Silent film composer Ben Model and film historian Steve Massa are fixtures here on the Upper West Side. For the last 20 years, along with film historian Bruce Lawton, they have been running “The Silent Clowns Film Series“: every month, digging deep into the vast archives of the New York Public Library and Lawton’s own film collection, they screen rarely seen deep cuts as well as well-loved fan favorites…for free. They’ve moved around a bit over the years: the New York Historical Society, the West Side YMCA, and their current home at the Bruno Walter Auditorium behind Lincoln Center, but they’ve always been on the West Side and you can bet that each screening, no matter the weather, is always full.
Since moving to New York, taking in one of their silent film screenings has been at the top of my to-do list. My Mr. Martin is still dipping his toes into silent film, but I hardly had to sell him on the idea of going to “Silent Clowns”: the bill featured a Colleen Moore Cinderella-esque story called Ella Cinders (1926), as well as two of the very best of the best silent shorts: Harold Lloyd’s Number, Please (1920) and Buster Keaton’s The Goat (1921).
One thing that has long been of fascination to me, is which silent clown resonates with people and why. I love every last blessed one of them, but my first love was Charlie Chaplin, as a very young girl, and I’ll still defend him with every ounce of my being. His films are a part of my childhood and I cherish the innocence of those memories. I thought Mr. Martin, with his love for offbeat humor, would definitely be a Buster Keaton guy…but he surprised my by choosing Harold Lloyd as his favorite. His reasoning is solid: Chaplin is great, he concedes, but too sentimental for him. Buster is incredible but is such a superhero he doesn’t really relate to him. Harold Lloyd, he says, is an everyday guy–he actually could be a Harold Lloyd, not Buster or Charlie. Needless to say, he was delighted to find that Harold Lloyd’s Number Please was on slate at Silent Clowns when we made our way to Lincoln Center on a rainy, spring afternoon.
The main event, however, was a romantic comedy starring one of the brightest comediennes
of the 1920s of all time: Colleen Moore. This was only the second Moore film I’ve ever seen: the first being a screening at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art back in 2014 of the recently restored Why Be Good? (1929). She was a sparkling burst of effervescent energy on that screen, and Ella Cinders convinced me that personalities like Moore deserve to be seen the way they were intended: on the big screen.
The name Colleen Moore may not be as familiar to some as other silent film leading ladies like Clara Bow or Louise Brooks. This is unfortunate, since Moore preceded both and, in some ways, made them possible. (I adore Brooksie, but her famous bob cut was not-so-subtly ripped off from Moore, and Moore first embodied the physical ideal of a “flapper” before Bow did.) Moore was not nearly as sexual as either the latter–not by a long shot– but the point is that Collen Moore is the first to have ever defined the “flapper” image on film: modern, fun, and exciting.
After a brief reign as Hollywood’s leading flapper–she was soon unseated by Clara Blow–Moore was quoted as saying, “No more flappers…people are tired of soda-pop love affairs.” This was only partially true, and Moore continued to star in roles that celebrated the youth and optimism of the flapper generation in films like The Perfect Flapper, Synthetic Sin, and Why Be Good?
Born Kathleen Morrison in 1899, the future silent star moved around a lot as a kid, bouncing from Michigan, to Georgia, to Pennsylvania to name the few. A convent girl, she was bitten by the acting bug early on, during her family’s stay in Chicago during the 1910s which, at the time, was a major motion picture hub.
Essanay Studios was headquartered in the city, and since this was a good few years before the studio opened up a satellite in Niles, California (and in so doing, giving Charlie Chaplin a playground in which to grow as an artist) it’s entirely likely that little Kathleen saw more than her fair share of location shooting around town. Obsessed with the personalities like Chaplin and Gloria Swanson, there was never any doubt in Kathleen’s mind that she, too, would one day be on the screen.
She was a mere 15 years old when she went to Hollywood, re-christened as Colleen Moore. Her career was a slow-burn, but Colleen worked steadily and by the early ’20s was starring opposite giants like John Barrymore. Her most famous film of the decade, Flaming Youth ,(1923), made her an icon of ’20s youth and excitement. Unfortunately, only one reel of that film remains. In fact, a sizable chunk of Colleen Moore’s filmography is considered lost.
This sad fact makes a film like Ella Cinders so vital.
With a name like “Ella Cinders,” you know pretty much what you’re going to get. Moore plays the beleaguered step-daughter of a vain, arrogant stepmother who’s only concern is to socially advance her equally as vain, arrogant daughters. It’s a hard, banal existence, and only Ella has only her natural spunk and charm to see her through each day. She has a friend, too: a rather handsome ice delivery boy who knows exactly just how awful Ella’s treatment is and is a constant source of encouragement.
The great thing about Ella’s character, though, is that she’s not reliant on help from some magical fairy godmother to change her stars: she makes her own magic.
When the town council announces that they are sponsoring a Beauty Contest, every girl in town is determined to win: the prize being a screen test out in Hollywood. But Ella is the most determined of all. She hardly cares about a silly beauty contest, but she does are about getting a ticket out of town and a chance for a new start.
Using her pluck and tenacity she enters the contest and, to the shock of everyone, wins. And it has nothing to do with physical beauty: her head shot happened to be the only one that showed actual personality, which for this writer is a wonderfully refreshing spin on the Cinderella story. Ella never has Cinderella’s glorious transformation into some kind of otherworldly beauty: she’s cute, but what makes her shine is her spunk, spirit, and tenacity. Ella Cinders is an independent, forward-thinking, ambitious young woman and, unlike other Cinderella versions, is an actual role model for young girls with the empowering message that beauty is not what matters.
Another thing that makes this film work, is that it is a love letter to the movies. Moore herself had packed all her dreams in a suitcase and headed West for Hollywood, so that aspect of the film resonates so well because it’s coming from someplace real. (Keep your eye out, too, for a delightful cameo from comedy legend Harry Langdon who comes to Ella Cinders’ rescue as she’s trying to dodge the studio security guys on set…)
Of course, this is still a Cinderella story, so I don’t really have to go into much more detail—it’s hardly a spoiler that her pauper friend turns out to actually be a wealthy Prince Charming—but, again, what keeps the film vibrant and fresh is Colleen Moore’s magnetic screen presence.
Everything else fades away when she’s on screen: her kewpie doll eyes and heart shaped mouth, framed by that sleek shock of jet black hair is certainly easy on the eyes, but it’s her boundless energy that makes Moore so thoroughly irresistible and films like Ella Cinders make it clear why Colleen Moore was such a major star in the 1920s…and deserves reappraisal even now.
If you’re interested in learning more about Colleen Moore, visit ColleenMoore.org: “The Colleen Moore Project” provides a wealth of information about the actress’ life and career. Also, pretty much everything you’ll ever need to know about Moore’s famous dollhouse. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about there, google it. You will not be disappointed.)