Nell Gwyn (1926) + An Unseen Enemy (1912) + shorts


Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum, Lambeth

                                                             1 March 2017


We were back at the Cinema Museum tonight for another hotly anticipated Kennington Bioscope presentation and one which was to prove something of a Gish-Fest but with healthy doses of D W Griffith thrown in for good measure.  Not only did we have younger sister Dorothy starring in the main feature, but there was also the sisters’ joint debut film plus an early DW Griffith guide to cinema-going etiquette and an Al Christie cross-dressing comedy. 

But before we got in to the vintage silents there was a very short modern take on medium.  Entitled Romance and Rococo, by a film maker known as Arepo, it portrayed a romance between two porcelain figurines featuring some long wistful looks  (well, as long as could be in a 90 second film) plus rose petals and, somewhat inexplicably, earth-worms!

Then it was time for the first Griffith short, Those Awful Hats (1909).  The film was set in a cinema where the movie-goers’ view of the screen is continually obscured by ladies arriving bedecked in increasingly ostentatious hats.   Eventually one lady has her hat removed by a large mechanical grab.  When that fails to deter another hat-wearer she is removed bodily by the grab.  The film ends with the inter-title “Ladies Will Please Remove Their Hats“.  Apparently made as a cinema public information film, it’s just a pity that Griffith never made films about mobile phone users and noisy eaters in cinemas!  The film, as well as being amusing, was also interesting in featuring many early members of Griffith’s stock film company who would go on to make literally hundreds of films between them.  The man to the left in the chequered jacket was Mack Sennett, who needs no introduction.  But also present was Canadian-born Florence Lawrence who became known as ‘the Biograph Girl’ and was probably the first movie actress to find fame under her own name.  The lady wearing the largest hat was English-born Flora Finch.  From 1910-1915 she paired up with John Bunny at Vitagraph for a series of some 160 popular comedy shorts known as ‘Bunnygraphs’, becoming in the process one half of the first popular movie comedy team.  Another lady amongst the audience was Linda Ardvinson who was, at that time, Mrs D W Griffith. 

In a subsequent discussion about the film, host for the evening Amran Vance pointed out that the film the cinema-goers had been trying to watch, and which had been crudely matted in, was not originally part of the film.  In the original, the cinema screen had apparently been blank. The film-within-a-film was probably A Corner of Wheat, also directed by Griffith in 1909 but not made until after Those Awful Hats had been released.  It remained a mystery as to when the image had been added to the print….and by whom?

Those Awful Hats is available on DVD in a compilation Silent Comedy Marathon, Volume 2 and also on YouTube. 

 Next up was an Al Christie comedy from 1918, Know Thy Wife.  In the film, while Bob Browning (Earle Rodney) is living away from home his parents arrange for him to marry a nice society girl, Lillian (Leota Lorraine) and tell him to come home for the wedding.  The problem is that Bob already has a girlfriend, Betty (Dorothy Devore), and he’s not about to give her up, in fact he goes out and marries her!  Unable to tell his parents he is married he decides to return home, taking Betty along with him, disguised as his Best Man ‘Steve’. (No, I don’t know what he hopes to gain by this, but it keeps the plot moving along!).  After various cross-dressing hi-jinks Bob’s mother discovers the truth but when Bob’s father catches ‘Steve’ kissing his wife, violence is only avoided when Bob declares “This young fellow is my wife”!

Despite the somewhat inane plot, Know Thy Wife was a surprisingly funny and enjoyable film, based largely on the humour of this early (and possibly first?) example of the cross-dressing scenario that subsequently became a staple of the movies (think Charley’s Aunt, I Was a Male War Bride, Victor-Victoria, Some Like It Hot, Tootsie, Big Momma’s House etc etc). But it was interesting to see what the film-makers felt they could and couldn’t get away with.  We saw Bob and ‘Steve’ kissing, but that was OK because they were not only man and woman but also husband and wife.  However, when Lillian kissed ‘Steve’, we saw them about to kiss and we saw them just post-kiss but not in the actual clinch.  Clearly woman kissing woman was just too risqué for 1918 Hollywood. 

