Released 28 March 1918, The Whispering Chorus earned director Cecil B. DeMille yet another feather in his cap. His illustrious career was in full swing, and he was very soon to emerge as the most successful director in the U.S. In spite of his autocratic directorial style, he went from strength to strength, and made so many unknowns into huge stars.
While The Whispering Chorus doesn’t seem to be one of DeMille’s best-known silents (as compared to, e.g., The King of Kings or the original Ten Commandments), it’s one of my favorites I’ve seen to date. It’s packed with such emotional and dramatic intensity.
John Tremble (Raymond Hatton), second assistant cashier of the Clumley Contracting Company, is studiously bent over his work when he has a vision of a stranger on his shoulder, telling him he works too hard just to make a rich man richer.
John tries to ignore it, but the stranger then moves to his other shoulder, saying nothing he does is appreciated anyway. He’s still unswayed, declaring good work is always appreciated in the end.
We then move to John’s home and meet his wife Jane (Kathlyn Williams). After this, we’re introduced to “Fighting” George Coggeswell (Elliott Dexter), “a far-seeing young legislator who heads a commission with extraordinary powers to investigate the muddy waters of the state’s politics.”
We meet John and Jane again on Christmas Eve. Though their $25 a week keeps the wolf from the door, they can’t afford luxuries like a car or theatre tickets. Slowly, the acid of discontent eats into John’s heart. He’s worried about being able to pay all the bills, and says even the boys in the office notice how shabby his clothes have gotten.
Jane stalks out after his tirade, and his mother says she’s ashamed of him. Jane has voluntarily adopted shabby clothes, even giving up a cheap dress she wanted to pay for the older Mrs. Tremble’s doctor bill.
John asks how much the dress cost, and goes to find Jane. He vows to buy it for her.
A friend finds John looking at the $20 dress in a shop window, and tells him not to be a fool. A few games at Jimsy’s will earn him enough money to not only buy Jane a new dress, but to buy himself a new overcoat as well.
John steps into the store, but quickly changes his mind and leaves to gamble. He finally stumbles home in the middle of the night, and has no Christmas present to give Jane. He claims the dress was sold, but we’ve seen a shot of it still in the window.
Jane understands the truth when she sees a Jackpot token on the hall floor.
Back at work, the whispering image returns to John, and tells him his boss has more than he can use. John should take what he needs.
He’s torn between what Jane would think of a thief, and how badly he needs the money. The whispering chorus wins out, and he pockets $1,000 and falsifies the books.
All seems well at home with this unexpected windfall, until John’s boss arrives with a newspaper announcing their company is suspected of graft. Coggeswell will be coming to inspect the books.
While John’s whispering chorus begs him to make things right and not risk going to jail, his boss tries to strike a deal with the meddling legislator.
Jane, who’s been planning to go to the theatre, receives a note from John, saying he has to go away on business for a few days. John escapes on a rowboat and begins a new life in a shack by the river.
While fishing, John sees a dead body in the water. He’s initially terrified, but the whispering chorus tells him if he were that man, all his worries would be over.
Thus begins an increasingly desperate, complicated double life full of dramatic, emotional twists and turns.
Will John be able to escape the call of the all-powerful whispering chorus and reclaim his real life, or is it too late to undo the snowballing damage?