Monday, 30 December 2013

When Buddy met Mary … My Best Girl (1927)

This was Mary Pickford’s last silent film and was produced at the technical high point of the form with Sam Taylor directing and Charles Rosher’s camera generating those smooth “european trick shots” Hollywood had come to love. Like all films of the late period, they feel more modern than they should do given our exposure to the dulled ice age of early talkies which left events stuck in studio, actors huddled around immobile microphones… But here, the camera swoops, travels on speeding motorcars and, most importantly, shows us two people falling in love.

Whether or not the two stars began their relationship with this film is open to debate and it would be a full ten years before they tied the knot to begin their 42-year marriage, but it feels like it.

The future Mrs and Mr Pickford...
Now, for the sums… Mary Pickford was 35 – just a little older than Zooey Dechannel and a little younger than Amy Adams – and still able to carry off the shop girl ingénue. Charles “Buddy” Rogers was just 22… considerably younger than Mary’s hubby Douglas Fairbanks who was 44 at the time.

Regardless of the events off-set, the film stands as one of Pickford’s best and most enduring: a thousand rom-coms have followed in its footsteps including those still featuring Zooey and Amy.

Pots and pans
Pickford produced and it’s hard not to imagine that she also co-directed parts of the film. Our first glimpse of her is of her feet as she attempts to carry too numerous a collection of pots and pans in the department store in which she works. As one pan is picked up another falls to the floor until she has to resort to sticking her feet in them to lift them along – it’s inventively daft and shows us all we need to know about the brave and gutsy shop girl, Maggie Johnson.

Maggie works in Merril’s Department Store – I have a penchant for films set in 1920s department stores: think of Clara Bow in It! or Brent and Brooks in Love ‘em and Leave ‘em… places where society mixes almost on a level and where there’s always the possibility of unexpected dalliances across the class divide.

Are you being served?
A young man sidles up to Maggie’s counter and starts to ask her flirty questions about the various items for sale… turns out he’s the new guy 'Joe' Grant (Rogers) who eventually gets assigned to Maggie for ad hoc induction to the world of the store.

The two get on well and soon share their lunchtimes sitting cosy in a packing crate in the staff room. It is here where we see Mary’s first prolonged screen kiss: a side-on affair that conveys much delicate passion.

Maggie invites Joe home, where he gets to meet the family: Pa Johnson (Lucien Littlefield) a man disorientated by the curious position in which life has left him, not least of which is his easily-shocked and narcoleptic wife (Sunshine Hart) whom he frequently has to rouse with smelling salts.

Then there’s sister Liz (Carmelita Geraghty) a jazz baby hanging around with decidedly-dodgy men and, as a result, in constant conflict with her parents.

Sunshine Hart, Carmelita Geraghty, Mary, Pat Harmon and Lucien Littlefield
Maggie is ashamed of their bad humour and pretends that they are rehearsing for a play, leaving Joe waiting on their porch for their first date.

But she’s not the only one hiding something… “Joe” is actually Joseph, the son and heir to the Merrill fortune who has been assigned to the shop by his father Robert (Hobart Bosworth) in order to learn the business without his name giving him advantage.

His mother Esther (Evelyn Hall) also has ambitions and wants to see him married off to the winsome and wealthy Millicent Rogers (Avonne Taylor). Joe doesn’t appear to have any strong feelings about this social arrangement, at least not yet at any rate.

Buddy Rogers
Joe does well at the store and is soon being promoted but he’s also getting closer and closer to Maggie. To two spend a blissful journey in the back of a truck after walking through traffic as if it wasn’t there: totally absorbed in each other’s presence. This section reminded me strongly of the closing sequence of Sunrise (made some months earlier…) with the couple walking through the staged street traffic…

Joe and Maggie go on a rain-sodden date as he ignores his parent’s request to dine with them – they are planning to announce his engagement. He persuades Maggie to venture to the Merrill’s house to see if the family’s oft-pronounced equal treatment would extend to their being offered dinner.

