Thursday, 19 January 2017

Brunette ambition… Orchids and Ermine (1927), Cyrus Gabrysch, Kennington Bioscope

Introducing this screening of a 35 mm print he helped preserve whilst at the BFI, Glen Mitchell recalled corresponding with Colleen Moore at the time and her sadness at the loss of so many of her films. Amongst the lost was So Big (1924) which she considered her finest dramatic work and yet here, in this slight but very enjoyable film, was ample evidence of her abilities and unique cinematic charisma.

I’d previously only seen a very murky DVD of Orchids and Ermine and this was like watching a different film. Most precious of all was the chance to view Colleen in full beam and rarely can there have been anything on celluloid as heart-warming and compelling as her honest expressiveness: a smile that provokes instant sympathy and features that flash with the most genuine of human signals. She has an almost supernatural ability to convey emotion and you cannot fail to be pulled in by those brown and blue eyes (she had heterochromia).

After an early career as a standard-issue pretty foil for male heroes, Moore was told to study comedy and, avoiding the more salacious Sennet studio route, developed her skills at the Christie Film Company. Her breakthrough came in Flaming Youth (1923) (of which only a tantalising fragment survives) after which she was famous for her black bob -  the younger Louise Brooks was still dancing at this stage albeit with the same haircut which she'd sported from childhood. Moore before Brooksie, before Clara and after Olive was arguably the definitive flapper of the twenties.

Her persona is well reflected in this film with a character sure of her own direction and wanting success – fine flowers and fur – but not at the cost of her integrity and not without love.
Inspired by the fine life and deciding that her cat was no proper substitute for actual dead animal fur, 'Pink' Watson decides to quit her job in a cement factory and head for swanky Fifth Avenue. She applies for a role at a glamorous hotel and gets selected against a staircase full of glampusses on the grounds that she’s less obvious.

Moore and Mickey
Not that Pink’s lack of cheap signalling prevents her being hit on by the middle-aged millionnaires passing through the lobby. Whilst the assumption is that marrying a man for his money is uppermost on many women’s minds, at least Pink sets her sights higher, which is doubly unfortunate for a six-year old Mickey Rooney playing a man of modest stature, dwarfed by his wallet… a cute interlude.

Of course the first good-looking millionaire, Richard Tabor (Jack Mulhall) will likely succeed where the sleazy ones fail but Mervyn LeRoy’s script is smart enough to put a spin on this too as Tabor, tired of womanly attention, switches places with his valet, Hank (Sam Hardy). Hank draws the heat, especially from the blonde ambition of Ermintrude De Vere (Gwen Lee), Pink’s colleague.

All kinds of confusion ensues and there are some thrilling shots of New York City in the rain as the real Richard climbs across from one tolley bus to another to catch up with a disbelieving and disapproving Pink who thinks he’s his valet.

In there somewhere – although I failed to spot her – is a young Gretchen Michaela Young who apparently gained a new first name, Loretta, after one of Colleen’s famous dolls.

Cyrus Gabrysch accompanied in crisply humorous style; melding perfectly with Miss Moore’s winsome comedy.

Paul Panzer and a tiny Gladys Hulette - Princess Nicotine (1909)
On tonight’s undercard were a quarter of interesting shorts musically-illustrated by John Sweeney. There were two animations from Bray Studios, The Artist’s Dream (1913) about a naughty dachshund over-eating two-dimensional sausages and How Animated Cartoons are Made from 1919. The answer is painstakingly and frame by frame…

First up though was the magnificent Princes Nicotine (1909) also known as The Smoke Fairy… probably no relation to the Sussex beat combo of the same name (see below for a random plug). A mischievous tobacco sprit plays with her master’s pipe ultimately setting fire to his desk and audacious special effects reinforce the impression that smoking this weed cannot be good for you.

Then there was an untitled travelogue filmed from a boat passing through an ancient Dutch town… faded tints adding to the eerie.

Stan, Ruby Blaine, Oliver and Thelma Hill - Two Tars (1928)
Tonight’s big bonus was in celebration of Oliver Hardy’s 125th birthday, Two Tars from 1928, the second year of Laurel and Hardy and a film that proved so potently funny that preview audiences at the time asked to see it twice. David Wyatt and Glenn Mitchell introduced with the latter revealing that the long traffic jam sequence had to be directed on horseback by James Parrott… it’s a riot of ill-tempered physical abuse that proves that violence only begets more violence. There’s not much funnier than cars being smashed up and people falling over though is there! Think Goddard’s Weekend only with more malevolence…

A grand start to ’17 from the Bioscope!

PS Here's those modern Smoke Fairies...  a lovely mix of home counties folk and delta blues.


  1. Great write up on one of my fave films! I'm very jealous; I wish I could have been at that screening!

    Incidentally, I thought I'd clear up a bit of misinformation regarding that bob hairstyle; Colleen Moore definitely popularized it, but she didn't inspire Louise Brooks to adapt it. Brooks had been sporting that hairstyle since she was a little girl, as photographic evidence in the doc included on Criterion's DVD of PANDORA'S BOX proves.

    1. I really should have remembered that! I recall the pictures of the mini-Brooksie! It's a haircut that defines independence and a free spirit. Thanks for reading. Best wishes,Paul

  2. Thanks much for the review. Blast! Why hadn't I heard about this screening sooner? Can we get this delightful film pitched to TCM? Actually roughly 10 to 12 minutes of random Fragments is all that seems to survive of FLAMING YOUTH. If there is a complete first reel someplace that's definitely news to me. You might be getting confused with THE PERFECT FLAPPER were I think they do have most of the opening reel? Would be delighted to learn if there is Moore. I know that Loretta was in NAUGHTY BUT NICE which I'm still hoping will be restored soon since it survives complete in the Barcelona Archive. Was not aware she appeared in ORCHIDS AND ERMINE though. "Loretta" also had a part in HER WILD OAT which I have been waiting to see debut on TCM or DVD for over a decade now. Since it's 2006 Academy Film Archive restoration was completed. And where oh where is the restored LILAC TIME???

    Jeffrey Allan

    1. There are some blemishes on the first reel but the print is good enough to eat and it would be great to see it digitally restored and rolled out!

      I must have miss-heard on Flaming Youth there's an eleven minute fragment on YouTube which looks like it was such a sensational film!

      Her Wild Oat is such a great title and hopefully will be seeing a lot Moore after Why Be Good? - Lilac Time especially!

      Thanks for reading.

      Best wishes.