Monday, 26 January 2015

Gloria excels… Stage Struck (1925), Barbican with the European Silent Screen Virtuosi

I will always be very grateful to Lucy Porter as the last time I saw her she was giving me a publishing industry award (two actually…) and, dressed in bow tie and dinner suit, my resemblance to John Gilbert was – arguably - never more in evidence. Here she was introducing two films from her silent film idol, Gloria Swanson which showcased the appeal of one of the era’s very best performers as well as Lucy’s superb judgement.

Like most modern viewers I initially viewed Gloria through the twisted prism of Norma Desmond – a woman traumatized by her fall from fame in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and yet watching her younger self in Teddy at the Throttle (1917) and Stage Struck, you forget the future; drawn in by her incredibly  vibrant, intelligent performing. She had the same kind of star power as Mary Pickford or Joan Crawford – wide-eyed girls next door with that little bit more who worked their socks off.

Above all else, as Lucy Porter said in her Sight and Sound article, you are captivated by just how likeable Gloria Swanson is… like Mary you simply want her to win.

Jennie's dream self
Directed by Allan Dwan, Stage Struck famously features opening and ending sequences filmed in the early two-colour Technicolor highlighting Swanson’s character Jennie Hagen’s dreams. Jennie works as a waitress in a café yet wants to be a star actress. The opening section is a pure dream of theatre from Dwan and his cinematographer George Webber, that shows Jennie superstar actress being rapturously received by her audience before declaring herself Salome and rising up some phantom steps to receive her famous platter… it looks as much like an Aubrey Beardsley picture as Nazimova’s film.

Jennie's Dream Boat: Lawrence Gray
As Salome stands triumphant the head of John the Baptist transforms into a plate of beans which begin to slide off the tray as the daydreaming arms that hold it drift back to reality with a bump.

In the frenetic every-day of the eatery the food needs to be a fast as the customers who steam in between shifts at the local factory. Jennie needs to be quick on her feet but too often she is distracted by thoughts of Orme Wilson (Lawrence Gray) – a man who flips pancakes with the aplomb of a cocktail mixologist much to the delight of the young women who gather at the window to watch him.

Beans for Baptist
Orme has distractions of his own though and longs to meet an actress like the dozens who are stuck on his bedroom wall – how can Jennie compete with all this two-dimensional perfection? There’s a funny sequence in which she mimics the pouting and preening of these impossible starlets only drawing the line at an image showing one with hardly a stich – really, Orme!

Jennie dreams of opening a restaurant with Orme but she has a plan to become an actress by correspondence course… Just $5 to hopefully show him she’s as good as any of them.

The Water Queen arrives
But the arrival of a steam boat carrying a theatrical troop brings Orme’s dreams closer to fruition. Led by Buck (ex-Sennett mainstay Ford Sterling) the players include one brassy blonde lead actress called Lillian Lyons (Gertrude Astor) who immediately catches his eye and Orme jumps at the chance to meet her.

Their first rendezvous at the café is sabotaged by Jennie with a series of comic accidents in the kitchen. Swanson is so winning in these moments, tough but vulnerable especially when measured against the towering thesp.

Jennie has pin-up envy...
There seems little she can do to knock Orme off course until, spotting her aspirations, quick Buck makes her an offer she can’t refuse… and the stage is set (literally) for a battle between blonde brawn and brunette grit… Gloria always seems to pick fights with the bigger girls, first Bebe Daniels and now Gertrude Astor: she never knows when she’s beaten!

This was very much Swanson in her comic pomp more defined than in her earlier work with Sennett and de Mille and with a romantic determination and pure will to happiness that sits far more comfortably than her Desmond desperation. This was the “face” she had then but it was also the spirit and the skill.

Jennie tries to be the actress Orme wants...
Teddy at the Throttle (1917), screened before the main film showed more of Gloria’s raw ability at just 18 working with animals and Wallace Beery, her husband at the time… just. Lucy Porter pointed out that their relationship was very much on the rocks at the time, so much so that Mack Sennett made sure they didn’t have to rehearse together. None of this impacted on the end result, a gag-packed spoof on the Perils of Pauline and other damsels who end up chained to train tracks… Swanson performed all of her own stunts but then her relationship with Beery clearly showed that she was afraid of nothing!

Gloria and Lawrence Grey in publicity still from Stage Struck
Superb accompaniment was provided by the European Silent Screen Virtuosi comprised of Geunter A Buchwald on piano and violin, Romana Todesco on double bass and Frank Bockious on percussion. They gave the films plenty of swing and perfectly matched the mood as virtuosi should.

Stage Struck was restored some time ago and looks well for its age, a shame the film is not available on home media. There’s an horrible bootleg copy of YouTube but this film and Gloria deserve a lot more. That said, seeing it in cinema with improvised accompaniment and a live – laughing - audience was the bee’s knees and we left buzzin’…