Director: Marshall Neilan
2007 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Silent film buffs are a particularly rabid bunch. With about 80 percent of films made before 1930 having vanished from the earth forever, we gobble greedily any offerings from our beloved era. We especially rejoice when a film thought lost forever turns up in some archive, attic, or warehouse. The last find that set my heart aflutter was Beyond the Rocks, the only teaming of Gloria Swanson and my favorite male star, Rudolph Valentino.
Now I have another find to cheer about—Her Wild Oat, starring my favorite silent-era actress, Colleen Moore. Miss Moore became my favorite on the basis of one film alone—the delightful Ella Cinders (1926), in which her expressive face and body tell the comical story of a small town girl’s rise to stardom while maintaining her sweet and down-to-earth nature. This type of character seems to have been a specialty of hers, though she also played flappers with relish.
Unfortunately, time has destroyed so many of her films that her popularity in the 1920s, as well as the variety of her work, can be assessed almost exclusively by seniors who saw the films and printed reviews that are left behind. Miss Moore herself led a largely unsuccessful quest to locate any extant copies of her work. The almost miraculous discovery of a Czech version of Her Wild Oat in the Czech National Film Archive in 2001 would have pleased Miss Moore tremendously.
The film begins by showing idle men at their leisure—playing polo, sailing, and tanning on the beach. The daydream of the working class, however, is just that in reality. The men, including a reporter named Tommy Warren (Hallam Cooley), are all posing for pictures that will appear in the newspapers and on advertisements. Lights out on Warren.
Next we are taken to a depot in New York where numerous lunch wagons are ready to fan out to corners all over the city. As the race for the best corner ensues, one wagon is left behind. It belongs to Mary Lou Smith (Moore), an orphan with nothing but the wagon and a dalmation to keep her going. She has a hired hand (Frank Hagney) who substitutes for the horse she can’t afford to keep to drive her wagon. Together, they pull the wagon with the help of some young boys who at first push, and then climb aboard.
Mary is the picture of thrift and efficiency as she serves her customers, including regular customer Tommy Warren, and makes change from the change dispenser she wears around her waist. When one customer complains about the high price of a fried egg—a whole 20 cents!—Mary thinks fast: “Well, it took the chicken a whole day’s work.” Mary tots up her totals in her savings book. A showgirl who frequents her diner, Daisy (Gwen Lee), asks her if she’s going to buy another wagon. Mary says no. She’s hoping to have enough to close the current one down—she’s worked day and night for five years and needs a rest. Warren tells her about his new article about the playground of the wealthy, Plymouth Beach. She can’t wait to read it.
The scene shifts to a swanky nightclub, where rich lawyer Philip Latour (Larry Kent) is leaving with some friends. He decides to walk home, but is mugged and robbed of his clothes and money. He happens on some workers and persuades them to give him some overalls to wear and a dime for the trolley. He ends up at Mary’s wagon, too poor to order anything but coffee. She’s attracted to him, but far too shy to flirt. When it comes time for him to pay his bill, he finds that the dime he had fell through a hole in his pocket. Mary puts him to work washing dishes. He haplessly breaks half her stock. Kindhearted, she takes over and tells him to make good.
By now, Philip has a yen for Mary, too. When he returns to her wagon a few days later, he is now in disguise. He pays her for the breakage and tells her he has a job as the driver for Philip Latour. They are going to Plymouth Beach that very weekend. Mary, in hopes of following him there, asks how much it costs to stay at Plymouth Beach. He says “$30.” “A week?” “A day!” Mary just about faints, but after Philip leaves, she decides to throw caution to the wind and have herself a great time there. Daisy gives her “swank” lessons and buys her an outlandish dress that only succeeds in making her look like a floozy when she actually arrives at the hotel.
Mary is heartbroken by the cold and mean reception she gets from the hotel’s genteel guests. Fortunately, Tommy shows up, his editor actually making him go to the place he’s reporting on. He decides to pass Mary off as a duchess so that she can be accepted and he can have a scoop to report on. As they dine, they try to think of a name for her. Mary looks at the menu, which lists its soup offering as “Potage de Granville.” Ta da! She is now Mary de Granville. “What if there really is a Mary de Granville?” Mary worries. Tommy tish-toshes her.
Alas, Mary’s fears prove true, as Philip, her heart’s desire, turns out to have a new stepmother named the Duchess Latour de Granville! Moore’s consternation at being called “Mother” by her would-be Romeo is hilarious to watch. When Philip says, “I heard you were 48. Surely that can’t be true,” Mary answers “I’ve had my face lifted.” Of course, all comes right in the end, and the film ends with Mary taking a wild ride in her lunch wagon to the doorstep of Philip’s mansion, ready for a life of married bliss on Easy Street.
It’s inspiring to watch the genius of Colleen Moore as she mugs through a wide variety of facial expressions and practices her “swanky” walk, which includes a strange rolling of her hands. Her wide-eyed wonder is perfectly enchanting as she imagines what a life on Easy Street might be like, and her hesitation to pursue Philip is demure and girlish. Kent is a handsome and warm leading man, and both Cooley and Lee impress in comic second-banana roles.
Josef Lindner, an archivist for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) Film Archive, gave a presentation on the Archive’s restoration process after the film screened. He said that notices of the time gave the film passing marks, primarily due to Moore’s charisma. He notes that the Coronado Hotel in San Diego was the stand-in for Plymouth Beach. He said that the film was a B version, one that was shot alongside the A version but intended for distribution overseas. A shooting script and title list helped with recreation of the title cards, which had been redone in Czech. Even scenes with newspaper headlines were reshot in Czechoslovakia using the Czech language. Lindner was confident that with the exception of one scene, the film is very nearly original.
Once again Dave Drazin, who provided such excellent accompaniment to last year’s CIFF silent-film offering, Chicago, worked his magic on the piano, following some of the prescribed song suggestions (e.g., “Me and My Shadow” for a scene in which Mary is snubbed at a ping pong table—look for Loretta Young in an uncredited cameo in this scene; she’s second from the left in the above screencap).
Chicagoans may know Colleen Moore as the former owner of the Fairy Castle at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. She was a long-time resident of Chicago and a cofounder of the Chicago International Film Festival. It is fitting that after so many years, the CIFF was able to “premiere” Her Wild Oat again in her kinda town. I hope you get a chance to see this very funny and endearing comedy made magic by the presence of Colleen Moore.