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This is Gloria Swanson's best comedy film. She plays a chorus girl
named Orchid Murphy who meets a rich society man (Eugene O'Brien) on
New Year's Eve. They are instantly attracted to one another but
Swanson's thuggish brother doesn't like "swells." In order to get a
dance with Swanson, O'Brien pretends to be a waiter.
O'Brien falls for her but the brother constantly warns about playboys who don't marry chorus girls. So they device a plan to have Swanson live with the old gray aunt while O'Brien goes to South America on business. During his absence she's be turned into a "lady." On his return he funds the newly refined Gloria dull and lifeless. They almost lose each other but because of a clever trick, Swanson is able to save the day and the marriage.
Great opening shot of huge crowds in Times Square where we can see marquees showing The Big Parade and a show starring Marilyn Miller. Also highly memorable is the visit to the flea circus... at least until Annabelle escapes! Swanson is just great in this light and funny film. She's hilarious as the chorus girl who loves to do cartwheels and somersaults (and yes that's Swanson doing them). Her first meeting with the old aunt (Helen Dunbar) is also very funny.
Eugene O'Brien is very good. Helen Dunbar is the aunt. Walter Goss is the brother. The dog is good too.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I'm surprised this movie has received some very favorable reviews from my fellow Gloria Swanson fans. My chief gripe is that Gloria has many scenes in which she is very unflatteringly photographed. For some unknown reason, the cameraman seems to have homed in on the most unattractive angles and the most harsh lighting he could find. Actually, I now discover that photographer George Webber was noted for his ability to shoot fast. In the sound period he seems to have worked almost exclusively on shorts, and that is definitely an area where the emphasis is on speed rather than charisma. Certainly, Mr. Webber has not taken any trouble on this movie set to use the most alluring angles and the most flattering lighting he could devise. Admittedly, in this respect, Gloria Swanson is not picked out for any sort of special treatment. Handsome and dashing Eugene O'Brien is also harshly lit and somewhat unattractively made-up. Until I saw this movie, I did not know he had a double chin for example. Nor was I aware of his rather small forehead and the odd way he combed his hair. In fact, under Webber's camera, Eugene's hair often looks like a wig. Needless to say, he looks entirely different in the movie's publicity stills! I'm not even going to mention what Webber has done to Swanson. As for the movie itself, it's not much in the way of entertainment. The plot is old-hat and thoroughly predictable, the pacing slow, the budget middling and entertainment value no more than so-so. Now if Swanson only looked in the actual movie as stunning as she does in the movie's advertisements, wow! Available on a middling Grapevine DVD,
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!
A good Gloria Swanson comedy programmer, this lacks the verve that her
work with Alan Dwan showed (MANHANDLED is a classic). The story, about
how rich Eugene O'Brien falls in love with poor Gloria, but her aunt
insists that she be trained as a lady while Eugene is off for six
months in South America, is decently handled. But there are clear
cheats in this as a double does cartwheels for Gloria: if Dwan had been
directing, Gloria would have insisted on doing the cartwheels herself.
Director Rossen does a fine job on the visuals with the help of cinematographer George Webber, who seems not to have adjusted to the constraints of shooting with sound a few years later. Their pans of faces a couple of times are telling, human and very funny.
But the most interesting thing about this film is the way Swanson is made up. I had to blink a couple of times when I realized that she had the same look Joan Crawford would sport during her 1930s 'Shopgirl' phase.
Aristocrats have good reason to be extravagant, bizarre, and
nonchalant; namely, to keep the coarse people away from the upper
echelon. Thus it is necessary for aristocrats to cultivate strange or
fine manners, the like of which won't be used or understood by the
lower classes. This discourages them from meddling in the lives of
But sometimes there is an exception, strange cases where that exclusive and private aristocratic line is crossed and the secret key to achieve such a privilege is that terrible and dangerous weapon used for years by ordinary people: love That primitive and irrational human feeling defies logic or countermeasure so it is useless to draw on such traditional defiance's as strengthening the Schloss walls with extra watchmen or putting more crocodiles in the moat.
And that's what happens in the film "Fine Manners", an oeuvre directed by Herr Richard Rosson in the silent year of 1926, a romantic comedy starring the great silent star Frau Gloria Swanson as the madcap Orchid and the impassive Eugene O'Brien as the rich and bored Brian.
The film depicts what happens when a rich boy accidentally meets a crude girl on New Year's Eve. It's a small comedy but entertaining and full of class war stories. For example, the rich boy who usually attends exclusive and normal events as balls or soirées must cope with the crude girl who likes very much going to strange places such as the fair in order to watch the educated fleas. These are certainly two very different ways of having a good time.
Interesting and different surroundings can be seen in the film, from the Amerikan soirees and exclusive apartments of the bored upper class classes to the common life of the city. The film gives a remarkable contrast of the two ways of life.
Obviously the enormous differences between classes and their completely different behaviour must be adjusted, so Frau Orchid with the help of her particular Pygmalion, Aunt Agatha ( Frau Helen Dunbar ) will learn fine manners in order to fit in to her fiancé's world. Finally, such complicated task will succeed but the boy will not like the final results because his girl is now a perfect and stiff aristocratic Frau and has lost her peculiar spontaneity and freshness, so he finally prefers that the madcap he met before come back.
There is an interesting parallel in the film; the controlled behaviour of the fairground educated fleas is against their animal nature; the same thing happens to Frau Orchid who suffers enormously because of her new fine manners. At the first chance the fleas will escape such unnatural control looking for a comfortable dog to live with and Frau Orchid will do the same, recovering her crude manners with the acquiescence of her fiancée.
Naturally, the film gives Frau Swanson an excuse to display gorgeous gowns on the screen ( her favourite pastime ) and of course there are those well-known and well illuminated and classic beautiful close-ups of her. Frau Swanson shines in the film, not surprising having in mind the many lights that were needed for those entire close ups. This is quite different from Herr O'Brien, bored and unmoved. It seems to this German count that he doesn't act but just portrays himself.
The film also has a peculiar and curious moving camera that emphasizes and gives rhythm to the film; expertly directed by Herr Rosson, this is an effective though minor silent picture.
And now, if you'll allow me, I must temporarily take my leave because this German Count must educate a bad mannered Teutonic fräulein.
Herr Graf Ferdinand Von Galitzien http://ferdinandvongalitzien.blogspot.com/
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