Winking his way past the doorman and butlers he gets them to lay on a meal whilst Maggie looks around in nervous amazement: even more delighted by her dazzling young man than before. But, they are rudely interrupted by Joe’s parents as they arrive back home with the decorative Millicent in tow… the game’s up!

Meanwhile, Liz’ fella has really dropped her in it and they are being processed before the night court. Unable to contact the brains of the family, the Johnson’s are helpless to prevent their younger daughter from being locked up.

As luck would have it, Maggie, having tearfully made her excuses and left, encounters Ma and Pa downtown as they enter the court: she goes into battle for her sister in front of a Judge played by Mack Swain.

But Joe isn’t done yet and goes out in search of his “best girl” – he’s not going to be swayed. A helpful hobo spots events and directs him to the court where he is in time to see Maggie’s eloquent defence and to end up in clink after thumping Liz’s no good boyfriend.

Maggie brings order to the court
It makes the papers and there’s a big stink but, will class barriers be broken and will true love run smooth… We been here before my friends and I have no intention of revealing what happens.
My Best Girl is a lovely film and one to file under heart-warming. Rogers is good in the same way he was in Wings: wholehearted and sincere… my teenage daughter recognised those regular features instantly!

But he’s not the one you watch. It’s Mary’s show and she demonstrates an undimmed intensity with a face and a voice that can almost be heard… so close is she to the talkies. She performs particularly well in the ending section I’m not mentioning and there was hardly a dry eye in our living room: how can she do that when we can almost see it coming!? Amazing skill: a wizard and a true star!

The look of love...
I watched the Milestone DVD which comes with some precious home movie footage showing Mary and Buddy’s wedding and their honeymoon – a nice touch. Whatever the ups and downs of the decades to follow this was one of those Hollywood marriages built to last. It may have started here in front of our very eyes.

My Best Girl is available direct for institutional use from Milestone or from Amazon’s second hand sellers – seems it’s out of print and becoming collectable. Hopefully the good folks at Milestone have a Blu-ray in the works, this is indeed amongst the very best of Pickford.

Trivia: Carole Lombard has an uncredited appearance as a Flirty Salesgirl whilst Charles Rosher deservedly received an Academy Award nomination for his cinematography. He shot so many of Pickford’s films not to mention his other projects with Herr Murnau.

Carole Lombard and Buddy

Friday, 27 December 2013

The art of war... The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

'No people in the world other than the English would have had the courage, in the midst of war, to tell the people such unvarnished truth…' Anton Walbrook to Winston Churchill (allegedly…)

Of all the war films made by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger perhaps none challenged the notion of propaganda quite so much as Colonel Blimp. They didn’t want simple preaching but to engage their viewers in their own rational support for war. There are no simple atrocities, no easy clichés and there are even Germans to admire: following on from Eric Portman’s character in 49th Parallel – a brave soldier doing what he must for his country.

Roger Livesey and Anton Walbrook
Perhaps Pressburger’s European view gave them “balance” but I don’t think he was alone in thinking that in order to truly win support for the war you had to help people really understand it and not just generate hate. You also had to respect the opposition and to differentiate professional soldiers from the Nazis: ”the single most evil concept ever bought to life by the human mind”.

In Colonel Blimp extra spice is added by the Archers’ ostensible attack on the traditionalist “Blimps” running the forces who were more wedded to misguided concepts of honour than the need to fight like-with-like against a new generation of enemies who are entirely unrestrained by principle and the Rules of War.

Blimp in the bath
Naturally, elements of the establishment were confused... The fact that Colonel Blimp had been a cartoon strip specialising in buffoon-bashing didn’t help and nor did the good Colonel’s vague resemblance to Britain’s larger than life Prime Minister…But it was never that simple: it never is in the films of Powell and Pressburger.

