13th 05 - 2011 | 4 comments »

Ella Cinders (1926)

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.

23rd 07 - 2006 | 1 comment »

Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926)

Director: Harry Edwards

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In the pantheon of silent film clowns led by the Big Three—Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd—Harry Langdon is barely remembered. Yet in his time, his popularity was equal to the Big Three, and he made some timeless classics. He was the first silent clown to whom I was drawn when I first started watching shorts from this bygone era on a PBS series called “The Toy that Grew Up.” I was instantly captivated by his babyfaced sweetness as he negotiated peril after peril to reach his happy ending.

Langdon, a major vaudeville star, first made an impact on the silver screen in Mack Sennett shorts as the innocent man-child character created for him by Frank Capra, then a writer. This character went straight to the hearts of moviegoing audiences and propelled Langdon to stardom. He formed his own production company and inked a six-picture deal with First National. The three features he created with Capra under this deal, including Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, rival the best of the films of the Big Three.

In Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, Langdon plays Harry Logan, the son of a broken-down cobbler named Amos Logan (Alec B. Francis) who is on the verge of eviction from his shop. He can’t compete with Burton Shoes, a corporation whose nationwide billboard campaign is driving independent shoemakers out of business. Even as Amos finagles an extra three months’ occupancy out of his landlord and sends Harry off to raise the rent money, John Burton (Edwards Davis) is unveiling a new publicity stunt to cement his stranglehold on the American market. He has invited champion race walkers from all over the world to compete for a $25,000 prize by walking across the United States wearing Burton Shoes.

As the contestants assemble at Burton’s East Coast factory, Harry unwittingly is drawn into the race by the imperious world champion Nick Kargas (Tom Murray), who commandeers Harry to carry his luggage. Burton’s daughter Betty (Joan Crawford), whose image on the popular billboard has won Harry’s heart, sees Kargas heap abuse on Harry. She brings Harry the shoes and jersey he needs to enter the race and urges him to compete, promising him a date in California at the end of the walk. A thoroughly smitten Harry signs on.

Among the wonderful bits in this energetically paced film is the double-take Harry does when he turns away from the image of Betty he has been mooning over only to see the real Betty, dressed exactly as she is on the billboard, trying to catch his attention. He becomes incredibly shy, running away from her, then coming close again, then running away. He acts like a 3-year-old boy. We should be annoyed with him, but we aren’t. Langdon is so sincerely bashful that he charms us as well as Betty. And anyone who has the heavy-browed, Mommie Dearest picture of Joan Crawford in their head will find her unrecognizable as the beautiful, sympathetic ingenue who falls for Harry in this picture.

Another charming comic scene has a farmer complain to two police officers that someone is stealing his fruit. Of course, it is Harry, who has fruit stains all over his face and a bag of fruit bulging under his oversized jersey. As he tries to evade exposure as the thief, he moves the fruit behind him. This allows the head of a chicken he also has filched to poke through a hole in the jersey. I was helpless with laughter as Harry tries to hide the curious chicken. When next we see Harry, he is working on a chain gang. Don’t ask about the illogic of this turn of events within the context of the race—the gags in this sequence are just too good.

One gag that equals Harold Lloyd’s seemingly death-defying stunts occurs when Harry tries to outrun some policemen who are trying to return him to the chain gang from which he has escaped. He runs through a flock of sheep and scales a fence that is built right at the edge of a cliff. As he lowers himself over the fence, his jersey gets caught on a nail. He frees the material, only to find his belt hooked as well. As he starts to unbuckle the belt, he chances to look behind him at the sheer drop below. He gingerly rebuckles his belt, pulls a hammer from his voluminous pants, pulls nails out the fence, and nails his sweater to the wood. Of course, as he pulls nails out, he is disassembling the fence, and ends up tobaggoning down the side of the cliff to safety. The scene is hilarious and thrilling in the same way as Lloyd’s high-wire stunts.

Naturally, Harry wins the race and Betty. The final sequence of the film is the capper to Harry’s man-child persona. The now married and prosperous Harry and Betty look in on their baby. Of course, it is Langdon dressed in a bonnet and playing in a cradle. His impersonation is perfect, from the quick tears to the awkward playing with his own hands. This scene shows the true power of the character Harry Langdon perfected. Although his career went into decline through some bad choices, causing him to fade from view in the decades that followed, Langdon was a noble clown who deserves to be discovered by a whole new audience.

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