by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film we picked was One Romantic Night, a.k.a. The Swan, a 1930 United Artists release that was the second of three films based on Ferenc Molnar’s play “A hattyú,” meaning “The Swan.” The print we were watching came from a recent TCM showing as part of a day-long festival for D. W. Griffith’s greatest star, Lillian Gish, on her birthday, October 14. On one level it was quite a good movie; the splendiferous sets by William Cameron Menzies and Paul French eloquently framed the action; the pacing of Paul L. Stein’s direction was good and the actors mostly delivered their lines naturalistically, with few of those deadly pauses that marred many early talkies and actually made them seem less realistic than silent films.
On the other hand, it was saddled with a really silly story, one of those love-vs.-duty things: Gish plays Alexandra, daughter of a royal family who lost their throne but still retain their title — and her mom, Beatrice (Marie Dressler, acting with the same transcendent authority she showed in Garbo’s first talkie, Anna Christie, and likewise out-pointing the leads), is determined to rehabilitate the family’s coffers and royal standing by getting Alexandra to marry Prince Albert (Rod LaRocque). Meanwhile, Prince Albert himself isn’t interested in marrying anybody — he’s having too much fun “playing the field” (when he was introduced Charles asked me why he wasn’t singing the lusty songs of the male lead in The Merry Widow) and going through women like a reaper through a wheat field. The entire film takes place on the estate of Alexandra and her parents, and focuses on Beatrice’s attempts to have another man court Alexandra so Albert will get so jealous of Alexandra that he’ll pop the question just to make sure someone else doesn’t get her.
The other man she has in mind is Dr. Nicholas Haller (Conrad Nagel, never any great shakes as an actor but considerably better-looking and sexier than LaRocque!), tutor to Alexandra and her two younger brothers, who’s had an unrequited crush on her and doesn’t seem to mind being used by her mom as a cat’s-paw even though he’s all too aware that he doesn’t stand a chance with a card-carrying princess. At the end, Albert receives a telegram that he’s been ordered by his family to marry Princess Marie of Hohenhauen — only Beatrice checks her copy of Gotha’s Almanac and figures out that there is no such person, but not before Albert has used that information to get Alexandra to run away with him, thinking that pairing up with him is going to cost him his throne and they’ll spend the rest of their days as two footloose ex-royals in South America.
It’s much ado about nothing, really, and both Gish and LaRocque seem a bit nervous about acting in sound films (it was her first talkie, though not his) and Dressler and Nagel both do more credible jobs of acting with their voices. Marie Dressler had the advantage over a lot of other Hollywood actors dealing with the talkie transition of having had extensive experience in both live plays and silent films — this meant she knew movies and she knew dialogue, and here as in Anna Christie it shows in a much greater level of confidence in the process and her ability to create a character in it than that of many of her co-stars. As for Nagel, he was so often tapped for major roles in the early years of sound that he joked that he and his wife could no longer just go to the movies for their own entertainment because they couldn’t find a picture playing anywhere that he wasn’t in.
It’s odd that this piece of Ruritanian cheese has been filmed three times — and though Lillian Gish would act again (even though she made only one other movie, 1933’s His Double Life — in the next 12 years) the stars of the other two versions would not. The first version of The Swan was a silent filmed at Paramount in 1926, just before its lead, Frances Howard, quit acting to marry Sam Goldwyn; and the last version was made at MGM in 1956 just before, in one of those ironic real-life situations that wouldn’t be believed in fiction, its star, Grace Kelly, quit the business to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco and become a princess in real life.