Thoughts On: “Ella Cinders”

This post was written especially for Movies Silently’s Fairytale Blogathon, where many great posts on fairytale-themed classic films await you. Thank you so much for stopping by–feel free to take a look around and don’t be shy about leaving comments! I love comments like Charlie Chaplin loved pathos (very, very much).

“Cinderella”–it’s a story that’s long been told, retold, analyzed, pop culturalized and even subjected to those “fresh spins on classic tales” that are so popular nowadays. (Thankfully there haven’t been any gritty reboots…yet.) It’s one of the most familiar of all stories, endearing not only due to little girls’ love of princesses but because of its message of the neglected, oppressed heroine whose goodness is finally rewarded, spectacularly.

During the Twenties, when everyone’s goal was to “make good” and where prosperity was certain to be just around the corner, you could say that the rags-to-riches Cinderella story had extra significance. There were several film adaptations back then, and one that survives today is Ella Cinders (1926), starring the popular “Flaming Youth” herself, Colleen Moore.

Ella Cinders ad

As seen here in this perfectly gorgeous ad.

Spoilers ahead! “Ella Cinders,” as our heroine is called, is as ill-treated by her stepmother and stepsisters as all Cinderellas. Her only source of comfort is her best friend, a young ice man named Waite Lifter played by the rather hunky Lloyd Hughes. (Waite Lifter! Get it?)

Ella sure does.

Ella overhears her stepmother’s plans to enter one of the stepsisters in a beauty contest sponsored by the “Gem Film Company,” the prize being a trip to Hollywood and chance to act in a film. All entrants have to do is submit a portrait and attend a ball where the winner would be chosen. Ella secretly decides to enter, and scrapes together enough money to have a portrait taken. At the ball, she ends up fleeing in embarrassment (and losing a slipper which Waite picks up!) when she’s recognized by her family.

It turns out she won, of course–but because the portrait photographer had accidentally captured a goofy expression on her face, which the amused contest judges thought was Ella’s way of showing her comedienne chops.

Colleen Moore funny face

Or her best Ben Turpin impression.

She sent off to Hollywood with great fanfare. But this isn’t the enchanted ending yet–Ella discovers that the contest was actually a scam. Desperate to still “make good” and not return home a failure, she sneaks into the movie studios and tries to get noticed.

She eventually lucks out and gets to star in pictures. In the end, thanks to a kindly deus ex machina Waite is discovered to be actually rich and a football hero even though he had previously disgraced his father with by turning his back on his fortune and taking that scandalous job as an iceman.

Ella Cinders roseville agog

Waite goes to Hollywood to visit Ella, Ella decides to leave her film career and marry her “prince,” and they live happily ever after.

I guess this is where some might say the ending is sexist since Ella decides to marry rather than have a career. “Heh, getting all married and stuff instead of working in an industry that’s 75% based on how pretty you can keep yourself for as long as possible. Archaic. Archaic, I tell you!” But you know what, the film ends with an adorable scene where Waite and Ella’s son is playing with a miniature ice wagon, and it‘s just too cute.

Ella Cinders child iceman

The wagon’s pulled by doggies! Doggies!!

The personality of Ms. Moore turns this film from something that could’ve been mediocre into a charmer. A major star at the time, Moore is credited with getting the public interested in flappers and her star was only eclipsed by Clara Bow. Sweet, slim, and girlish, Moore was the “girl next door” if that girl had decided to become the kind of flapper a mother didn’t have to worry about.

She does a wonderful job with the comedy, which somehow lets a sense of Lillian Gish-esque vulnerability shine through (in the ’10s Moore apparently had hoped to be another Ms. Gish). She doesn’t shy away from looking silly too, as where she tries to cross her eyes and a split-screen effect makes them seem to roll in all directions (a little alarmingly).

Even before the film’s most famous scene, I couldn’t help thinking she seemed to be a little inspired by Harry Langdon’s comic style. So it’s very fitting that her character decides to take a chance and dash onto the set of Harry Langdon’s Tramp, Tramp, Tramp to start ad-libbing besides the very confused comedian!

He quickly rolls with it, though.

The storyline of “small town girl defies the odds to become a Hollywood star” was a popular one in the silent era. After all, everyone fantasized about “making good” in some way. Boys usually hoped to become football heroes or bigshot businessmen, and girls hoped to one day “see their name in lights.” Back then there were indeed many beauty contests promising stardom to young hopefuls (some contests being more legitimate than others), and fan magazines gave prominent space to the winners of the big-name competitions. (It worked out for a few of these girls–Clara Bow got her first shot at fame by entering one of those contests.)