Colonel Blimp starts off showing us the old and the complacent: stubbornly sticking to the way things should be done… but then it shows us how this man came to be. Turns out he was far more daring, far more dashing than even the young Captain who decides to humble him by attacking six hours before their manoeuvers are due to start.

Protean charmer...
Powell cleverly swims us back in time after Blimp, (Clive Wynne-Candy - played by protean charmer Roger Livesey) pushes this upstart into the bath at his club then emerges out the other side forty years and several dozen promotions lighter. He’s a hero from the Boer War recently awarded the Victoria Cross and  he sets off to Germany in order to help a young Englishwoman who has sought his help in silencing a pro-Boer propagandist: Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr – we’ll see more of her…).

Deborah Kerr 1 and Deborah Kerr 3...
Candy can’t help but get into trouble driven on by chivalry and his sense of duty. He ends up having to fight a sabre duel with a German officer, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) another who respects honour above his own life and even his natural distaste for the duel. This scene is so well done, as the build-up is shown  in painstaking detail…all the rules of the Prussian duel-book are followed and then, as our two men engage with elegant flashing blades, Powell’s camera lifts up and far above the gymnasium, as snow falls in picture-book silence over the scene around the hall.

The duel...
Cut forward a few hours to a hospital in which both men are recovering, Candy from a slice across his upper lip – eight stiches - and Kretschmar-Schuldorff from a gash on his forehead – 12 stitches… a score-draw, honours almost even. Edith is persuaded to stay on to help provide a cover for Clive’s unauthorised adventure: the fight is to have been over her honour and not the respective armed forces of Britain and Germany. How elegantly the rules are obeyed by both sides.

Anton Walbrook and Deborah Kerr
If it wasn’t clear by now, it soon is apparent that these two military men share similar values. In spite of speaking little of each other’s language the two soon become firm friends with Edith as an interpreter, card companion and romantic interest… Clive is too unaware to notice but even as he congratulates Theo on his engagement to Edith he realises that he has made the most awful mistake…

Clive leaves but he never stops loving Edith. As the year’s roll on and into the War to End All Wars… he keeps seeing her face and eventually marries a Yorkshire nurse Barbara Wynne (Deborah Kerr), after the war, who looks very much the same.

Deborah Kerr 2 and Roger Livesey
Clive encounters Theo in defeat at a prisoner of war camp and the two eventually re-connect as Clive and his other victorious friends try to persuade the German that there’s life after defeat…

Time shifts forward shown by the growth of Clive’s hunting trophies in his den… a succession of Zebra, Rhino, Elephants and other now endangered species attach themselves all showing the locations of their “bagging”  -  a clever device: how else to show the extent of Empire?

Livesey and Laurie
Another shift to 1943 sees Clive considerably older and now relegated to the Home Guard. He’s still aided by his former driver from the Great War: Murdoch played by the great John Laurie…without whom no P&P film would be complete! His new driver is altogether younger and better looking:  a redhead called Angela "Johnny" Cannon (Deborah Kerr again…).

So, women have gone from agitating for men to help them, getting stuck in as war nurses and finally to active combat (albeit as a driver) – so equal they even have men’s names…

"Johnny’s” boyfriend is the over-eager young man who shows Clive and co that you now need to break the rules of war in order to win and this is a message reinforced by Theo as Clive encounters him again as a refugee trying to escape the Nazis.

Theo is detained by suspicious immigration officers and gives a moving account of just how low his country has fallen under the rule of men he barely considers German. This was highly personal not just for the Austrian Walbrook but also for the Hungarian Pressburger whose grandson, Kevin Macdonald, confirms just how close to home the feelings expressed were.

Wake up calls...
Theo too feels that Clive and many Britons needed to adjust to the requirements of fighting total war against an enemy that would do anything to win: never mind kicking off early. Clive cannot take it in and refuses to accept his redundancy even after he gets side-lined… Yet, it’s the death of the Blimp but not of the Colonel … his self-respect is re-focused and he knows there’s still a place for his values only if he puts his faith in those of the younger generation.

