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Learning That There’s So Much More to Colleen Moore!

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Talented, Fashionable, Creative, Funny and Smart!

 

Today, we celebrate the iconic and intriguing Colleen Moore, who passed away on January 25, 1988, at the age of 88. Her contributions to the silent film era and her impact on popular culture, especially her famous “bobbed” hairstyle and Roaring Twenties outfits, only begin to scratch the surface of this multi-faceted woman.

In the 1920s, it was widely reported that she was one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood, and under that fashionable hairdo was a smart mind with an acumen for business. She amassed considerable wealth by wisely investing in real estate and other business ventures, and later became a partner in the investment firm Merrill Lynch (founded in 1914). She even penned the 1969 book, “How Women Can Make Money in the Stock Market.”

With her film career established, and her finances solid and surviving the Great Depression, Moore turned her attention to her love of dolls. In 1928, she began working with artists and craftsmen to construct an eight-foot-tall dollhouse as her own fantasy fairytale castle. It took over seven years to build, cost about a half million dollars to complete, and features genuine diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle was gifted in 1949 to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, where it still stands today.

In 2013, her film “Ella Cinders” (1926) was added to the Library of Congress National Film Registry. Many of Moore’s early silent movies were “lost” due to nitrate film stock not being preserved or properly stored resulting in their deterioration. Fortunately, “Ella Cinders” was one of her films that was made available on 16mm safety film for non-theatrical use, and that has ensured the film’s continued existence. It is held by numerous film archives and film collectors, including the Library of Congress.

In today’s guest post, author Kathleen Rooney shares how Colleen Moore’s personality, along with some unique camera tricks, helped make “Ella Cinders” one of her funniest and most memorable films.

Colleen Moore’s “Ella Cinders” (1926)
By Kathleen Rooney

 

An oppressed, abused, and forsaken girl finds her meager circumstances suddenly changed to extraordinary fortune through ascension to the throne—literal or metaphorical—by way of marriage. That’s Cinderella for you, a folk tale with thousands of variations throughout the millennia and around the world.

After persevering through obscurity and neglect, which the audience is always given to understand are short-sighted and unjust, Cinderella attains recognition and defeats her nasty competitors for love and status, resulting in a crowd-pleasing happily-ever-after. Little wonder, then, that Hollywood has served this beloved fairy tale to the masses time and again, beginning in the silent era. Perhaps the dizziest, fizziest, and most madcap pre-synchronized sound version arrived in the form of “Ella Cinders” in 1926.

In the title role, Colleen Moore—also known in her day as the “Flaming Youth” girl and the “Perfect Flapper”—shines as one of the most charming people ever to stick her feet into the fairy tale character’s ineradicable glass slippers; or, in this case, her pretty satin flapper pumps.

Everybody can relate to a Cinderella story, for who has never felt under-appreciated, worthy of more? And everybody can tell from the title that this is one. The narrative is based, of course, on the ancient story, but filtered through the popular comic strip of the same name by William Conselman and Charles Plumb, which ran in the Los Angeles Times and was syndicated from 1925 into the early 1960s. Moore’s brilliant and volatile producer husband John McCormick (their marriage was the inspiration behind the plot of “A Star Is Born”) noticed the strip and negotiated the rights to the story.

He believed this jazzy new approach would be a perfect vehicle for his comedienne wife, not only because the role would showcase her signature vim, vitality, and comic timing, but also because it put a Hollywood spin on the familiar proceedings, being a story about not just moving upwards in life but breaking into Hollywood.

The film’s wacky 51 laugh-a-minute minutes focus on the titular Ella, stepdaughter to a family in the every-town USA of Roseville, played with impeccable pluck and girl-next-doorness by Moore. Ella’s dyspeptic stepmother, Ma Pill, and two odious stepsisters, Lotta and Prissie, treat her with all the contempt and snobbery we know to expect from such a family dynamic. Poor Ella in her tattered rags and bobbed hair labors her days away on their behalf, enduring their laziness and cruel behavior, while dreaming of something more.

As she gamely cleans the furnace and gives a slapstick rolling pin massage to her stepmother’s shiftless limbs, Ella is buoyed by little besides the affection of her unexpected suitor, the local ice man, one Waite Lifter, and the prospect of a beauty contest offered by the Gem Film Company. The winner will receive a cash prize, an all-expenses-paid trip to Hollywood, and a role in a picture.