American Beauty Contest headline

A snippet from a 1922 ad in Motion Picture Magazine.

There were several variations on this “small town girl” theme in silent films. Sometimes the girl made good, but often work in Hollywood turned out to be less glamorous or less desirable than it seemed, as in Mabel Normand’s The Extra Girl (1923) and Marion Davies’s Show People (1928).

Now here’s some trivia about Ella Cinders…it was actually one of the earliest live-action film versions of a popular comic strip.

Ella Cinders the comic strip started in 1925, and was written by Bill Consulman and drawn by Charles Plumb. It not only became popular enough to warrant a film adaptation only a year later, but it ran until 1961!

Ella cinders strip

A sample from a Twenties strip (in case you couldn’t tell from the hip lingo).

Fans of Moore know that her trademark was straight bangs to go with her short bob, similar to what Louise Brooks had. It’s a little strange to see her with the bangs brushed back and “hidden,” but as you can see from the picture above they wanted her to look just like the comic strip character (Moore even has patches sewn on her skirt).

I would recommend Ella Cinders mainly as a way to see more of Colleen Moore. Many flappers back then could be sexy like Bow or worldly-wise like Brooks, but Moore is probably the only flapper who could fit into a sympathetic Cinderella-style role.

…And I dare say it doesn’t hurt to see some more of Lloyd Hughes too. 

28 thoughts on “Thoughts On: “Ella Cinders”

      • Doesn’t that just make you sick to your stomach? When you see what’s left of “Flaming Youth”???!!!! I love Colleen Moore, and you hit the nail on the head: this movie could have been total mediocrity, instead it’s a delight.

        I absolutely love how, in the Hollywood series that Kevin Brownlow did, she still has her bob!!!! She’s in her 70s and she still has that bob…and she looks great!

        Awww, it’s choking me up just thinking of her stepping off the train: “I’m the Beauty Contest Winner”! Right? But even moreso choking me up thinking about what MOMA did to her films…..ugh…..there’s NO reason those films shouldn’t be with us today. Other films, I understand, they’ve been lost. But these films: we knew EXACTLY where they were.

        “Hi! I’m Ella Cinders! I’m The Beauty Contest Winner!” At least we have this one. 🙂

        • Here Ms. Moore did everything right to try and preserve her films, and who messed up? The freakin’ MoMA! How maddening is that?!

          About that scene of her stepping off the train, it reminds me of something she said about arriving in Hollywood for the very first time, hoping to become a star. Apparently, she felt like she was coming home!

  1. “I love comments like Charlie Chaplin loved pathos (very, very much).” — You wrote the truth abut all bloggers, Lea. And you wrote a nice essay about Ella Cinders. I’m happy you worked in the original comic strip. Colleen Moore bore a strong resemblance. Thanks for sharing with all of us.

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Joe! You know, comic strips and cartoons were so incredibly popular back then and they were such a big influence on screen comedy (especially gag writing)…yet, they don’t seem to get talked about much. Hmm, it’ll be fun to write some articles exploring that area even further.

  2. I only recently discovered Colleen Moore (via Orchids and Ermine – have you seen it?). I can imagine her playing a sympathetic Cinders, none of the other silent-era actresses (or at least the ones I’m aware of 😉 ) come close to her mix of vulnerability and charm.

    • I’ve only seen clips of Orchids and Ermine (it’s cool to see Mickey Rooney so young–wow!) and hope to see more of it. What a pity more of her films didn’t survive. Did you know that she had copies of all her films, donated them to the MoMA, and the MoMA somehow dropped the ball and her films basically rotted away? What a blow that must’ve been to her. Thanks heavens at least a few have survived!

  3. I just searched for this movie on YouTube and, sadly, I didn’t see it, but I did watch a couple of short clips. Colleen Moore is everything you said she was – very funny and charming. This looks like such a grand movie. Thanks for recommending

  4. Oh I LOVED this film! I’m trying to recall where I saw it- I believe it was at the Kansas Silent Film Festival last year. Like you, I am also delighted by Colleen Moore’s very sweet and hysterical performance and her facial gestures were on-spot for comedic timing brilliance. She was completely charming! Wonderful review! … Kellee

    • Why thanks! We can really see why Moore became such a big star back in the Roaring Twenties. I’m planning on seeing a “new” film of hers, “Why Be Good?” in a theater pretty soon and can’t wait! Thanks for stopping by, Kellee!