Like all Powell and Pressburger films, Colonel Blimp leaves much to ponder but by treating its audience with such respect it leaves them thinking even at a time when the government just wanted them fighting. Yet the majority of those who saw the film would have been on the Home Front and would have needed such rational fare to help sustain them through the closing years of this bitter conflict… a time when the game genuinely did change and Britain did indeed have to find itself anew in the World that remained.

The admirable Anton
The three (five!?) leads are magnificent, Deborah Kerr playing three women kind of based on one, with such conviction that you might be confused if you didn’t already know her face so well. Anton Walbrook acts in such powerful silence that he draws the eye in almost every scene: so sad and angrily-dignified, he sees much more than Candy, having lost early enough in life to learn the skills of adaption.

Then there’s Roger Livesey, initially so unrecognisable as the dashing Laird of Kiloran from I Know Where I’m Going, but who clearly relishes the chance to play a character with less depth and more journey… Were P&P addressing the nature of heroism? Was Candy too insensitive to be a real hero or just blinded by absolute certainty and belief in the greatness of his country?

Old and middle-aged Candy
The Archers, as always, manage to celebrate Britishness whilst also poking holes in its contradictions. But you’re always more hurtful to the one you love and above all they believe in the fairness as much as the fighting spirit: trusting in both.

All filmed in amazing Technicolor by the magical Jack Cardiff, Colonel Blimp looks freshly minted in the recently-released Blu-Ray edition. It comes with an old-fangled DVD and a half hour documentary on the film along with comments on the restoration from Archers mega-fan Martin Scorsese.

I haven’t seen the film for a while and it’s never looked better: Powell and Pressburger on Blu-Ray…you know it makes sense!

It’s available from Movie Mail and all Amazons at very reasonable prices…

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Oh Mabel, you’re so fine, hey… Mickey (1918)

This was amongst the biggest grossing films of 1918 along with Stella Maris, yet the world knows a lot more of Mary Pickford than it does of Mabel Normand.

This may be due to her early passing, the loss of many of her feature films and certainly her unexplained involvement in the murder of William Desmond Taylor but this woman was one of the greatest stars of the silent era from the 1910’s up until the mid-twenties. She played a major role in the development of screen comedy, starred ahead of Chaplin and Arbuckle, directed her own features aged just 20 and was an almost unique* screen presence.

Our Mabs and a moggie
Mickey is ostensibly a straight-ahead comedy about a hillbilly orphan made good but there’s plenty of subversive invention from Normand who creates a feel-good cohesion that must have been worth its weight in gold at the time: Mickey’s a girl who defies convention and makes good against all odds.

Mickey is first seen extending an arm to surreptitiously steal her adopted father’s hat. She is followed outside by the family mutt and, amidst some confusion kicks off a rescue attempt at their mine as she is believed to have fallen down the shaft. She emerges from a hole carrying their over-inquisitive cat.

George Nichols and Minnie Devereaux
Fearing a beating from her step-dad, Joe Meadows (George Nichols), she tries to hide his belt and makes their donkey eat it, much to her “mother’s” delight – Joe’s housekeeper  Minnie played by the stern-looking Minnie Devereaux (who also has a belting smile to go with her bruiser arms).

Mickey’s too much for the old man and he wonders if he should send her to her aunt in New York to learn some manners “around female company”. Mickey’s father died and left her in the hands of his business partner in the hope that one day their Tomboy Mine (see what they did there?) would make good… many years on it still hasn’t and he’s at his wit’s end.

Laura La Varnie, Minta Durfee and Lew Cody (the future Mr Normand!)
We are shown a glimpse of Mickey’s fancy relations: money-grabbing Aunt, Mrs Drake  (Laura La Varnie)  aiming to marry off her shrill daughter Elsie (Minta Durfee) as profitably and as quickly as possible and her lush of a brother (Lew Cody) who spends more on horses than his family.

