Gloria Swanson in Fine Manners (1926)
Orchid instructing her parrot to give Brian the thumbs up!
It’s New Year’s Eve and Brian Alden (Eugene O'Brien), rich Park Avenue socialite is bored with his stuffy crowd. He leaves the "party" and tells his chauffeur to take drive him anywhere there is life. Orchid Murphy (Gloria Swanson) is celebrating in Times Square with her brother and friends, the scene is crazy, huge crowds all celebrating the coming new year. She attracts the attention of Brian and then in the crush of humanity they escape the crowd and end up in a café. When her brother (and protector) shows up, she tells Brian to pose as the waiter. He serves them ginger ale and then asks Orchid for a dance because he is “now off duty.” They dance and quickly form a bond. Brian finds her no-nonsense, lack of pretense and rather coarse manner quite refreshing compared to the women in his society. The pair exchange cards upon which he learns she is a chorus girl in a local burlesque house.
He goes to a performance, and is charmed further still. He meets her in her dressing room and thanks to her rudely trained parrot, he gets the thumbs up! The pair fall in love and he confesses to her he is a wealthy heir. He takes her to meet his dowager aunt who is not exactly approving.
He proposes to her and she accepts him. Brian leaves for a six-month tour of South America on business and Orchid moves in with his aunt and takes a course in "fine manners" to better prepare herself for her new life in Brian's world.
The unmasking at the costume party
When Brian returns he finds her not to his liking as a polished, posh young woman. In the end all is well when Orchid reverts to her natural self and jettisons the false airs she’s been forced to emulate.
Orchid in her dressing room at the burlesque house.
Filmed in Astoria there is plenty of nice crowd scenes and some good location shots. The editing of the New Year's Eve montage really made you part of the hurly-burly of the crowds. While I found Fine Manners to be enjoyable, it's not Swanson's best film. Swanson sparkled just as I expected. I can't help but be charmed at Swanson and her exuberance turning cartwheels in the stuffy Park Avenue apartments as the expression of joy upon the return of her fiance. I can't say the same of Eugene O'Brien. He was too old and not quite as charming as one would have liked. He was 46 and looked it and Swanson was 27 and also looked it. Paramount did have this curious bent in casting a film with a beauty and then a leading man who seemed not to be in the same age group (Clara Bow's 1927 film IT is another example of this with the otherwise debonair Antonio Moreno).
If you get the chance to see the 1925 films Stage Struck (my favorite) or Manhandled, you'd be seeing Swanson at her arguable peak. She's also wonderful in The Affairs of Anatol, Why Change Your Wife? and Don't Change Your Husband (each helmed by Cecil B. DeMille and available on DVD/Netflix). As much as I adore Sunset Boulevard, and I do, you'd be doing Swanson a real disservice to limit your exposure to her to this one film. As towering a performance is her Norma Desmond, you do miss all of her real charm. It was years before I saw Swanson in a silent after having seen Sunset Boulevard numerous times. Seeing her in her element and time was a revelation, she was terrific and it's no wonder she was a huge star. Her career in talkies was spotty and I really can't understand why, she was equally funny, sophisticated and charming in the right film. Thanks to TCM, I just had the opportunity to see her in a pre-code that she produced. Perfect Understanding with a young Laurence Olivier (and then husband Michael Farmer) with the script by Michael Powell (yes, THAT Michael Powell) that was quite charming and fun. Perfect Understanding is being released on blu-ray and standard DVD by Cohen Media in June, it's worth checking out.
Fine Manners is available on DVD-R via Grapevine Video. The source is a 16mm print in generally good shape. There are some contrast issues and a little deterioration. It’s still very watchable. There is also a really nice organ score with it. I enjoyed the chance to see Gloria Swanson in another silent, I've become quite a fan.