Thursday 15 October 2009

One Romantic Night (1930)

Director: Paul L Stein
Stars: Lillian Gish, Marie Dressler, Rod LaRocque, Conrad Nagel and O P Heggie
Recording One Romantic Night because it's an early Lillian Gish sound film, I wasn't too surprised to find that it was actually her first such, given that she was never the most prolific of actresses, at least not since the mid teens when films were hardly the length that they would become. She perhaps wisely avoided the dubious year of 1929 entirely, her last film being highly acclaimed 1928 Victor Sjöström silent picture, The Wind. What surprised me is that this is an early version of a story I've seen recently, in the more famous 1956 version called The Swan, with Grace Kelly as the title character.

The character is Princess Alexandra, royalty but obscure royalty, something her mother, Princess Beatrice, wants to do something about. He has the chance too, given that the heir to the throne, Prince Albert, has apparently been ordered by his father to pay court to her at her remote family castle. Albert, a social animal who flits from one party to the next, seducing all the women and saying goodbye to them with expensive little trinkets, so really doesn't want to settle down. Alexandra can dream but doesn't believe in fairy tales and really loves her tutor, Dr Haller, even though she doesn't realise it as the film begins. Only her scheming mother really wants everything to play out the way it should. At least that's how it all begins, but there's plenty of change within the meagre 73 minute running time.

The story, from a play by Ferenc Molnár, had been filmed before, as a silent film in 1925 with Frances Howard in the lead, shortly before she would become Mrs Sam Goldwyn. The most famous version is the 1956 one with Grace Kelly, who had become a real princess a week before audiences saw her play one on screen. Gish was a huge star but the co-stars in the little love triangle she finds herself stuck in didn't quite match her stature. In 1956 Kelly had no less a name than Alec Guinness as her Prince and Louis Jourdan as her tutor. In 1925 Howard had Adolphe Menjou and Ricardo Cortez. Here, Lillian Gish has Rod La Rocque and Conrad Nagel, decent actors but surely outshone by their competition across the years.
Both make the best of their circumstances but, like Gish, they're victims of the time. This is probably much better than it would have been a year earlier, but sound technology was still very much a developing thing and this feels just like the stereotype of the time played out so well in Singin' in the Rain. The scenes are all static, with suitcases and flowers and furniture obviously hiding the large microphones of the time. The actors hurl out their lines as loudly and clearly as they possibly can, which doesn't help to highlight their abilities, and that's a sad state of affairs when you have Lillian Gish in the leading role.

Gish proved herself here to have a powerful speaking voice with a hint of the delicacy audiences may have expected, but nobody would have realised here the subtlety that she was capable of. Possibly the greatest actress of the silent screen, she could use her voice just as well but we wouldn't see that until later films. She wouldn't make another for three years and then would retire from the screen for almost a decade. Rod La Rocque, who plays Albert as a prissier version of the wolf he was so used to personifying on screen, sounds strangely in his over elucidation a little like Vincent Price. Nagel fades into the background, mostly because he only has a couple of scenes where he really has anything to do. They're all outshone by Marie Dressler, who had a habit of doing just that regardless who she was appearing with and whichever end of the social scale she was playing. All of them deserved more.

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