Aunt Evil’s main hope is, co-incidentally, a mine-owner as well, only a rich one… the answer to all the family’s prayers as they struggle in their upper middle class poverty trap.

Wheeler Oakman and Mabel
Before he can pledge his troth, the moneyed miner, Herbert Thornhill (Wheeler Oakman), has to go and sort out some border disputes on his mine and as luck would have it, he discovers Mickey hiding under the bed in his hotel room. She is on the run with her pooch who has just mauled the local store-keeper’s legs and leaves an immediate impression on the city guy.

She rides off to save her dog from the baying mob but Herbert follows, intrigued by her strange exuberance… Rebuffed by her step-dad’s caution, Herbert never-the-less pursues his interest in Mickey especially after he spies her skinny dipping within sight of his theodolite… (a throwback to her days as a Sennett bathing beauty: The Diving Girl returns!).

Herbert spots the diving belle...
But, before things can really develop, Joe sends her off to her aunt. Unfortunately Auntie is not so welcoming once she discovers that Mickey’s mine is worthless and sets her to work.

Normand makes merry with this city Cinderella situation, stealing a mouth full of cherries from cakes, cleaning up in her own hap-hazard way and bounding up the stairs to slide down the bannisters. She has the same energies as Pickford and, in place of the latter’s looks has an open honest charm that makes her an automatic ally for the watching audience. She knows we’re watching but doesn’t let on aside from unselfconscious face-pulling occasionally reminiscent of Stan Laurel (or the other way round as previously noted…).

Lobby card showing Mickey's chaotic cleaning
Herbert, thinking that he’s lost her for good, agrees to marry cousin Elsie but he is reunited with Mickey as she gate-crashes the engagement party. He’s made a mistake and turns to his close friend and attorney, Tom Rawlings (Tom Kennedy), for help… he wants the one he can’t have and not the one he’s contractually obliged too.

Two reversals of fortune spice things up as Herbert’s ownership of his mine comes under threat, leaving him potentially penniless and imprisoned whilst Mickey’s mine finally strikes gold. The girl is unaware though as she has already been jettisoned by her Evil Aunt just moments before she sneakily read the telegraph intended for her niece… A desperate chase ensues in which the family tries to over-take her train and secure the return of their new meal ticket… Mickey features not one but two near miss automobile rail crossings: stunt drivers must have had this trick of pat by 1917…

Californian crossings must have been littered with crushed cars...
Can you guess how this is all going to pan out? Even if you can, it’s worth seeing it through, there are a few twists and turns and a marvelous horse race as Reggie is revealed as the most malevolent member of the clan…

Mickey proceeds at quite a pace and is an enjoyable light-hearted romp on a par with Mary Pickford’s comedies of the time. Mabel acts well and shows she had more to her range than just the Sennett shorts she was famous for.

I watched a so-so copy that is available freely from the Internet Archive whilst it’s also on fuzzy YouTube and you can’t help feeling that Normand must be one of the worst catered for stars of the period in terms of restoration and digitization .  She’s in the magnificently-restored Tillie’s Punctured Romance of course and features alongside Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle in their Keystone compilation DVDs, but you wish there was more…

Mabel in Won in a Cupboard (1914)
Thankfully a couple of shorts have also featured on the “Treasures” series from the National Film Preservation Council  - available here.

The latest includes Won in a Cupboard (aka Won in a Closet) from 1914, directed by Mabel when she was all of 21. It’s typical Sennett fare, featuring Mabel as a young country girl prevented from pursuing her rather goofy-looking “ideal” man by her stern Sheriff of a father. The old man is, however, also pursuing the young man’s mother and hilarity ensues when the two become trapped in the titular closet/cupboard, mistaken for a “dangerous” old tramp.

There are pratfalls aplenty as the locals nervously try to catch the miscreant only to uncover more than they bargained for.  An enjoyable tale and one of hundreds Normand featured in before progressing to features like Mickey.

