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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.)
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!
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.