I can’t find any trace of Know Thy Wife on DVD although it is watchable on You Tube.

We then had another Griffith film, An Unseen Enemy (1912) which is particularly note-worthy for being the joint film debut of the Gish sisters.  In it they play the daughters of a recently deceased doctor.  When their brother places money from his father’s estate in the safe, their housekeeper calls a criminal associate to come and help her steal it.  Together they lock the girls in an adjacent room and set to work on the safe. Despite being threatened by the housekeeper brandishing a gun the girls manage to phone for help and are rescued. 

Although with a somewhat simplistic plot and overly melodramatic style, An Unseen Enemy does have some striking scenes, such as the revolver emerging through the hole in the wall to point directly at the audience while the film is a further example of Griffith perfecting his rapid cross cutting style to ratchet up the tension as the film builds to a climax.  Despite this being their film debut the Gish sisters looked remarkably at ease in front of the camera.  According to Lillian Gish, Griffith could not tell the sisters apart and so in their screen test gave them different coloured ribbons to wear, referring to one as ‘Red’ and the other ‘Blue’ as he fired a gun into the ceiling to provoke them into a convincing display of terror.  The film also marked just the third movie appearance of another Hollywood silent main-stay, Harry Carey, as the safe-cracker, while one source (OK, it was Wikipedia!) credits the man in a straw hat seen dancing at the lobby desk as being Eric von Stroheim but I’m not wholly convinced of this! 

An Unseen Enemy  is available on DVD (Kino) and can be watched online.

And then it was time for the main feature, Nell Gwyn, a 1926 British National Pictures production directed by Herbert Wilcox and starring Dorothy Gish

The film opens in the Drury Lane hovel that Nell Gwyn (Dorothy Gish) shares with her mother.  She is dancing to entertain her two friends Toby Clinker, an old sailor, and Dickon, a war broken soldier.  Nell is preparing for work, selling fruit to patrons outside the King’s Playhouse Theatre.  When the King (Randle Ayrton)  arrives, she catches his eye and gifts him an orange.  She sneaks into the theatre and is entranced by the acting while the King ponders on Nell and the fruit she gave him.  A sudden storm halts the performance and on leaving the King runs into Nell and invites her to eat with him at a nearby inn, forgetting his previously arranged meeting with the haughty and socially ambitious Lady Castlemaine  (Julietta Compton).   At the end of the meal neither the King nor his courtiers can pay so Nell settles the bill.  In return, the King promises to make her an actress.    

The next day the King sends word that he has secured an acting position for Nell.  Her performance is a great success, particularly with the King who asks Nell to come and live with him, much to Lady Castlemaine’s displeasure.  At Nell’s first court reception she is humiliated when Lady Castlemaine wins back the King’s attentions by wearing a spectacular hat.  Not to be outdone, at her next performance Nell appears on stage wearing an absurdly large had with which she ridicules Lady Castlemaine, much to the King’s amusement.  When Lady Castlemaine confronts Nell and accuses her of stealing the King’s affections and cheating her out of wealth and position, Nell declares that unlike Lady Castlemaine she wishes to be with the king because she loves him. 

Using the King’s affection for her, Nell persuades him rather than building a new palace in Chelsea to instead build a hospital for old soldiers and sailors like her friends Toby and Dickon.  Concerned that his own impending death may threaten Nell’s future, given that his brother and heir does not approve of her, the King plans to make Nell the Countess of Greenwich.  But before he can enact this he is stricken.  Nell comforts him on his deathbed, making him laugh one final time.  Nell refuses to acknowledge the new King, and the film ends with contemporary shots of Chelsea Pensioners outside the hospital provided for them at Nell’s behest. 

