Director: Alfred E. Green
By Marilyn Ferdinand
My love affair with Colleen Moore started the night I saw Ella Cinders several years ago at Chicago’s Silent Summer Film Festival. The most I had seen of Moore before that was in short film clips outside Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry display of her Fairy Castle, built for $500,000 in the mid 1930s and toured around the country by Moore to raise an eventual $650,000 for children’s charities. I never paid much attention to those clips, though they included a scene from Ella Cinders, so anxious was I to see the wonderland in miniature she created just for kids like me. Looking back, it’s easy to see how the woman who inspired this dollhouse for fairies would be exactly the kind of actress who could cast enchantment over an entire nation. After the premiere of Ella Cinders, she did indeed become the most popular actress in America.
At first, no one would make this light comedy based on the story of Cinderella. Some clever promoters decided to drum up demand for the film by launching an “Ella Cinders” comic strip in 1925 with characters from the film script, and a heroine who looked exactly like Moore. “Ella Cinders” was a big hit, not only inducing First National to make the picture, but also establishing a comic strip that would run for 36 years.
Ella Cinders is the put-upon servant of her stepmother (Vera Lewis) and two stepsisters, Lotta and Prissy Pill (Doris Baker and Emily Gerdes). Her only friend is handsome and gentlemanly George Waite (Lloyd Hughes), nicknamed Waite Lifter because he is the iceman who hauls the blocks to stock the iceboxes that fill their home town of Roseville, Colorado. Ella, longing to escape, learns that Lotta plans to enter a local beauty contest whose winner will receive a cash award and a contract with a Hollywood studio. When she goes to the photographer for a headshot to enter in the contest, she is plagued by a fly buzzing around her face. It is the headshot showing her cross-eyed with a fly on her nose that wins the contest for her, providing the judges with a good laugh instead of a dime-a-dozen beauty shot. Shrugging off her rags with the money to buy some new clothes, and with a train ticket in hand, she heads for Hollywood, only to find that the contest was a scam and that there is no studio contract waiting for her, only the same struggle to crash into a studio and get noticed that others face.
Ella Cinders offers some sight gags to tickle our fancy, but they pale in comparison to what Moore does on her own. For example, desperate to win the contest, she steals a book on acting off the chest of her sleeping sister and tries to follow instructions. Notably, the book says that being able to act with your eyes is the key to success (and an interesting take on acting in the silent era especially, with the cross-eyed look that catapulted Ben Turpin to comic fame included in the book). Director Green offers special effects of Moore apparently crossing and swirling her eyes in different directions to get laughs, but I was more impressed with her attempts to match the looks in her mirror. Similarly, when posing for the headshot, she is a mass of uncertainty, putting her hat at different angles, clutching some tulle around her face, leaning her chin on her finger, and other strange poses that are funny and charming at the same time. In Hollywood, she is thrown out repeatedly by a studio guard she is trying to get past. Her final attempt is to wrap a silk throw around herself and put a mannequin head on top to disguise herself. The image is kind of amusing, but when a dog unmasks her, her tear through the studio onto different sets is guilelessly funny.
The most famous scene in the film is her encounter with Harry Langdon. She sees him holding a door closed during a scene, and goes to his aid with the line, “They’re after me, too.” The gags Harry uses to hide her from the guard are pretty standard stuff—bobbing up and down to conceal her behind him, throwing a blanket over her and pretending she’s a table he’s having lunch at. For my money, the best bit is when she accidentally plugs a lion’s tail into an electric outlet and runs for her life. She ends up screaming for help on a set on which a fire is being simulated with blow torches, and the director, thinking she’s the actress he hired, congratulates her even after he sees the real cause of her distress. Naturally, she is put under contract and eventually wins herself a Prince Charming—George is actually wealthy, loves her, and goes to California to marry her.
I could quibble about details, and I certainly think the comedy bits are very routine and not very funny for modern tastes. But none of that matters because my sweet Colleen shines in every frame. She truly is incandescent, a warm and mirthful soul I love to spend time with whenever I can. Indeed, I found myself with an indelible smile on my face throughout my recent re-viewing of the film. Moore herself searched her whole life for prints of her many lost films without much success, but there is always hope that one will turn up somewhere the way Her Wild Oat did. Whenever and whatever it is, I’ll be there, communing with my favorite star.