Hoping to capitalize on the limited success of their 1924 release, Peter Pan, Famous Players-Lasky reteamed director Herbert Brenon and actress Betty Bronson to film another J. M. Barrie play, A Kiss for Cinderella. Bronson plays Jane, a poor London domestic who cares for four tiny orphans during the dark days of WWI. The economic squalor and emotional deprivation of her existence is alleviated only by the richness of her imagination. Jane lives in her own fantasy world. She is really Cinderella, and she knows that someday her invitation to the Prince's ball will come.
Director Brenon chose to dispense with cinematic technique in Peter Pan in favor of filming a faithful adaptation of the popular play. Certainly by the early 20s filmmakers well understood the profound differences between theater and film, and Brenon's decision makes for an oddly static film. Peter Pan is carried by the performances of its stars, luminous Esther Ralston, sweet Mary Brian, a deliciously hammy Ernest Torrance--and overwhelmingly, by the elfin charm of Betty Bronson, whose gift for balletic pantomime made her an overnight sensation. Peter Pan is one of the best-loved films from the silent era and the packed houses for its recent rerelease attest to its considerable power to charm.
At first Brenon seems to have made the same choice for A Kiss for Cinderella. The first half of the film bears much resemblance to a stage play, although in this film, Bronson gets little help from her supporting cast. She carries the film on her petite, talented shoulders. Then Brenon leaves the stage to display all the cinematic tricks at his command, breathing sudden magic into one of the most demented, Monty Pythonesque ballroom scenes in filmic history.
A Kiss for Cinderella is not a happy film despite its whimsy, and its ending is ambiguous and possibly tragic. Silent audiences (who were far more sophisticated than we moderns like to believe) stayed away from Cinderella in droves, and the film was a financial and critical disappointment. But it is a textured, layered film; its whimsy sometimes teeters on the edge of being maudlin, but never goes over the line. Barrie understood the real importance of fantasy as well as he understood the innate selfishness of little boys who refuse to grow up.
Unfortunately, the film itself is in wretched shape and needs much restoration work. I doubt that Paramount considers such an effort worth the investment--and that's a damned shame. A Kiss for Cinderella is an odd, wonderful, remarkable little film which richly deserves to be given another chance.
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