In his introduction to this evening’s main feature Amran had warned us that this was not a film which Kevin Brownlow considered to be of any great merit.  Loath though I am to disagree with the revered Mr Brownlow I thought that Nell Gwyn was actually quite good, a great deal of credit for which must go to leading lady Dorothy Gish.  While the film’s plot is less than substantial and hardly historically accurate Dorothy Gish possessed a natural vibrancy and exuberance which chimed perfectly with the character she was portraying. Much of her performance relied upon comedic acting talent, of which she was always the abler of the two Gish sisters and she deployed an array of comedic gestures, expressions and asides with excellent timing.   But she also shone in the more dramatic scenes.  Her heated encounter with Lady Castlemaine positively fizzed with dramatic energy and bitchy rivalry while she convincingly captured Nell’s grief at the King’s death.

Although never considered by D W Griffith to be the cinematic equal of sister Lillian, Dorothy Gish achieved considerable success as a star of numerous comedy shorts and features while working for him.  These proved wildly popular and their commercial success helped bankroll much of Griffith’s more dramatic film output.  Sadly most of these films are now believed lost.  Dorothy Gish never made the transfer to talkies, not through a lack of ability but because she appeared to lose interest in film making.  Instead she reverted to theatrical work where she achieved longstanding success.   

Julietta Compton, as Nell’s arch rival Lady Castlemaine, the (image, right) only other American in a largely British cast, also made quite an impact, very effectively contrasting Nell’s character with her own sophisticated, haughty persona, determined not to let anyone stand in her way towards wealth and power. She made several other silent films in Britain and France before returning to America where she successfully transferred to the talkies.  Randle Ayrton also proved convincing in the other leading role, that of Charles II.  A long time stalwart of the British stage he continued to work in occasional film roles until his death in 1940. 

Making Nell Gwyn was the brainchild of British producer and director Herbert Wilcox.  Based upon the novel ‘Mistress Nell Gwyn’ by Marjorie Bowen, Wilcox saw the film as a vehicle by which British films could break into the American market.  Producer Michael Balcon had had some earlier success, particularly with Woman To Woman (1923) starring American Betty Compson and Wilcox saw this as the way forward.  He engaged Dorothy Gish in a three film contract at the then unheard of salary (in the British film industry at least) of £1,000 per week.  Nell Gwyn was the first of these three films and it certainly justified Wilcox’s aspirations and Dorothy’s salary.  Not only was the film a success in Britain, but it received a wide distribution in the United States and was critically well received.  The New York Times reported “Whatever may be the shortcomings of English motion picture producers. If they can put together other pictures as simply and with as much dramatic effect as this story of Nell Gwyn they should have no difficulty obtaining a showing for them anywhere.”  If the takings at one top-notch Los Angeles cinema, The Million Dollar Theatre, was anything to go by it did very good business indeed, taking $15,000 on its first day, a very respectable performance compared to The Gold Rush ($17,500) and Son of the Sheik ($31,000).  However, Gish’s two subsequent films for Wilcox, London (1926) and Madame Pompadour (1927) fared much less well, both critically and commercially, in both Britain and the United States.

Herbert Wilcox went on to remake Nell Gwyn in 1934 starring his wife Anna Neagle.  This film was also particularly successful in the United States although it did fall foul of the moralists of the Motion Picture Production Code who forced the reshooting of some scenes to hide Neagle’s plunging neck-line and changed the ending to one of Nell dying so as not to be seen to have prospered through her ‘dissolute’ lifestyle.  If the Code had been in existence in 1926, heaven knows what they would have made of Dorothy Gish’s Nell with her naked bathtub scene, undressed in bed and in competition with Lady Castlemaine for the lowest of low cut dresses.  Scandalous!

Nell Gwyn is available on DVD (Grapevine) .  It can also be watched on line although without sound and with very poor quality visuals.

Finally a word about the live music and full marks to Meg Morley who provided all of this evening’s piano accompaniment in a marathon effort, superbly matching her playing with the comedy, drama and thrills of the night’s programme.