What happens after Happily Ever After? Authors, filmmakers and columnists have all tackled that question but one of the best works examining life after the fairy tale comes from Cecil B. DeMille. An American Princess marries her chauffeur. An heir to a fortune marries the laundress. But that’s only the beginning…
And they lived happily ever after until Cinderella got drunk at Prince Charming’s dinner party…
Marriage between classes is a common element in fairy tales and other popular fiction. The dear little cinder girl marries the prince. The princess weds the brave tailor. But one could argue that the most interesting part of the story is after the end. How will these young people from very different backgrounds adjust to one another? On the heels of one of his most unabashedly romanticized modern fairy tales (Forbidden Fruit), director Cecil B. DeMille tackled that very question.
Saturday Night was one of many marital comedies that DeMille created in the late 1910s and continued make into the talkies and pre-Code era. It’s one of his more obscure titles in this genre but it is also one of the smartest and most enjoyable.
I had my doubts going into the film. I love DeMille but the first character we are introduced to is an Irish-American girl named (shudder) Shamrock O’Day. I’ve run across a lot of terrible, clichéd, culturally clueless character names but that one takes the Irish cream cake. Viewers would be forgiven for giving up right there but stick with the movie, it’s worth it.
Shamrock (Edith Roberts) dreams of a handsome prince who will shower her with pearls and diamonds. Enter Richard Prentiss, played by Conrad Nagel.
A comparative newcomer to the DeMille troupe, Nagel had a small role in Forbidden Fruit and this was his second outing as DeMille’s leading man. The first was in Fool’s Paradise, in which he played a former soldier who falls for a cantina dancer but then she gets jealous and blinds him with an exploding cigar. (I’m not making this up.) Nagel recovers and then ends up in royal palace of Siam (because, why not?), where he has to jump into a crocodile pit in order to win the love of another dancer-turned-Red-Cross-nurse-turned-royal-mistress. I have not seen it but I suspect it may be the most wonderful movie ever made.
Nagel’s role is considerably less colorful in Saturday Night. Richard is a nice enough fellow but his main motivation in life seems to be rebelling against his controlling mother (Edythe Chapman) and sister, Elsie (Julia Faye). He and Shamrock meet cute over a basket of spilled laundry and the attraction is evident to all.
Richard’s longtime girlfriend and sorta fiancée is Iris Van Suydam (Leatrice Joy in her first DeMille outing), a thrill-seeking hothouse flower with a passion for fashion. Her chauffeur is Tom McGuire (Jack Mower), who is also Shamrock’s next door neighbor. Tom has the most awful crush on Iris and she doesn’t think he’s half bad either. (He kisses her when she is unconscious at one point because he is not creepy at all.)
Before you can say “marry in haste,” the couples are wed. Shamrock goes to live with Richard in his splendid mansion and Iris is off to the sticks with Tom. Iris hasn’t a cent of her own, you see, and her uncle cut her off because he disapproves of the match.
This would be the end of most films but it’s only act one here. Very quickly, the couples begin to realize that life is not always a fairy tale.
Leatrice Joy’s acting really starts to shine at this point. She enters her tiny, shabby apartment and is determined to make the best of it. As she is looking around, Tom has gone into the next room to change out of his chauffeur’s livery and into his civvies. When he emerges in his cheap blazer, his shabby shoes and his tacky tie pin, you can see Iris’s face fall. She has never seen him out of his snappy, well-cut uniform and the difference is dramatic. Then she gives a sardonic smile. She has made her bed. Tom is oblivious to her feelings and dashes off.
Iris sees a piano and begins to play but no music comes out. The piano is a false front for a Pullman bed. The symbolism is obvious (okay, extremely obvious) but effective.
The gum-chewing Shamrock is delighted with her new surroundings. Richard’s family is less than thrilled but they try to cope as well as they can and get Shamrock ready for her debut in society. In these films, the Cinderella character is usually portrayed as sympathetic but Shamrock is outright obnoxious. She’s rude, ignorant and manages to get drunk at a dinner party and fall asleep on one of the guest’s shoulders. This isn’t just a poor girl treading water in a new situation, it’s a moron who hasn’t enough sense to see herself as others see her.
