George Ade (1866-1944) would now be completely forgotten, except for the fact that his surname keeps turning up in crossword puzzles. In the first two decades of the 20th century, he was an extremely popular American author, best known for writing fables combining fairytale-like characters with cynical narration and dialogue rendered in Jazz Age slang.
One of Ade's fairytales, 'The Slim Princess', was adapted into a Broadway musical in 1911, a starring vehicle for Elsie Janis. An extremely popular performer in the years through World War One, Elsie Janis was a vivacious singer, dancer and comedienne who regrettably made very few films. Her facial features were comical yet attractive. She was also extremely slender, which makes her well-suited to play the calorically-deprived heroine in this particular story. Regrettably, this film version gives the lead role to Ruth Stonehouse ... a much less talented performer who is also less attractive than Elsie Janis. Also, Stonehouse (as seen here, at least) was an actress of somewhat average heft ... which renders her less effective for this plotline than the slender Elsie Janis would have been.
'The Slim Princess' takes place in a faraway land, vaguely Oriental in appearance and costume, ruled by Count Selim. (Is his name meant to be a pun on 'slim'?) The most notable aspect of this land is that thin women are considered unattractive, whilst fat women are considered beautiful ... the fatter the better.
Count Selim has two daughters, both princesses. (In real life, a count's daughter wouldn't be a princess unless she married a prince, but don't mind me.) His younger daughter, Princess Jeneka (nice name!), is built along the general dimensions of the Michelin man ... so, by local cultural standards, she's a real beauty and has no end of suitors. But local tradition (borrowing a plot point from 'The Taming of the Shrew') dictates that the Count's elder daughter must wed before her younger sister. Alas, elder daughter Princess Kalora (definitely a pun) is deemed unattractive because she's so thin. Kalora is one of those women, cursed from birth, who just can't gain weight no matter how much she eats.
Wallace Beery, hiding behind a weird beard, gives the best performance in this film as Popova, Princess Kalora's kindly tutor. Hoping to help Kalora win a husband, he dresses her in an inflatable rubber suit and stuffs her cheeks with marshmallows in an attempt to disguise the thin unattractive Kalora as a fat beauty. Of course, this plan ends in disaster.
Along comes a brash go-getter from Pennsylvania: Alexander Pike, played stiffly by Francis X. Bushman. (I've never seen a good performance from this actor, whose matinee-idol career was apparently based on his good looks.) SPOILER COMING NOW. Of course, Pike holds to American standards of feminine beauty, so he manages to overlook the 'handicap' of Kalora's slimness, and he glibly convinces her that he loves her 'anyway'. He marries Kalora and whisks her off to Pennsylvania, where the natives will overlook her 'unattractiveness'.
I'm intrigued that a Hollywood movie would subvert the usual standard, presenting fat women as beautiful and thin women as unattractive. But this film is of course catering for an audience who don't hold those beliefs. We're told that the fat Princess Jeneka is beautiful, but this movie is full of cruel slapstick gags which make fun of Jeneka's bulk, depicting her as clumsy and ungainly. Similarly, we're told that the people of Kalora's native land perceive her as unattractive, yet this movie's photography and makeup employ every effort to make Ruth Stonehouse seem as beautiful as possible.
There are some interesting costumes and sets in this movie, depicting a sort of Princess Caraboo-ish land that looks like a cross between China and India. Some of the sight gags and intertitles are funny, and George Ade's work deserves to be remembered. I'll rate this movie 6 out of 10.
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