Sadly for Mabel she was in the early stages of tuberculosis and this gradually led to her becoming addicted to her medication as well as having an increasingly direct effect on her health. But we should remember her for the sheer joy and exuberance she bought to these films. A talent that enabled Mickey to become the blockbuster it was even if its star was less than convinced of its quality. Now, that’s a true professional at work: no second best.

There’s a lot more about Mabel Normand on William Thomas Sherman’s excellent site dedicated to the star. He’s also written a huge 450 page source book - now in its 6th edition -  that covers her life and films. It’s available for download off Sherman’s site and contains an amazing amount of detailed research: exactly what Mabel deserves.

Changing faces: Mabel in The Nickel Hopper (1926) and Won in a Cupboard
 *She may not have been – actually – unique as there is a theory that there were two Mabels… the original and another, slightly more toothsome, version who was originally a stunt double but was used to increase the output of Mabel product. Now, this all sounds quite improbable but Sherman for one does not discount it.

For me, whilst this doubling up might be conceivable for the earlier short comedies, the development of technique and increased use of close-ups must render it unlikely that the performer on show in Mickey was anything other than who she claimed to be.

The truth may be more down to the impact of Mabel’s fluctuating health on her physiology… in parts of Mickey she looks tired and fuller of face especially when compared with the hyper-active sprite on show in Tillie. But she still demonstrates the same energy here… perhaps with more effort and more than a little “help”.

“We had faces…” and they never really looked that alike when they were twenty feet high on screen?

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

“Ready for my claws-up, Mr DeMille…” Male and Female (1919)

So much to admire about Cecil B. DeMille and so much to lay at his door...

A highly-gifted director, he created America’s first feature The Squaw Man in 1914 along with the adult sophistication of The Cheat a year later. He seemed to effortlessly create good-looking, seamless stories yet he found out what he thought audiences “really” wanted and started to give it to them – the first director to sell out or the first director to just cash in.

Amongst his key themes were an unashamed focus on his female leads coupled with a penchant for historical epics that enabled the depiction of less inhibited times and, simply put… less dressed times.

Gloria Swanson, Thomas Meighan and Lila Lee
Male and Female is an early template for this approach and there are clear comparisons with his later work… In 1932’s The Sign of the Cross it’s Claudette Colbert famously bathing in goat’s milk (it’s not pasteurised…it barely goes past her chest!) whilst here we have twenty-year old Gloria Swanson alone with just a few maids and a couple of cameramen in a giant and completely gratuitous sunken bath.

Gloria and Claudette take their baths
The later film has an extraordinary escalation of savage punishments with alligators and then gorillas moving in on bikini clad Christian girls tied under logs whereas Male and Female has the famous scene with La Swanson at the mercy of a lion: the no doubt heavily-drugged beast, just about capable of laying its paws on her unclothed back…

Scantily clad and in animal peril...1932 and 1919
Now, this is all very thrilling but is it good, honest film making or just the first major steps in the development of Cecil’s cinema of exploitation…?

Male and Female is an adaptation of JM Barrie’s highly successful stage play, The Admirable Crichton from 1902.  One feels that the themes of class and entitlement examined by the play’s dislocation of the “natural order” were played down in DeMille’s film… starting with the re-titling – “now, why didn’t I think of that…” Barrie sardonically commented.

The admirable Thomas Meighan
Never-the-less, things start well enough as DeMille shows the pampered household of Lord Loam (Theodore Roberts) and Lady Agatha 'Aggie' Lasenby (Mildred Reardon) and her family as they start their day: shoes cleaned, room service, maid-assisted bathing: all mod cons.

Holding this all together is the head butler, Crichton (Thomas Meighan) a man of supernatural calm who most assuredly knows his place and that of his staff. In spite of this, Crichton hankers after the affection of young Lady Mary Lasenby (Gloria Swanson) who, inspire of her indolence and high-level airs, has an allure the seasoned servant cannot resist – is this a crush based on position or can there ever be anything more for them… as people and as a man and woman.

