The Circle, based on the 1921 play by W. Somerset Maugham and directed by Frank Borzage in 1925, is a fascinating and ultimately moving film that defies expectations. It slips between high melodrama and drawing room comedy, with jabs of social satire and romantic tragedy along the way, before upending all expectations to deliver characters that defy convenient definition.
The film opens on a very young Joan Crawford as young beauty Lady Catherine, who leaves her amiable but dull millionaire husband Lord Clive Chaney (along with their young son) to follow her heart and run off with her lover Hugh, who happens to Clive’s best friend. Borzage plays it as a grandly romantic moment of both passionate risk (for Catherine, leaving everything to follow her heart) and devastating abandonment (Clive, betrayed by the people he loved most, holds tight to his son, oblivious to it all).
Jump ahead thirty years and the story seems poised to repeat itself, with the vivacious Elizabeth (Eleanor Boardman) married to Clive’s son Arnold (Creighton Hale), who has grown into the cliché of the spoiled, prissy, socially awkward scion of wealth, and planning to run off with handsome “good friend” Teddy (Malcolm McGregor), a smug permanent houseguest and suspicious opportunist. Complicating things is the presence of the Clive (Alec B. Francis), now aged into a gentle, doting patriarch watching the youngsters with a knowing smile and a quiet authority. “I had a friend like that,” he confides to Elizabeth. “… Hughie.” But before she does anything rash, she has arranged for Lady Catherine (now known as Kitty and played by Eugenie Besserer) to visit Arnold for the first time since running off.
The high melodrama of the prologue slips into a satirical portraits playing out their roles on a romantic farce. Clive wanders in like a doddering old man in hunting gear waving his shotgun around, which is hardly the welcome they were preparing for the return of his runaway bride. Arnold has the look of a sneering, petty European prince villain in a Lubitsch or von Stroheim continental sex comedy, dressed in with a monocle and trim Prussian mustache, and, after much anticipation, Kitty arrives as a blowsy, loud dowager dragging Hughie (George Fawcett) behind her, the once dashing figure now a sour, carping curmudgeon.