of His Youth" review. Variety. November 12, 1920.
3. New York Times.
4. "Conrad in Quest of His Youth" review. Motion Picture Classic. February 1921.
5. New York Times.
6. "Conrad in Quest of His Youth" review. Harrison's Reports. November 13, 1920.
Copyright 2014 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved
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