Played by the amiably handsome Lloyd Hughes, Waite is the only one—besides us—who sees past Ella’s tatterdemalion appearance and into her true beauty and heart of gold. Hughes—with whom Moore also appeared in 1923’s “The Huntress,” 1925’s “Sally and The Wall Flower,” and 1926’s “Irene”—and she have a winsome chemistry. From the moment we see them together, we want them to stay that way forever, which is key to the happily-ever-after we are intended to root for.

Former vaudevillian Mervyn LeRoy co-wrote the script, and he stuffs it like a turkey with bit after bit. As Moore later recalled, LeRoy insisted on being known not as a “gagman”—the common epithet—but rather as a “comedy constructor.” Such a title sounds pretentious, at first, but watching the film, it feels correct and earned. Although easy to dismiss as inferior to drama, light comedy with this deft and airy a touch is not easy to write, set-up, or deliver. Moore and her fellow actors execute LeRoy’s constructions with unparalleled joie de vivre.

As Ella pursues her opportunity to escape from nowheresville and onto the silver screen, her antics are amusing unto themselves, and also deliver piquant critiques to the dream factory’s foibles. With the dual dawn of the motion picture industry and the profession of movie star as a possible career for young men and women across America came an attendant boom in the publication of guidebooks for starry-eyed hopefuls.

One of the earliest is “How to Write for Moving Pictures: A Manual of Instruction and Information” by Margeurite Bertsch, published in 1917. In it, Bertsch observes:

“We all have our favorite literary characters who stand with us, sit with us, and walk beside us. Cinderella weeps in the mind of a child. The tears that fall are real, real enough to wet and turn muddy the ashes they fall on. Her amazement at the sight of her fairy godmother makes her eyes glisten even as do the eyes of the little one who sees her as he hears her story. Always one might run his fingers through her hair, or pinch her cheeks and find them flesh and blood.”

A split-camera allowed Colleen Moore to perform various eye tricks resulting in one of the most spectacular comedy scenes in the film.

Fittingly, the most famous gag from “Ella Cinders” comes when Ella pilfers such a manual from her wicked stepsister and learns that “the greatest requisite to stardom is the eyes,” and that she ought to be practicing eye exercises, the better to deliver such emotions as flirtation, fear, and love. When she reads that “cross eyes—or the ability to make the eyes appear crossed have brought great fortunes to certain moving picture actors,” thanks to a clever split-screen camera trick, Ella performs a woozy ocular gymnastics routine, each eye appearing to engage in acrobatics independently of the other.

In another hilarious scene, Moore—having earned the three-dollar sitting fee through three nights of equally hilarious baby-sitting—tries and fails to project a serious and sophisticated magnetism while posing in a photo studio beset by a pesky fly.

Unflattering and absurd, the resulting portrait catches the eye of the local firemen who serve as the beauty contest judges. To the initial embarrassment of Ella and the ire of her stepmother, one of them explains that “Beauty means nothin’. The movies need newer and funnier faces.” The faithful Waite agrees, telling his as of yet unrequited paramour that “not everyone can make people laugh, Ella. Making people happy—it’s a great thing.”

No face is funnier in this film than Moore’s, and the rest of the picture is a romp from the train ride West—where she finds herself playing second fiddle to a car full of Native Americans also on their way to Hollywood for a job—to her arrival only to find that the entire contest was a scam.

According to Vincent Brook in his 2013 book “Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles,” “Ella Cinders balanced a celebration of Hollywood’s romance with recognition of the potential pitfalls of its vanity and material wealth.” It’s a pleasure to watch Moore—by then a bona fide star and box office draw—play the part of an upstart in way over her head.

Directed by Alfred E. Green who started his career as an actor at Selig Polyscope in 1912 before moving on to directing feature-length films by 1917, the tone of the film is one of loving ridicule toward the studios and their would-be discoveries. He casts himself in the role of the Director here in the slapstick sequence where Ella, having crashed the gate, dashes through the studio causing havoc, including a delightful cameo by the comedian Harry Langdon.

Ultimately, Ella gets one over on the gatekeepers and attains her much-desired fame in spite of everything. The film can’t—or won’t—end there, though. Hollywood figured out early on, too, that romance plus comedy adds up to success, and thanks to the presence of its indelible star, “Ella Cinders” stands as one of the most daffily wholesome iterations of this enduring arithmetic.

