Posted by Susan Doll on December 2, 2013
This past August, two new biographies about the silent era’s most glamorous star were published, Gloria Swanson: Ready for Her Close-Up by Trish Welsch and Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star by Stephen Michael Shearer and Jeanine Basinger. Both are profiled on the Books page of the TCM website. I breezed through both of them, looking for info on my favorite Swanson flick, Stage Struck.
If the title doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because Stage Struck doesn’t have the reputation of those romantic melodramas that Swanson made for Cecil B. De Mille—Male and Female, Why Change Your Wife, Don’t Change Your Husband, etc. Also, the film has never been released for home viewing, not even in the good ole bad VHS days. Years ago, I checked out a poor VHS copy from the public library in New Martinsville, West Virginia. The librarian recommended it because Stage Struck had been shot in New Martinsville in 1925. Local resident R. Bryan Wilson had tracked down a 16mm print and paid for a videotape copy for the library so that residents would have an opportunity to see it.
I was genuinely flabbergasted to learn that a film starring Swanson at the height of her fame had been shot in tiny New Martinsville, which is near where my family lives, so I decided to investigate further. With the help of Mr. Wilson, I talked to several residents whose family members had actually been a part of the festivities when Hollywood came to town. I eventually wrote up their stories and insights into an article for the state’s magazine, Goldenseal. Over the years, I waited for Stage Struck to be released on home video, but as far as I know, it has never been released. And, given the current state of the home viewing industry. . . . well, let’s just say that I can’t see Netflix falling all over itself to stream Stage Struck.
I love investigating a film I had never heard of, and as it turned out, Stage Struck marked an interesting point in Swanson’s career. In 1925, Gorgeous Gloria was at the height of her career, receiving 10,000 fan letters and gracing 20 magazine covers per week. Stage Struck reteamed Swanson with one of her favorite directors, Allan Dwan, who had a reputation as an innovator during the silent era. Their collaboration produced eight films, including the highly acclaimed Manhandled (1924).
In Stage Struck, Swanson stars as small-town waitress Jennie Hagen, who loves Orme Wilson, the cook in the restaurant where they work. Orme, who is infatuated with actresses, falls for Lillian Lyons, the star of Waldo Buck’s showboat production. After taking a correspondence course on acting, Jennie tries her luck at becoming a glamorous actress, but she ends up in a humiliating slapstick routine in Buck’s stage show. Eventually, Orme realizes that Jennie is the girl he loves. The two are wed, and they open their own flapjack joint in New Martinsville.
By 1925, Swanson was famous for her glamorous, sophisticated characters, such as heiresses, temptresses, or royalty. Stage Struck was a departure to some degree, because Jennie Hagen is a sweet, small-town gal. But, for those fans who wanted to see glamorous Gloria, a dream sequence finds Jennie imagining herself as a famous actress playing the role of Salome. The dream sequence was shot in two-strip Technicolor, which was used only for special sequences during the silent era. Stage Struck’s dream sequence represented the perfect opportunity for Paramount and Allan Dwan to play with the two-strip color process. The closing sequence, in which Orme and Jennie live happily ever after, was also shot in color.
However, the historical merits of Stage Struck mattered little to the group I interviewed. Though seventy years had passed, the people in the group were proud of their town’s participation and still star-struck by their brush with Hollywood. The oldest members of the group had actually been around for the shooting and vividly recounted their experiences.
On August 17, 1925, the majority of New Martinsville’s 5,000 residents crowded the sidewalks at the North Avenue train station waiting for the special B&O train that was carrying Swanson from New York City. As the train pulled through the railyard, the engine tooted a welcome while factory whistles joined in the noisy salute, and the New Martinsville Band struck up a delightful musical greeting. I can’t help but wonder what the locals thought of the Hollywood types who stepped out onto the platform. Gloria was accompanied by her latest husband, a French nobleman sporting the title Marquis de la Falaise de la Coudraye, and Monsieur Rene Hubert, her personal dresser who doubled as the costume designer for her films. They were followed by director Allan Dwan, handsome leading man Lawrence Gray, six-foot actress Gertrude Astor, and comedian Ford Sterling. Also onboard were location scout Arthur Cozine and acclaimed art director Van Nest Polglase. Cozine and Polglase had discovered New Martinsville while scouting locations. The two had traveled from Pittsburgh to Ravenswood, looking for the perfect bucolic river town until they hit upon New Martinsville. Cozine gushed to the Wheeling Register that the town “is the only city along the river we found entirely suitable from a standpoint of beauty and hospitality. . . . I would call this city the parlor city of the Ohio Valley.”
Swanson and the Marquis were driven to the residence of J.O. Noll, who had offered his large brick home for their week-long stay. The colorful businessman liked to be called Cap Noll or Captain Noll, though no one could remember if had ever been a river boat pilot or ship’s captain. Noll owned interests in several commercial and freight boats, including the Water Queen, the old showboat that was to be used in Stage Struck. The 800-seat Water Queen was not in operation at the time, but it was completely redecorated and wired for electricity by the expert Paramount technicians.
