Thursday, 2 March 2017

Oranges to California… Nell Gwyn (1926) with Meg Morley, Kennington Bioscope

Nell Gwyn was probably the first major British feature film to succeed in America following almost two decades of under-achievement from one of the birthplaces of motion pictures.

It’s a very competent picture directed by Herbert Wilcox with strong performances especially from Randle Ayrton as King Charles II and Juliette Compton as Nell’s rival for royal affection, but it it’s chief appeal is in the performance of Dorothy Gish from Ohio. The younger Gish sister is unbound and gives one of the most joyful performances I’ve seen in a silent film with a Fairbanks-ian energy from start to finish complete with head thrown back laughing and almost perpetual motion (a high-risk strategy given the lowest of low-cut costumes).

Sister Lillian couldn’t get away with either the abandon or the dresses: Dorothy is far from home and playing away with confidence and her own voice. Maybe she felt she had more technical experience than the Brits or maybe it was just the perfect role for the “Black Sheep Gish”…

In an interview in Photoplay Magazine, Dorothy said that growing up with the Pickfords, she and Mary were the ones who always “started things” whilst Lillian was put on a pedestal by both her mother and Mrs Pickford who said, “too good for this world.” Dorothy was The Little Disturber… and here she set about disturbing the heck out of Wilcox’s film.

The result is simply magnetic and it’s hard to watch anyone else and impossible not to smile along as our inventive orange seller/sex-worker/actress grabs opportunity with both hands and romances the King, becomes an actress and a fixture of British royal life for the 16 years leading up to the King’s death.

You can only wonder at the force of personality required to make the break from her humble origins and to win her Monarch’s love and a place in society for herself and then their two sons. Her influence on social policy is open to debate but Nell certainly did charitable work, leaving a legacy to the inmates of Newgate Prison and being involved – to some extent – in the establishment of the Chelsea Pensioners… a group of whom are seen waving through grizzly grey beards at the film’s end.

The script was adapted from Marjorie Bowen’s novel, Mistress Nell Gwyn, which makes a little merry with the facts – some of which I touched on in my original post of theGrapevine DVD. For this film the rest, as they say, is pop-history… or at least a thin sliver of it running through an easy-going comedy that does portray a believable romance whilst attempting to explain the heroine’s place in history if not necessarily the actuality…

Samuel Pepys was indeed a regular admirer of Nell’s theatre and kept a risqué picture of her in his study whilst the poet John Dryden praises Nell’s greatest attribute as native wit, forcing me to contain my inner Syd James… There is no doubt her glass-ceiling shattering career was historically significant.

It's good to be the King
Meg Morley – who accompanied throughout the evening - excelled with the excesses of court life and clearly enjoyed the mix of theatrical comedy and Gish intimacy. Tonally this must be an interesting film to play for as Dorothy pulls you in as any Gish does but then there is more comedy and light than delivered sister Lil’s occasional method grimness.

Dorothy and Lillian debut in An Unseen Enemy (1912)
Five years younger than Lillian, Dorothy had made a name for herself in comedy after their joint debut in Griffith’s An Unseen Enemy (1912) and this excellent short featured in the first half of tonight’s programme. It’s a tense affair with both sisters locked in a room and terrorised by a drunken thief firing a revolver through a small hole in the wall. Both women are remarkable in this feature and their unconscious styles reveal themselves as different even at this stage: Dorothy does not have Lillian’s intricacy but is no less compellingly believable.

I had previously watched the Grapevine DVD, which is tinted and in decent quality but tonight the Bioscope projected the BFI’s 35mm film and this was a revelation in overall looks: a real treat. Nell deserves to be more widely available as a showcase for Dorothy Gish as well as being the film that may have launched a British Invasion had we the product and marketing reach to follow it up.

Earle Rodney and Dorothy Devore negotiate with the parents...
Before this was an interesting cross-dressing comedy called Know Thy Wife (1918) directed by Al Christie and featuring Dorothy Devore as the fiancé of Earle Rodney whose parents want him to marry the nice girl back home. But he has the perfect plan – nothing can go wrong, at all… dress Dot up as his best man and, er, somehow avoid getting hitched to his folks’ favoured fiancé. There are some interesting confusions – think Lubitsch I Don’t Want to be a Man – before Dorothy’s hair gives her away.

First up was a mystery… a Griffith’s short called Those Awful Hats (1909) a comedy of errors or more specifically over-large headgear that obstructs cinema audiences view of the films – even today, the main reason I refuse to wear a top hat. It’s all straightforward enough except for the fact that projected on the screen was Corner in Wheat, a film made *after* the one in which it features?! The story goes that film students may have inserted the second film years later using a matte projection technique unknown in 1912 – possibly Francis Ford Coppola after one too many in the UCLA Film Studies bar?

If anyone knows anymore, please make a comment: this is a job for The Silent Detective!

UPDATE: The film is definitely not Corner of Wheat and the most likely scenario seems to be that suggested on the Classic Movie Hub: "The film utilized the Dunning-Pomeroy Matte process (an early predecessor to blue-screening). When this film was originally being restored, the elements for the film that is projected in the picture were lost. As an inside joke, the restorers filled it in with a scene from At the Crossroads of Life, a picture that D.W. Griffith himself starred in"

Those Awful Hats with the time-travelling second film projected top left
I should also mention a fascinating short from the film artist known as Arepo entitled Romance and Rococo, which showed the love affair between two porcelain dolls… the characters were constrained by their glazing but what passed between them was very enlightening especially when a worm pushed its way among their rose petals… We’ve all had our hearts cracked by such moments.

Dorothy Gish and Juliette Compton advertise


  1. Thank you for this. I am familiar with the later, sound, version of "Nell Gwyn" that Wilcox made with Anna Neagle, but did not know about the silent. It would be interesting to compare how the same director told the same story with the two different technologies.

    Steven F

    1. I must watch that version - so much depends on the lead. Dorothy Gish maybe had more freedom than she would have been allowed in Hollywood and her performance is very knowing!

      Thank you very much for reading.

      Best wishes, Paul