“Ella Cinders” does not merely follow but rather establishes the imperishable formula of a popular rom-com from its focus on two one hundred percent lovable lead characters with whimsical jobs who meet cute to zany side characters and misunderstandings to epiphanies to betrayals to grand gestures to the inevitable happy ending. For meanwhile, back in Roseville, the humble ice man Waite is revealed to be George Waite, the heir to an enormous fortune and a former college football star to boot. His father insists that Ella will now only be interested in him in a gold-digging fashion, but George refuses to let go of true love.

In her “Film History” article “Good Little Bad Girls’: Controversy and the Flapper Comedienne,” Sara Ross notes that Moore consistently hit on “the ideal comic formula for reconciling the expression of sexual sophistication with a more fundamental innocence.” In the end, Ella—after living her movie star dreams—realizes that George is the man for her and in Cinderella fashion, accepts his hand in marriage.

Such a conclusion is expected, it’s true, in the way that one plus one always adds up to two, but the effervescence with which the leads, the director, and the whole cast solve the problem, it’s one for the ages.

Fittingly for a woman who would play many a Cinderella role over the course of her career, Colleen Moore adored fairy tales, so much so that she built a one-ton dollhouse or Fairy Castle decorated with their iconography and toured it during the Great Depression to raise both the nation’s spirits and money for children’s charities.

Today it resides in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, enchanting viewers as its creator once did onscreen. And what do you think is in the Great Hall, not far from the chairs of the Three Bears carved from balsa wood, so small that each sits on the head of a pin, and the Goose who laid the golden eggs, along with a basket of eggs freshly laid? Cinderella’s glass slippers, naturally, hollow, high-heeled, and adorned with red bows, made for her by a glassblower from Ringling Brothers Circus, the smallest glass slippers ever created and presented to Moore, the jazziest Cinderella of them all.

 

The views expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Library of Congress.

A professor of English and Creative Writing at DePaul University, Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novel “From Dust to Stardust,” inspired by the life of Colleen Moore. A founding member of Poems While You Wait and a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, she lives in Chicago.

To learn more about Colleen Moore, please Ask a Librarian, and if you plan to come in to view or listen to any collection items, please reach out to our reference staff in the Moving Image Research Center and the Recorded Sound Research Center.

To learn more about the National Film Registry or to nominate films for consideration, visit www.loc.gov/film. 

Comments (4)

  1. It’s good to see Colleen Moore receive some well-deserved attention from the LOC. Her silent films remain an absolute delight today to anybody who is fortunate enough (and perhaps wise enough) to seek them out. She was among that first generation of “mass media” stars who literally redefined being a celebrity in those early years of mass communication.

    But similar to Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, Gloria Swanson and other stars who defined that era of the Roaring Twenties, Colleen was regarded as a symbol of the past as the 1930s reared its ugly head with the Great Depression. She was wealthy and donated her films to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York. Perhaps she was inspired by the donation of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. of his films to MOMA.

    Unfortunately, while MOMA accepted the Moore films, it didn’t nothing to preserve them. Today almost all (and perhaps it is all) of the films that Colleen donated to MOMA no longer exist. Many titles were one-of-a-kind and other copies have been never found. But the Colleen Moore films that do exist are terrific and never disappoint.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this article. My fascination with movies and movies stars is immense, therefore, I have something new to learn, Colleen Moore. Hopefully, I can find some movies of hers on the shelves of some library. There is always much to learn from movies whether funny, drama, action … Hollywood is never a dull subject and one always finds so much knowledge about life and society and the world.

  3. Here’s the list of films Moore deposited with MoMA in June of 1944:

    LITTLE ORPHANT ANNIE
    HER BRIDAL NIGHTMARE
    SO LONG LETTY
    COME ON OVER
    BROKEN CHAINS
    FLAMING YOUTH
    SO BIG
    SALLY
    IRENE
    TWINKLETOES
    LILAC TIME
    SYNTHETIC SIN
    WHY BE GOOD?
    HAPPINESS AHEAD
    HER WILD OAT

    Several of these films, luckily, survived in other archives and we have them today.

    Gloria Swanson suffered a similar experience with her deposit of mostly home movies. When she went to MoMA years later she found the films had all rotted. She was told by staff that she had made no provision (think money) for their preservation so they had not been preserved.

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