Saturday, 20 September 2014

Colleen wants more… Orchids and Ermine (1927)

This is Colleen Moore in her pomp: one of the leading lights of Twenties cinema in a vehicle designed to allow her to show off her ability to create comedy out of gentle, natural drama. She behaves just like so many of the working audience, wants what they want but draws the line at breaking the rules of decency as much as she draws the line at exaggerated expression or slapstick: if Colleen sees someone knocked down she tries to help them up and she doesn’t fall down in the process.

Colleen takes a call
Her face is as animated as any actress from the period but from what I’ve seen she underplays magnificently, pulling you in with her gradual, guarded, smile and self-effacing charm and I’m not just talking from a male viewpoint.

It is frustrating to find so few of Colleen Moore’s films commercially available, let alone in good quality. Just about the only “proper” release is in The Bunker (1917) which is part of Kino's Reel Baseball collection with the rest of her most popular films largely the output of cheap DVDs recycling nth generation copies of 16mm transfers...

Why be Good? Because she was and deserves a whole lot better… but I am sure that’s coming with the revival of interest spurred by the rediscovery of that film and I’m looking forward to its screening at this year’s London Film Festival.

I enjoyed Orchids and Ermine so much I watched it twice, in spite of the fact that the Grapevine DVD is so low in resolution it looked like it was transferred through a layer of tracing paper.

5th Avenue and life in the bus lane...
There’s New York street shots in the rain, a man jumping from one double-decker bus across to another and a cracking supporting cast. But most of all there’s the girl with the bob working carefully at her crafted, controlled expression.

Her character sees a woman wearing her dream combination of ermine and orchids and picks up her cat to pretend she’s wrapped in the former as she holds a car-crushed flower against this live wrap… it’s winsome as anything and the act of a delicate soul who’s moral core will prevent her sacrificing dignity for desire.

Colleen charms Jack Mulhall
She works on a subtle level accumulating winning points through her performance rather than stunning the viewer with style or alpha femininity… she’s a slow burner but, by the time you’ve seen her miming her love into calling her from one of their hotel’s phone booths, you really want to make the call yourself!

Directed by Alfred Santell and produced by husband John McCormick, Orchids and Ermine sees Moore’s character, Pink Watson chasing her dream of marrying into money only to find that love, of course, comes first…

Animation courtesy of whataboutbobbed - the place for all things bobbed!
Rather than get stuck in her job at a cement factory (sorry…) she quits and heads off to New York to apply for a job as a telephonist in the De Luxe Hotel on Fifth Avenue: “where dead mink go after they die…” She gets the job against more glamorous opposition and is instructed to keep on wearing plain clothes…

Fellow worked, Ermintrude De Vere (Gwen Lee) offers to introduce her to her millionaire boyfriend Mr. Vandergriff (Brooks Benedict) who turns out to be Chauffeur Jenkins… Ermintrude makes a new friend whilst Pink decides she’d rather head home: “why is it when their wives get to forty they want to swap them for two twenties?” The title cards are full of great observations and pre-talkie wit.

Ermintrude,Pink and "Mr. Vandergriff"
The newspaper announces the impending visit of multi-millionaire Richard Tabor (an excellent show from Jack Mulhall) and the ladies in waiting ready themselves to impress. Tabor, bored of the old routine, persuades his valet Hank (Sam Hardy) to swap role in order to give him some peace and quiet.

Hank is duly swept off his feet by eager Ermintrude but an altogether more genuine connection is made between Richard and the pretty phone operator. He gets Ermintrude to send Pink flowers but after she reveals his “true” identity, Pink worries about his getting into trouble and asks for them to be taken back.

Can you spot the real Richard?
Richard may be a wealthy man but he’s not too worldly and asks Hank for advice in order to impress Pink digging himself into a deeper hole. Even a six-year old Mickey Rooney has more confidence with the lady… a scene-stealing interlude from the recently-deceased maestro.

Richard tries to apologize to Pink and ends up following her into the rain-sodden streets of New York – a fascinating glimpse of the period – eventually having to leap across from one bus to another in order to get her attention. He gets knocked down by a low bridge and milks the ensuing attention for all its worth.

Meanwhile his fake self is succumbing to Ermintrude’s hard-sell and exchanging vows in a registry office: things are about to get a lot more complicated…

Hunter and prey...
No spoilers: Orchids and Ermine speeds towards its dénouement with sure-footed charm – is getting the man more important than getting the money and will the real Richard Tabor finally step forward?

Colleen Moore’s sparkle exudes even through the grainy print and I hope someday I’ll be able to see her performance with greater clarity; it’s a slight story but she performs it with such skill.

Pink's retail reverie is about to be rudely interrupted ...
The other leads provide fine support, especially Jack Mulhall as the millionaire discovering a wealth of new emotions. He kept reminding me of Harold Lloyd, although I doubt he did the bus stunt as Harold would have!

I watched the Grapevine DVD which is now out of print: good luck in finding a copy. To whom-ever owns the rights… we want a box set of restored Colleen Moore films and we want it now!

Meanwhile I can recommend Colleen Moore: A Biography of the Silent Film Star by Jeff Codori - a labour of love based on years of work on his Colleen Moore Project website: essential reading if you're part of the Colleen revival!

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