The quality of British silent film has, it seems, always been a subject for debate and, as Kevin Brownlow points out, Nell Gwyn was the first domestic product to meet with success in America and arguably that was largely due to the presence of its Ohioan star Dorothy Gish.
Having been early-adopters the Brits had seemingly lost their way by the time of the birth of Hollywood and so few films survive of the post-War years to prove how quick the creative recovery was. Director Herbert Wilcox had served in the British Army and was one of the leading lights aiming to create a vibrant indigenous industry in the twenties.
|Nell entertains the King and Lady Castlemaine|
Here she is on screen for almost the entire film and generates a likeable energy all of her own even when, it has to be said, there’s not much happening. I also have to say that I’ve never seen a Gish perform with such abandon and must observe that filming must have been delayed by regular wardrobe malfunctions… as the New York Times said, the story was not “spoiled by prudery.” There was no Hays Code in Europe and whilst the dresses are as low cut as possible there’s also no doubt about Nell’s relationship with Charles.
|An accident waiting to happen...|
The script was adapted from Marjorie Bowen’s novel, Mistress Nell Gwyn and, whilst it features a number of historically accurate quotes and situations, it doesn’t dwell too much on the details it has and leaves many others out altogether… a character study indeed and a straight-ahead love story between naughty Nell and charming Charles, The Merry Monarch.
|Judd Green, Dorothy Gish and Edward Sorley|
Nell sells oranges to the theatre goers – other consumables are glossed over - and one night encounters King Charles (Randle Ayrton) and his royal party en route to see a play. With him are brother James Duke of York (Gibb McLaughlin) and the Duke of Monmouth (Donald Macardle) who look with horror at the chirpy urchin charming the King.
|The Actress and the King|
|Please switch off your mobile writing instrument|
Charmed Charlie takes Nell for a post-performance meal and she ends up paying after none of the royal party has any money, her quote in the film is genuine: "Od's fish! But this is the poorest company I ever was in!” Charles arranges for her to get acting lessons and to join his theatre.
|A stranger to soap...|
Nell is naturally an instant hit on stage and whilst Charles is delighted his current concubine, Lady Castlemaine (Juliette Compton) starts to feel the heat of competition – although, in fairness, Charles was never really a one-woman man…
Charles whisks Nell away from Drury Lane and installs her in her own luxurious apartment, complete with silver bed. There’s a lovely Lubitsch-esque moment when Wilcox repeatedly cuts from Nell’s face to a candelabra as one by one the King extinguishes the flames… we and Nell know what this means and Gish’s face goes from mock concern to the most genuine of smiles.
And the rest, as they say, is history… or at least a thin sliver of it running through an easy-going comedy romance that does portray a believable romance whilst attempting to explain the heroine’s place in history if not necessarily the actuality…
Dorothy Gish zips through proceedings with energy and wit of her own: she is a class act able to mix the broad pantomime with high-impact dramatic moments… and you wonder how this film would have fared in America with say Betty Balfour in the role? No disrespect to Betty, who was top of the tree in Europe at the time.
|The King leads a table-top salute for Nell|
Nell Gwyn is newly-available from Grapevine Video as a DVD or download. It’s not a bad print – although better is available as the excerpts in Silent Britain show – and is accompanied by a lively score from Christopher Congdon.