Stage Door Connie

Talentless poet and war veteran Arthur Phelps (Conrad Nagel), blinded by an exploding cigar given him by New Mexico bar girl Poll Patchouli (Dorothy Dalton), is obsessed with French ballerina Rosa Duchene (Mildred Harris) — but Poll tricks him into marrying her by putting on an ‘Allo, ‘Allo accent — I suppose, being blind, he’s more easily fooled by her Franglais intertitles — Poll also leads him to believe that a slender volume of recipes is his poetry, accepted by a publisher at last — but when a miracle eye doctor comes to El Paso, Poll realises she must shatter Senor Phelps’ illusions by giving him his sight back — bitterly disappointed by what his restored sight shows him, Phelps divorces Poll, who sets fire to his shack in revenge, but it’s OK, in a way — he’s just struck oil and is now rich, enabling him to zoom off to Siam where Rosa is enchanting a young Prince (John Davidson) — Phelps rescues a lamb that was going to be thrown into an alligator pit as a sacrifice to buddha (bloodiest of the eastern gods) — Rosa challenges her two suitors to rescue her opera glove from the “sacred reptiles” — the Prince has a go but requires rescuing by Phelps — both Phelps and the Prince realise that Rosa is No Good and Phelps returns to the arms of Rosa, who at that moment gets stabbed by her gaucho paramour John Rodriguez (Theodore Kosloff) but the wound is non-fatal and the recuperating Poll kisses Phelps while their dog, Chum, tries to get in on the final clinch. Fade-out. Painting of a jester for no obvious reason.

That’s a condensed version of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1921 crazed romance FOOL’S PARADISE, shown at/streamed from Pordenone Festival of Silent Film. It’s what I call an epic.

I have made nothing up, distorted nothing. I’m reminded of a line in Gilliam’s BARON MUNCHAUSEN: “This is exactly the sort of thing no-one ever believes.”

“Cecil has a habit of biting off more than he can chew,” said brother William, “and then chewing it.”

This farrago of implausibilities is visually sumptuous, with costumes by Mitchell Leisen, Clare West AND Natasha Rambova — my guess is, Rambova did the ornate ballet, Leisen may have done the exotic stuff, but he could do realism too, so that may have been West. Cinematographers Alvin Wyckoff and Karl Struss, both super-talents, shot it.

Pordenone likes to shine a light on lesser-known talents, and fest director Jay Weissberg made special mention of screenwriters Sada Cowan & Beulah Marie Dix. DeMille had this whole staple of female screenwriters who helped him target his films, very successfully, at the female cinemagoer’s heart. It is hard, at this historical distance, to imagine anyone taking this cascade of nonsense seriously, except Cecil himself. But you can imagine them enjoying it. We enjoyed it. I hadn’t seen a lot of Conrad Nagel. I feel I have now.

7 Responses to “Stage Door Connie”

  1. You did leave out one thing: Poll Patchouli doesn’t come up with the idea of impersonating Rosa all on her own; instead, Arthur overhears her making fun of Rosa’s fancy Fronchness and just assumes she’s Rosa — entertaining the denizens of an El Paso cigar counter as internationally famous French dancers do. Things I was saying throughout this movie: “He’s not going to think THAT is he?” “She’s not going to do THAT, is she?” Every time — yes, THAT.

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    GOD SINGS!

  3. Fiona spent quite a lot of time hating both Poll and Rosa — a later Hollywood production would probably have worked harder to maintain Poll’s sympathy in particular. We’re required to bear in mind not only that she doesn’t know she’s blinded Phelps, but that she thinks it’s only a passing thing, a point which isn’t really driven home, making her seem extremely harsh and cruel.

    What a wonderfully bananas film, though.

  4. bensondonald Says:

    The two-disc DVD of DeMille’s “Ten Commandments” includes a solid print of the silent version, nicely scored. Maybe the first third is about Moses. The rest is in modern day America, where a pretty waif is torn between two brothers. All ten commandments are broken.

    At first casually: Some seemingly innocent dancing to a record on Sunday, then defiance of saintly mom. The good brother finds himself coveting the waif when she marries the bad brother. Then we work up to an exotic mistress who keeps an idol in her flat (a twofer!), a cathedral doomed by swindling contractor, etc.

    At some point you feel the urge to shout “Bingo!” each time a commandment is transgressed.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    DeMille was very taken with Griffith’s “Intolerance” and loved in his films to switch from scenes of the Biblical era to modern times. See also “Manslaughter” with Gloria Swanson as both a contemporary libertine and an ancient Roman one.

  6. Yes, and the entirely gratuitous lion’s den phantasie in Male and Female. In Fool’s Paradise, Conrad Nagel shows similar fortitude in his dealings with the sacred reptiles, which get terrifically close to his expensive person.

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