If you’ve ever walked away from a movie, as I have, forgetting the entire premise and even the name of the damned thing even before you got home, then you always treasure those rare cinematic jewels that keep you talking weeks or even months later. Harriet’s Secret is one of the latter, and, if you have any love of history, romance, intrigue, or merely the condition humaine, this is not a movie you want to miss.
First-time filmmaker Dean Arnold brings to life the tale of his own great grandmother, Harriet Thompson, a devout Christian, who marries Percy Gerson, who is not devout about much of anything save his own desires, and their tumultuous relationship, formed during a time in which the very foundations of marriage are being challenged by notions of free love, and Western civilization itself is likewise threatened by clouds of anarchy. It’s a documentary that serves as a cautionary tale, a fable of good and evil, but it is more than that: it is a tragedy for the protagonist, and, we sense, a tragedy for all of us in the end.
Percy is an agnostic Jew: to wed his beloved, he must convert. After 6 years, he does, and, over the objections of Harriet’s father, they are wed. They move to the obscure California hill town of Hollywood, where Percy spends his time aborting babies, and the couple socialize with such luminaries as Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman, and Clarence Darrow.
Percy insists on an open relationship, and almost immediately Harriet resists, despising the bevy of young women (“dancers”), that parade through her home, and, presumably, Percy’s bedroom. She asks that Percy desist, and he refuses. We are led to believe that this causes the sudden demise of her health. But does it? The circumstances under which the young Harriet dies on the operating table are mysterious. There is a suicide note, of sorts. Or is it? Was Percy the attending physician, or was it his lover who was there at the end with his wife, administering the final poison pill? We do not know, and the director wisely and honestly leaves these questions open.
The film is a local production shot in Chattanooga using actors who are relatives of Arnold’s. People familiar with the area will recognize some of the sets, especially those on the train. Much of the movie is narrated by the director himself, with additions by other relatives with specific recall of the time.
But this should not lead one to believe that this is an amateur attempt at filmmaking. Indeed, the acting, script, production values, and editing are of the highest quality. You would not know that this was not in fact made where Harriet and Percy once lived.
What Mr. Arnold has accomplished is the professional production of a first-rate feature-length movie that leaves you wanting to know more and shaking you head at the vanity, devotion, debauchery, and, ultimately, treachery that sealed the fate of the tragic heroine of the film. If only she’d listened to her father, we are left to ask. If only we’d listen to him.
I wish it was easy to see this movie. I was fortunate in that I was able to go to the premier. Hollywood, it seems, has a lock on the distribution of films, which is too bad, because the glitterati in southern California have much more in common with Percy than poor Harriet, both genetically and morally, and so they are unlikely to want to see this film released to a wider audience. I can only say that if you can find it, watch it. And if you watch it, you will be enthralled.
Full disclosure: Dean Arnold, the director of this film, is an old friend of mine, and I have shared more than a few glasses of vino with him and his beautiful wife, Dotty. I have also been mentioned as a co-producer in the credits of the film, even though my contribution was purely financial.