Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Watching "Oh! What a Nurse!" in Paris

Just returned from what I hope is my last or near last research trip for this project--across the pond anyway. Besides uncovering a few gems at the Cinema Museum and the British Library, I got to see the inside of the overseer's house of the Lambeth Workhouse complex (location of the Cinema Museum, in fact) and received a private tour of the inside of St. John's Church on Larcom Street, the site of Hannah and Charles' wedding and Sydney's christening. It was a great trip.

I forget who gave me the information--was it Steve Massa? Uli Ruedel?-- that Serge Bromberg had a copy of "Oh! What a Nurse!" one of Sydney's five Warner's features, this one filmed in 1926 and directed by Chuck Reisner as were three of the others. This was one of Syd's cross-dressing films--in fact, it turned out to be crossdressing overload, in my opinion, in that he donned both widow's weeds and those of a nurse. It also turned out to be his LAST crossdressing film, a fact which he made emphatic in the advertisements for his next film "The Better 'Ole," in which he plays Old Bill, an aging World War I "Tommy." Perhaps it was the fear of being typecast, or just the cross-dressing overload that caused this change for Sydney, but, truly, the film as it exists doesn't offer much that I would call archetypal Sydney in terms of bits or humor, which is odd, really, seeing as how he was working with a tried and true bunch for the most part--except that the script is attributed to Bloch and Sherwood. In fact the many draft scripts that exist in the Chaplin archives diverge from this particular story greatly.

So, there we were, Kate, myself and Lenny, sitting in desk chairs in the basement of Lobster films next to the Steenbeck and six cans of film. Serge graciously threaded the first reel through and it became instantly clear that he was the only one of us that could make this thing work--due to the film's condition. We all huddled around the small screen, trying to translate the Flemish subtitles (Kate was quite good at this!) and discern the plot, but I have to say, that as frustrating as this must have been for Serge and possibly for the other viewers, there's nothing like seeing a rare film and seeing it this way made it even more of an adventure. Bless you, Serge, for providing us the opportunity.

The plot is easily provided by reviews of the film that are still available. Jerry Clark, who, by day is an advice columnist for the lovelorn called "Dolly Whipple,"discovers a plot afoot that involves a young rich girl, Lydia, played by Patsy Ruth Miller, who will be forced to marry a man who is only after her inheritance. Syd as Jerry, then, decides to go to her rescue, and must dress as a woman at different points in order to do so, because someone at the paper is involved (Edgar Kennedy's character, among others).

Mordaunt Hall gave the film a fairly bad review in the New York Times: "Sydney Chaplin is appearing in a boisterous bit of buffoonery called "Oh! What a Nurse!" the authorship of which is credited to Robert E. Sherwood, editor of "Life", and Bertram Bloch. It is only fair to state that none of Mr. Sherwood's usually brilliant wit is perceptible in this production, but at the same time, had he or Mr. Bloch been in the Mark Strand yesterday afternoon, they would have heard round after round of loud laughter."

In William Drew's book, "Speaking of Silents: the First Ladies of the Screen," he quotes Patsy Ruth Miller on the film: "I did 'Oh! What a Nurse!' with Syd Chaplin in 1926, but I never got to know him. That was a mistake. I should never have been put in that picture. That was one of the few times I was angry at the studio. It was silly. They were using my name because Syd Chaplin really didn't mean a thing. So I was forced to do it simply because they thought my name on it would make it amount to something. I didn't enjoy making it. I thought it was a stupid film, and I didn't think Mr. Chaplin had any personality. I thought he was rather common--sort of a music-hall type of comic--and we had nothing in common" (149). After my viewing, I'm not sure what Miller really had to complain about, because she was hardly in the thing. I think she should have been greatful at least that she escaped Syd's predations, but maybe she didn't and thus the rancor. She's mistaken, however, about her importance to this film. Sydney was well-established by this time and was making a lot of money for Warner's.

Probably the thing we noticed most by watching this film was Sydney's appearance. He had taken his new role as "male romantic comedy lead" to heart. Here, he is slim and trim--every bit as fit and wiry as Charlie ever was--and he has capped his teeth as well (not attractive, in my estimation). We all just kept commenting on his physique!

My original litho-ed "Oh! What a Nurse" poster, supposedly the only one in existence, arrived in the mail last week. Perhaps now I need to offer up some more money to have the film restored to go with it.