Lila Lee and Crichton's shoe...
This situation is mirrored by the crush the young scullery maid, Tweeny (Lila Lee) has on Crichton…. He is out of her reach, devoted to the family and to one member above all others.

How the attract such devotion is hard to fathom as Lady Mary is rude and exacting, her cousin Honourable Ernest 'Ernie' Wolley (Raymond Hatton) is a wastrel and even her intended Lord Brockelhurst (Robert Cain) seems more interested in other women… almost all of them. Clearly Mary could do better… but how? These people seem the victims of their status almost as much as the people in their service.

Go on a boat?!
Someone has the bright idea to go on a cruise and they take their servants and other possessions with them. All is going swimmingly for a while with the toffs actually fairly bored by the rigours of the wider ocean… But all this changes as the ship is driven onto rocks by a distracted sailor and so begins the fight of their lives.

The family manage to escape to a desert island (in reality, just off the coast of Santa Barbara) where Crichton soon proves his worth, much to the chagrin of his betters who cannot see why he feels so empowered – he may be able to start fires and build shelter, but they’re still “paying his wages” aren’t they?

Gilligan's Island!
Crichton immediately realises that the party has little chance of survival unless he takes charge and helps them. After some initial indignation, the family are forced to fall in as they realise the real dangers of their new world. Thus society becomes inverted and Crichton becomes their lord and master.

Whether this Orwellian turn-about was in Barrie’s original play, I’m not aware, but it feels slightly at odds with the deference and respect he has otherwise shown the family: to suddenly start squad bashing and bullying them – even for their own good – seems like power has gone to his head.

Never-the-less, the new alpha male, finds himself the centre of attention as Tweeny and Mary compete for his affections… Lord Brockenhurst is a long way away…and up to no good anyway with a maid re-employed from Loam's household.

What's good for the goose etc...
Crichton has a fantasy which he now shares with Mary that he had been a Babylonian king in an earlier life and she had been a Christian slave. DeMille gladly takes us back to the brutality and opulence of this imagined time and even throws in some lions and a young Bebe Daniels for good measure.

Things don’t end well for the slave girl Mary and this is a guilt Crichton feels he still carries with him: now is his chance to put things right.

Swanson, Bebe Daniels and Meighan in Babylon
But, just as it seems that Mary and Crichton will become the island’s first couple wed in a Christian ceremony, a boat is sighted and his own expertly-constructed coastal fire alarm brings their rescuers to them…

Back in Blighty, will Mary stay true to Crichton once he is relegated to his old post and, more to the point, will he still feel it appropriate to marry this woman so clearly above his station.

The ending is not what you might expect but that’s maybe more down to the play than the film! I won’t give it away… it’s still an interesting premise.

Back to life...
In spite of DeMille’s sheer “obviousness” it’s difficult to entirely dislike his work at this early stage. Things were gentler than they ended up in later works and there is an interesting message in the work he chose to adapt even submerged beneath his populist embellishments.

It’s also worth mentioning Gloria Swanson who gives the kind of performance that made her one of *the* stars. Here at twenty I found it hard to reconcile her with Norma Desmond but you watch Teddy at the Throttle and her other earlier shorts of the post-war period and you start to understand her abilities. Maybe not as funny as Mabel or as energetic as Mary, she, never-the-less, brought her own unique sensibilities.

Her eyes were incredibly expressive and she was a demure clothes horse when she chose to be. She also has an intelligence that unpins her performance and a slightly quirky beauty which helped her to stand out. Was she well served by Mr DeMille? Certainly in this film she stars and her bravery in pushing on with the lion scene – in spite of his misgivings (reverse psychology?) – deserves respect.

Did it add much to the story? Probably not, but certainly did to the spectacle… no one ever lay down with a live lion!

Male and Female is available from  Amazon on its own as part of the Swanson box set. This also includes a number of her shorter comedies and excellent new scores all round.