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This is a thoughtful and interesting film featuring an electrifying performance by the young Gloria Swanson. She plays Orchid Murphy "of the East 12th Street Murphys" in Manhattan, in other words a close-knit family of recent Irish immigrants with something less than fine manners. On New Year's Eve 1926, a bored Park Avenue socialite bachelor played by Eugene O'Brien leaves a tedious party of rich people waltzing somnolently and tells his chauffeur to drive him in his Rolls Royce to somewhere that isn't dead. They head downtown and chance throws him and Orchid together in a saloon. He has never met anyone like her before and falls for her wild elfin charm, kooky sense of humour, and lack of the stuffiness which is suffocating him in his life. Swanson is continually turning cartwheels with glee and is also a successful showgirl. She has an over-protective brother who guards his sister's virtue and hates 'swells', so O'Brien has to pretend to be Charlie the Waiter in order to be allowed to take her out. The highlight of their dates is a flea circus, with amazing closeup footage of the fleas pulling carts, balancing and twirling balls on their feet, and performing their many extraordinary feats. I don't know whether flea circuses exist anymore or not, but certainly when I was a boy there was nothing more amazing and exciting to me than a chance to visit a flea circus, and this film probably preserves the best cinematic record of one, so that it is of great historic importance for that reason. The film contains many witty lines and lots of crisp dialogue, all on cards of course, as this is a silent film. It was the first film ever directed by the actor/director Robert Rosson, and it is in many ways a spectacular job. Rosson made his cinematographer George Webber perform amazing physical contortions to get some of the shots he demanded (apart from the equally amazing microscopic shots of the fleas, of course). The most impressive were the ones where Swanson and O'Brien are standing and kissing, and the camera thrusts itself right down over O'Brien's shoulder (he must have had a dislocation!) and gets the most incredible close-close-ups of Swanson's eyelids as they swoon shut, open, swoon shut again, and reopen. It is simply mesmerizing. The film is full of such cleverness. This kind of artistic cinematography would soon be destroyed by the clunkiness of sound, and the need to have the actors clustered round concealed microphones, with close-ups nearly abolished altogether in the interests of the new god, 'talking'. O'Brien gets so serious about Swanson that he asks her to marry him and takes her to meet his genteel and refined Aunt Agatha, where they sit and have tea delicately in her drawing room. Swanson, as unrefined as they come, is oblivious to the fact that she is committing any social mistakes, but her manners are so crude that even an Irish crofter in a sod hut would have cringed to see them. Just to underscore the point, Rosson gives us a closeup of Swanson's tea cup in which Swanson is bashing a hard sugar cube to try to make it dissolve, as if she were handling a road drill. Aunt Agatha (inspiration for Bertie Wooster's Aunt Agatha perhaps?) is rigid with speechless disbelief at the extent of the raw savagery displayed before her in her own drawing room, but keeps a ramrod back and bears it heroically. When O'Brien has a chance to tell her that he wishes to make Swanson his wife, she summons all her self-control and tells him that although the girl is very nice, she does not have our fine manners. O'Brien persuades her to take Swanson in for six months and train her up to be one of us while he goes off to do his business in South America, and the minute he comes home he will marry her because she will know how to behave in his social circle by then. Well, obviously things go awry and he returns to find her stuffy, conventional unresponsive, and undemonstrative, just like his Aunt Agatha in fact. Will Swanson rediscover the beast within and be her old self again, thus saving her marriage? Or will she be abandoned by the horrified O'Brien who wonders what kind of monster his aunt has created? I ain't sayin', 'n yah better take yer mitts off me, fer yah can't get nuthin outta me that's fer sure bejesus, Mother of God save us poor sinners. This film avoids the easy temptation just to take cheap satirical shots at the class differences of 1920s America and instead, in a witty and good-humoured fashion, deals with the issues seriously and earnestly, while keeping our interest all the way. Swanson is magnificent as both the old and the new Orchid. What a lively wild 'un she was in them days!
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