October 5, 2018
Stage Struck – US, 1925
The world has always had celebrities, but one look at the walls in Orme Wilson’s room is all it takes to know just how much had changed from the days when there were only local theatrical productions and occasional traveling performers. Sure, there have always been nationally known singers and actors, but perhaps never so many at one time. And just what was the effect of these new stars and starlets, with their dashing good looks, hourglass figures, and luxurious attire? Well, probably to create in more than one person an abnormally high level of angst and the recurring thought that you just didn’t stack up to those famous figures in either looks or desirability.
This is the situation that Jenny Hagan (Gloria Swanson) finds herself in in the beginning of Allan Dwan’s Stage Struck. After an entertaining opening scene in which we are privy to Jenny’s private daydreams, ones in which she envisions herself as the most greatest actress to have ever graced the earth, we see the reality - that Jenny has an ordinary job and that the man she loves, the aforementioned Orme Wilson, does not seem to return her affection. He even has a somewhat condescending pet name for her – Mouse.
In one scene, we see her enter Orme’s room and register utter amazement at the sheer number of pictures of actresses that envelop his room. Her envy is all too apparent, and in a cute scene, we see her mimic some of the poses struck in the pictures. It’s as if she saying, “See. I can do that, too.” She stops short, however, at emulating one that is wearing a particularly revealing gown. There are some lines, it seems, that her modesty will not allow her to cross.
The central conflict in the film comes when a show boat named the Water Queen arrives, bringing with it the latest crop of actresses. Orme’s expression could not be more telling. Upon arriving outside the boat, he adopts the aw-shucks look of a teenage boy who’s being flirted with by someone way out of his league. He is the poster child for the boy who’s just happy to be there, and when given a chance to take the hand of the newest leading lady, he is so innocent that he doesn’t pick up on the fact that she is waiting for him to kiss her hand.
So, just what is a woman like Jenny to do? Why, become an actress herself of course. I don’t need to tell you that things don’t quite work out the way she hopes, but the good news for the audience is that they unravel to hilarious effect. Gloria Swanson, known to a generation as the elderly version of Rose in James Cameron’s Titanic, proves to be quite versatile, which is important because the role called for one. Swanson has to be confident and bold in her fantasies, fun and silly in interactions with Orme, and hopeless and lovelorn at times of let-down. She is also called upon to be a shape-shifter, changing herself to such a wide extent that she could very well be the actresses in Orme’s pictures. She adopts a sly, furtive demeanor in a scene in which she tries to sidle alongside Orme and casually take his arm while he is walking with another woman, and then has to play the moment as if it was nothing out of the ordinary. I can understand why in 1925 one critic referred to her as “Chaplin’s nearest rival.” She is that good in the film.
The film falls apart slightly toward the end, as characters begin to reveal motivations that don’t jive with what previously transpired. The introduction of a character who has a peculiar relationship with his drum is ill-advised and unexplored, and the insertion of a female boxing match at the end of the film is slightly off-putting until you recall that boxing was very much a part of traveling circuses. Whether the audience for a rendition of Uncle Tom’s Cabinl would cheer it to the degree that the one in the picture does is debatable. Perhaps the film’s greatest mistake, though, is the insertion of possible physical violence on the part of a character that had up until that moment been a pillar of calm, as well as its use of suicide as a comic device. I suspect neither of these things is likely to strike contemporary viewers as deserving of laughter.
Still, Stage Struck is a mostly a joy to behold. Along with Swanson, we get to see Lawrence Gray in all his splendor – humorous, skilled with a pancake skillet, openly flirting with the young ladies who stand outside the restaurant window to watch him work, and utterly childlike in the presence of a beautiful actress. He and Swanson make quite the cinematic pair. In short, Stage Struck is an excellent introduction to Gray, and it is an absolutely incredible showcase for the immensely talented Gloria Swanson. (on Blu-ray)
3 and a half stars