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1926. First National. Directed by Alfred E. Green. With Colleen Moore, Lloyd Hughes, Jed Prouty, Vera Lewis
This charming silent movie does better than send Cinderella to the ball; it sends her to Hollywood.
The setup is familiar: drudge work, evil stepmother, lost slipper. Then the movie segues to more modern mythology: unlikely beauty contest winner, train ride to California, attempts to sneak past guard at studio gates, chase through the stages, film shoot mistaken as a real event in progress, inadvertently brilliant screen test, stardom without happiness.
As early as 1926, halfway through Hollywood's second decade, the movies have clearly become a fairy tale of their own. So many of the elements of later breaking-into-movies films are already in place. And many of them play with the confusion between what's real and what's being staged for the cameras--with, of course, even the "real" parts themselves being staged for the camera that's shooting Ella Cinders.
As she tries to elude the studio guard (the beauty contest was a fake and Ella, stranded in Hollywood, has to break into movies on her own), Ella blunders onto the set of a Harry Langdon movie. Langdon is trying to keep some pursuers from pushing open a door. Ella runs up, says "They're after me too!" and helps him hold the door shut. They play an extended comic scene, with much of the humor coming from their mutual confusion about the other's behavior. Langdon disguises Ella as a table and eats his dinner off her back while the guard runs through the shot. Presumably the cameras (the ones shooting the Langdon film) are turning all this time. Is Langdon helping Ella with her escape, or is Ella helping Harry with his scene?
Later, on another stage, Ella has finally obtained a screen test. She's to play a woman trapped in a burning building. Flames shoot up and smoke billows (in itself an interesting glimpse of how special effects are accomplished). Ella acts convincingly terrified--because a lion has gotten loose from another set and is menacing her from the wings. "No, no," the director yells. "You're supposed to cry 'My baby!,' not 'A lion!'" Of course Ella's realistic "performance" wins her a movie contract.
One final example: At the end of the film, Ella's hometown boyfriend arrives in Hollywood to find her. As he gets off the train, there's Ella in rags, scrubbing the platform at the train station--obviously a failure in the movie business and badly down on her luck. He doesn't know that she's in costume for a film and that on the other side of the train, blocked from his view, there's a full camera crew. (When the train pulls out again, the crew is baffled to find that Ella has vanished; her boyfriend has whisked her up onto the train to take her home.)
You can probably envision all of these gags without seeing Ella Cinders, because they recur again and again in movies about Hollywood. Why are they so durable?
It seems to me that all play on the dual nature of what happens in a movie, how it's realistic and artificial at the same time. It's funny to watch an uninitiated person respond seriously to what we know is a fake situation. We feel superior to these innocents, but we sympathize as well, because in a sense they represent all us movie fans, in a constant state of flux between being sucked in by movie illusions and feeling wised-up about them. It's a slightly vertiginous, rather thrilling tension.
Often we've been in the same position as Ella and her boyfriend in the examples above; we believe that a scene in a movie is "really happening" until there's a cry of "Cut!" and the camera pulls back to reveal a film crew in the foreground. (This happens in last week's Anchors Aweigh; it happens in Sullivan's Travels; and in countless other movies.)
Ella Cinders also presents the conundrum of a famous star playing a nobody who is herself star-struck. (More about this when we do Show People, What Price Hollywood? and A Star is Born.) Early in Ella Cinders, Ella sits for a photograph to enter in her hometown beauty contest. Trying to look glamorous, she assumes poses meant to spoof famous movie actresses (I recognized Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish), just as a girl in Ella's position would probably do. We know, as we watch, that this isn't just "a girl;" it's Colleen Moore, a star equal in stature to Pickford and Gish. This face trying desperately to become "attractive" and "noticeable" is in fact one of the most famous faces of its day. Perhaps one of the "impressions" I didn't recognize is Colleen Moore's impression of Colleen Moore.
copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein