Sunday, 2 November 2014

The British weren't coming, until… Nell Gwyn (1926)

“Whatever may be the shortcomings of English motion picture producers, if they can put together other pictures as simply and with as much dramatic effect as this story of Nell Gwyn they should have no difficulty obtaining a showing for them anywhere.” The New York Times 19th July 1926

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
This was one of three films he made with Gish whom he persuaded to decamp to London for a couple of seasons. Five years younger than sister Lillian, Dorothy had made a name for herself in comedy after their joint debut in Griffith’s An Unseen Enemy (1912). It must have been hard having a sister like Lil but Dorothy was no slouch as she showed in Orphans of the Storm (1922).

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...
Wilcox directs her well and creates an enjoyable “character study” of the orange seller/sex-worker/actress who came to find such favour with Charles II that she gave birth to two sons, one of whom his father made the Earl of Burford. Charles had many mistresses and many offspring – at least twelve – but his relationship with Nell is the one that endured: sixteen years together and forever in popular history.

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
The story begins with the irrepressible Nell entertaining her friends in her humble home off Drury Lane. Nell dances and throws her head back in the first of many Fairbanks “aha’s”! as two war veterans Toby Clinker (Judd Green) and Dickon (Edward Sorley) lap it up in spite of the disapproval of her realist mother (Sydney Fairbrother): dancing won’t pay the rent.

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
Charles accepts the gift of an orange as he goes into the theatre observed by Samuel Pepys (Johnny Butt) who sits in the audience half-watching and half-writing: don’t you just hate those in-performance texters!

Please switch off your mobile writing instrument
Nell also watches... carefully mimicking the actors she would so like to join on stage. In reality she was already on stage by the time she met Charles with a reputation for comedy more than for drama - just like Dorothy. Charles and James came to see her in John Dryden’s The Maiden Queen – a play Pepys saw three times: “…it is impossible to have Florimel’s part, which is the most comical that ever was made for woman, ever done better than it is by Nelly.”

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...
Back home Nell excitedly bounces off the walls as she tells her cynical mother of her good fortune.  Six years before Jean Harlow in Red Dust, Dorothy takes a bath in a barrel even though she has barely a cloth for a towel and seems not to know how to work the soap. Royal gifts arrive and she dances around in new shoes and silk stockings.

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…

Four candles...
Nell certainly gave to charity and did leave a legacy to the inmates of Newgate Prison but her role in the creation of the Chelsea hospital for army veterans is uncertain. Yet when Samuel Pepys keeps a risqué picture of you in his office and when John Dryden praises your greatest attribute as native wit.. there’s no doubt Nell left her mark on the great and the good.

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
Gish was 28 when she made this film and was but a few features away from shifting back to the stage. She made sporadic cinematic appearances up to Otto Preminger’s Oscar-nominated The Cardinal (1963) but mostly preferred the immediacy of the theatre… just like Nell perhaps?

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.

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