  5. Saw “Why Be Good” (Nov. 2014) AND “Synthetic Sin” (last week) here in Chicago.
    Ogeegosh! These are SOOO precious to have back after so many years of being “lost”.

    So I bought a copy of WBG off the Warners site and ordered a copy of “Ella” on Amazon (along with a back-ordered “Lilac Time”.. OK, I’m a Colleen Moore junkie.

    BTW, Colleen’s grand-children and great-grand-children were in the first couple of rows at the
    “Synthetic Sin” showing. IMHO, I think this was a tad better than WBG… but I love ’em both!

    • What a great experience–her descendants in the theater and everything–now that’s something to be treasured! I still need to buy the two films on DVD myself. Those restorations were VERY welcome news for Moore fans.

      • Indeed!
        You can get WBG from the
        Synthetic Sin won’t be made available on DVD until the remaining seven soundtrack discs are discovered… crossing fingers, it’s a great film.

  6. Pingback: Gems From Grapevine: ELLA CINDERS (1926) – Now Voyaging

  7. What a fantastic site! I cannot believe that I only just discovered it!

    I am a big Colleen collector although I’ve never seen one of her movies – crazy but true!!!

    I came to learn about Colleen when I bought a collection of her private letters by mistake. I had a lovely Keaton-signed still from Go West where he is on one side of a tree and Kathleen Myers is on the other. When I bought it the seller told me it was Colleen Moore.

    Shortly after a collection of letters she had written to a UK fan turned up at a provincial auction in the UK. Not bothering to check that it really was Moore in the still, I stumped up a fair amount for the collection.

    I soon realised my mistake but then also realised what a big name Colleen was in the 20s. Since then I’ve been buying anything attractive that I can get my hands on. We collectors can be weird.

    I really must try to buy some DVDs. I only hope they play in Europe.

    I am quite amazed at this site and all the skill and effort you put in. If you ever want to include any collector’s items just let me know. I am sometimes a bit pushed for time but I’ll help if I can. I have a fairly large collection of silent movie paper and related items.

    Do you take or need financial help to keep the site going?

    • Hi there! Wow, thank you so much for the compliments, it’s very much appreciated!! This site is quite the labor of love, as you can probably imagine.

      I’m a big fan of Colleen too, she was adorable and so full of energy and personality. Ella Cinders and Why Be Good? are HIGHLY recommended, haven’t seen Synthetic Sin yet but I’m sure it’s a good one too! One of my dreams is to trek to Chicago and see her famous dollhouse–we’re totally two peas in a pod when it comes to a love of miniatures!

      As of right now I don’t have a PayPal “tipjar” set up, but I’m looking into starting an affiliate program with Amazon. Which means that if I include an Amazon link to a DVD/book on my site and you click the link to buy it, I’d get a teensy portion of the sale. Enough for some tomatoes at the grocery store, presumably. 😀 Thank you very much for the offer, though!

      Right now I’ve been researching a gal named Louise Fazenda–if you have anything related to her, feel free to share if you like!

  8. Ironically, a friend of mine in the UK sold a very nice signed 10×8 of her last week. I thought about bidding but decided not to as I didn’t know enough about her. I’m sure my friend (Tim Read) wouldn’t mind you “borrowing” the image but if you wanted to ask him you could always mention my name. Here is the link:

    • Very nice, thank you!! Looks like the person got it for a good price, too. Yes, Louise has been nearly forgotten over the years but she was very well known back in the day. I’m currently researching her life and hoping to find enough material for a sizable article and perhaps more. 😉

  9. I loved reading all the comments about Colleen Moore playing Ella Cinders! My grandfather, Charlie Plumb, was the cartoon artist for the comic strip. Ella’s rags to riches story was played beautifully by Colleen!

    • Very cool, Pat! Thanks so much for sharing this with us. I read a few Ella Cinders strips to prepare for this post, and got a big kick out of all the 1920s slang your grandfather used. He had a neat cartoon style, too. He must’ve been a fun guy!

  10. Pingback: Colleen Moore, America’s Favorite Flapper | Silent-ology

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