Despite the lifestyle differences between Hollywood and New Martinsville, the townspeople opened their homes and hearts to the movie people. Tales of the town’s generosity and good will filled the newspapers during the week that the movie company was there. In her autobiography, Swanson reminisced about the many cakes and jars of pickles that townspeople dropped off several times a day, including a huge angel food cake from the Rev. J.G. Baugh. A local band, the Magnolia Serenaders, played on the lawn most evenings to the delight of Swanson and her entourage. The Lincoln Theater, co-owned by B.B. Muhleman and A. L. Koontz, hosted a showing of Manhandled, which was attended by Swanson, Dwan, and Governor Howard M. Gore. The Brothers Press, a local print shop, printed and distributed Paramount News, dedicated to news about Swanson and the film production. According to the masthead, the free newsletter would be published “daily except Sunday, during Miss Swanson’s stay with us.” Not to be outdone, the town’s newspaper, the Wetzel Democrat, published daily “Gloriagrams,” which were tidbits about the movie’s production. The Wetzel Democrat, which was a companion newspaper with the Wetzel Republican, has morphed into the Wetzel Chronicle. This newspaper is still going strong; my cousin Lauren Matthews works as a reporter for the trusty Chronicle.
According to Welsch’s biography, Swanson thought of her summer in West Virginia as a much-needed respite, partly because of the rural, small-town atmosphere. Unlike the big cities, New Martinsville residents were respectful of the star’s privacy. Swanson and the Marquis liked to walk around the town in the evenings, sometimes strolling to Hornbrook’s Drugstore on Main Street—known up and down the river for their soda fountain delights. The sight of the glamorous actress and her nobleman husband sitting on stools sipping their chocolate sodas through a straw must have been a memorable one.
Dwan asked for the cooperation and participation of New Martinsville residents for two major sequences in the film—one aboard the Water Queen and the other taking place at a town picnic. The picnic sequence was staged at what was then called Emch Park, located about a mile below downtown. The park was transformed for the scenes by the addition of tables, benches, refreshment booths, a band stand, and a dancing stage. The scenes took all day to shoot, but the hundreds of extras did not seem to mind. Many photos were taken that day showing a smiling Gloria posing with Dwan and her costars, or mingling with the townsfolk. Some of these photos still line the walls of New Martinsville’s much-loved Court Restaurant.
I interviewed two residents, Joel Potts and Wayne McCaskey, who served as extras for the performance sequence shot on the Water Queen in which chorus girls (described by Wayne as “flappers”) danced on the showboat stage. The pair was among several hundred extras who made up the audience, and their job was to act enthusiastic in several reaction shots. McCaskey was part of a medium shot in which several spectators were directed to show excitement by pounding on the person in front of them, adding a bit of physical humor to the scene. Some of the extras—who were amateurs, after all—did not realize that they could fake the act of pounding, and it would still look authentic enough on the screen. The person behind McCaskey walloped him on the head repeatedly, leaving the kid with a mighty sore head.
Other residents gladly worked behind the scenes to help the Paramount crew with their needs, including Jennie Winer Hoffner of Winer’s Department Store. When the costumers working on Stage Struck needed a pair of old-fashioned cotton bloomers for Gloria’s character to wear in a couple of key scenes, they called on Winer’s. The store donated a pair of giant white bloomers, and Jennie hand-delivered them to the costumers. After the movie wrapped, Swanson personally kept the unusual undergarment. Years later, store owner Louis Winer wrote to Swanson and asked if she would be kind enough to return the bloomers as a keepsake for the family, which she did. He proudly displayed them in the store as a reminder of his store’s part in the production of Stage Struck. The bloomers were an important part of the comedy in a key scene in which Gloria, despondent over her wayward boyfriend, jumps off the deck of the Water Queen. The next shot finds her dangling in mid-air by the elastic in her bloomers, caught by a hook or rod extending from the side of the boat.
After the exterior scenes had been completed, the production wrapped and cast and crew left for New York City, where the interiors were to be shot inside the studio. When Swanson and her entourage departed for New York on August 26, thousands of residents saw her off. According to the Wheeling Register, Swanson was tearful as she yelled to the crowd over the clatter of loading equipment, “You’ve been so kind, I can’t thank you enough.”
I learned a lot from researching this story and interviewing those who were still excited by the events of that summer so long ago—most of whom have passed away since I wrote the original article. The residents of New Martinsville proved to me that there is still magic to the movies for many of us, though it is more difficult to find given today’s cynical, expose-driven entertainment press, which manufactures and then tear down faux celebrities who contribute nothing.
Sadly, the reference to Stage Struck in Welsch’s biography reminded me that so many films from the silent era and even the Golden Age have been lost. With the digital revolution under way, and an industry less than interested in preserving or conserving existing 16 and 35mm prints, what will happen to those films like Stage Struck that have never been released on video or disc? Without institutional or industry support, more and more titles will slip through the cracks and exist only as brief mentions in the pages of biographies and history books.
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