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April 03, 2018

Stage Struck

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Allan Dwan - 1925
Kino Classics BD Region A

I still have a fleeting memory of meeting Gloria Swanson at Telluride in 1974. There was was a screening of Sadie Thompson, a 16mm print of the existing version of the 1928 film, in a room set up with a projector, a screen and some chairs. Swanson was there as the guest of James Card, the curator at the George Eastman House and co-founder of the Telluride Film Festival. That version of the film was incomplete, and Swanson spoke afterwards about the importance of film preservation. I'm not going to even try and guess where Swanson or Card would stand on the digital divide, but films that would either only be seen at, for example, the Museum of Modern Art, if at all, have more recently become more widely available on home video. As important as film preservation is, the cherry on top is being able to see the films.

What I liked best about Stage Struck is that it showed Gloria Swanson as a very able, physical comic actress. Her make-up was, if not naturalistic, less garish - maybe this is subjective on my own part, but Swanson is attractive here in a way that eluded me in previously seen films. There's a moment when Swanson is teasing leading man Lawrence Gray, flexing a muscle on her skinny arm. She playfully bops Gray on the nose, and walks away, waving at Gray, at one point sticking out her tongue. It's a brief moment that I would imagine caught the attention of Raoul Walsh, whose female characters could often be described as feisty.

Swanson plays the part of a waitress in a workingman's restaurant, with dreams of being an actress. Swanson pines for the restaurant's wheat-cake flipper, played by Gray, who demonstrates his his prowess with a turner in front of a window for his adoring female fans. When she's not taking mail-order drama lessons, Swanson devotes her free time to doing Gray's laundry. But Gray only has eyes for professional actresses, and soon those eyes are set on the visiting Gertrude Astor. Astor is the star of an itinerant troupe that performs on a traveling show boat. There are a couple of scenes that bring to mind Charles Chaplin. In an earlier scene, Swanson is carrying a large tray loaded with dishes, precariously balanced on her hands, while trying to navigate her way through the crowd of workers who have come for breakfast. In the middle of the crowd rushing to work, Swanson is pushed out of the restaurant, still carrying the tray, only to trip on the sidewalk on her way back. Later, the five foot tall Swanson is tricked into a boxing match with the almost six foot tall Gertrude Astor. What is notable is that Stage Struck was made before Modern Times and City Lights. An interview with Roger Ebert as well as the commentary track by Dwan scholar Frederic Lombardi clarify what real life connections there were between Swanson and Chaplin. The blu-ray cover also quotes Photoplay magazine from 1925 comparing Swanson to Chaplin.

Former Keystone Kop, Ford Sterling, takes a couple of pratfalls as well, notably falling into his beloved drum after a young boy beans him on the head with a corn cob. The film begins and ends with two sequences filmed in two-strip technicolor, shot at Paramount's Astoria studio. Most of the film was shot in New Martinsville, West Virginia. There's a view of the countryside with a lateral tracking shot of Swanson following Gray and Astor. A good portion of the town's population of 2341 people, per 1920 census, crowds the show boat theater featuring the boxing match between Swanson and Astor. I assume that popular demand brought Stage Struck to New Martinsville's movie theater.

Stage Struck has an original piano score composed and played by Andrew Simpson. Frederic Lombardi's commentary track is informative, with some discussion on Manhandled, the other Swanson/Dwan collaboration to also be released by Kino Classics. Even more informative are the booklet notes by longtime Coffee pal Farran Smith Nehme, covering the history of the making of Stage Struck, the film's reception and rediscovery following the restoration.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at April 3, 2018 10:17 AM