Gloria Swanson as Jenny Hagen in Stage Struck (1925) (IMDB)

The “Dwan” of Gloria Swanson: ‘Manhandled’ and ‘Stage Struck’

Freshly released on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Classics are two hits, part of a series of Swanson vehicles directed by Allan Dwan at the height of her stardom.

Allan Dwan
Kino Classics
10 Apr 2018
Stage Struck
Allan Dwan
Kino Lorber Classics
04 Apr 2018

Best remembered today for Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), Gloria Swanson began as a slapstick comedienne with Mack Sennett before becoming known as a stylish “clothes horse” in sophisticated comedies and dramas of the silent era. Freshly released on Blu-ray are two hits, part of a series of Swanson vehicles directed by Allan Dwan at the height of her stardom. In these films, she achieves a bittersweet balance between the knockabout antics of an ordinary working girl and the stings of love amid precarious careers.

In Manhandled, Swanson’s Tessie works in a department store. While waiting around for her gruff mechanic boyfriend (Tom Moore) to make a hit with his inventions, she gets the sack and instantly finds new work as an artist’s model, which leads to an odyssey of misadventures stressing the traps of single women preyed upon by male city slickers.

There are class as well as gender elements to the story’s agenda, and these keep what might have seemed an old-fashioned tale surprisingly fresh, along with Swanson’s perpetually charming and expressive face. Especially famous is the early subway scene in which the little heroine (about five feet tall) is literally swept off her feet by the hulking men in the crowd, who constitute another kind of masher.

Brooke Johns, Paul McAllister, Ann Pennington, and Gloria Swanson in Manhandled (IMDB)

Stage Struck is even more impressive, beginning with a two-strip Technicolor fantasy in which Swanson pokes fun at her own screen persona. We see a famous actress in outlandish get-ups that change from one edit to another as she’s wined and dined by European royalty, only to be served pancakes by a curious chef surrounded by his own flock of courtesans.

This vision is revealed as the daydream of Jenny, a hash-slinger besotted by the diner’s pancake-flipper (Lawrence Gray). This lunk is unworthy of her, but he’s a tall handsome drink of water with a bright smile. Too bad he’s got a thing for famous actresses, and this encourages Jenny’s scheme to become an actress when the showboat comes to town. When we consider that this movie was a hit a full year before Edna Ferber published her novel Showboat, which went on to become a milestone of American theatre and film, we must wonder if the topic was simply in the air or if Ferber found encouragement here.

In a production as big and handsome as that pancake guy, Dwan presents us with a real showboat and hundreds of local extras. The story overflows with details, from a glimpse of the troupe’s production of that hardy warhorse, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to a spectacle of female boxing in the literal knockdown drag-out climax. Swanson’s physical comedy, mixed with the pathos of her motivations and disappointments, comes across potently in what the critic’s commentary rightly considers a space somewhere between Charles Chaplin and Federico Fellini.

Helping its impact is the beautifully mastered 35mm print with the Technicolor book-ends to the story, whereas Manhandled must do with a collation of various 16mm prints that are still missing some scenes, such as Tessie’s impersonation of Chaplin. Even so, it’s lucky; some of the Dwan-Swansons are lost, along with a few of Dwan’s most acclaimed films of this period. Kino has also recently released Zaza, so now we have three of this duo’s collaborations looking their best.

Manhandled and Stage Struck come with effective, unpretentious piano scores. The only extras are historically based critical commentaries that are sometimes hard to hear. On the first film, Gaylyn Studlar often sounds like she’s in another room, while Frederic Lombardi’s production background to the second film sounds rushed and unarticulated.

Note that the below excerpt of the first film’s subway scene doesn’t reflect the quality of Kino’s Blu-ray.

RATING 6 / 10