You see, even the poorest person would likely be mortified to get drunk and fall asleep at the dinner table in a room full of strangers. It’s nothing to do with class, it’s basic social sense. Not Shamrock. She snivels about everyone being ashamed of her but sees no reason why she should be ashamed of herself. Richard’s mother and sister are saints for even attempting to work with her but why should this coarse creature ruin their social life? Richard is embarrassed by his wife’s antics but he is still in lust with her and refuses to see why she should be left at home.
Meanwhile, Iris is getting a crash course in code-switching. Tom’s deferential manner is gone, which is fine, but it’s replaced with a bullying jerk. He makes it clear that he views Iris as a dishwashing machine and cook. She is inexperienced at all homemaking tasks, of course, and is ruthlessly heckled by Tom and his friends. Iris knows that the mistake was hers and she tries to cope but she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Things come to a head on Halloween night. Elsie is having a costume pool party and Shamrock is all ready to go. Elsie’s like, “Yeah, could you not.” And so Shamrock mopes. Tom has gotten a job as her chauffeur (over Iris’s objections) and he decides that he will take her to Coney Island for a good time.
Richard finds out and races to Tom’s apartment but finds Iris is alone, waiting for her husband to come home. Oh, and the upstairs neighbor smokes cigarettes in bed and decorates his rooms in old newspapers. I wonder what will come of that?
By the end of the film, I was hoping that Shamrock, Tom and Richard would all meet with a horrible end and leave Iris to find the love she deserved. Tom and Richard spend their time fighting over Shamrock while Iris is forgotten in the background. Again, Joy plays the scene beautifully, with her character slowly realizing that she has lost both the men in her life and that she doesn’t matter to them at all. Shamrock shows no empathy for Iris, she’s too busy whining about how she hates people being ashamed of her.
Unfortunately, we are sent hurdling toward an extremely unlikely happy ending but the journey was an intriguing one.
The love stories all fall apart because all four characters entered their romances for selfish reasons. Iris wanted excitement, Tom was in love with an idealized version of his employer, Richard wanted to prove a point with his family and Shamrock wanted to play Cinderella. They’re from different sides of the tracks but the romances would never have worked even if they had shared similar backgrounds. They were all too selfish and oblivious and only Iris seems capable of change. Whether by accident or design, DeMille and screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson created a double romance with only one likable character.
(This is a very important point. At first glance, it may seem that this is a “stick to your own kind” movie. Leatrice Joy’s character even says so. However, looking below the surface reveal something a bit more complex—a meditation on why marriages between social castes might fail.)
I do wonder if this film was intended as a creative meditation and counterweight to DeMille’s own film, Forbidden Fruit, which is an unabashed modern Cinderella. Certainly, it has a lower budget than other DeMille films of the period but this works to its advantage. DeMille loves his historical and fantasy flashback sequences and they tended to make the plot come screeching to a halt.
Saturday Night is not flawless and there are several scenes that teeter on the edge of silliness. For the most part, it all works thanks to the excellent performance of Leatrice Joy.
Joy was one of the most talented of all DeMille’s silent leading ladies. However, the pair had a personal and professional falling out a few years after the release of Saturday Night. That’s common enough in the temperamental world of artists but what makes this case particularly tragic is that it was all based on a misunderstanding.
When DeMille left Paramount, he decided to try to start his own studio. Part of the exit deal he negotiated with his former bosses was to receive copies of the films he had made for them (showing excellent foresight, I might add) and to bring along select players from the Paramount stable. Joy was one of those players.
The major studios had powerful publicity departments but any upstart concerns would have to build those connections from the ground up. Leatrice Joy was saw at once that her career would be damaged by joining DeMille’s studio and she was smart enough to see that she had a limited amount of time to cement her star status and build a nest egg. She begged DeMille to let her out of her contract and told him to put his ego aside and return to Paramount.
What Joy did not know at the time (and still did not seem to know when she was interviewed decades later) was that DeMille was not leaving willingly. He was being forced out and felt he had been stabbed in the back. He viewed Joy’s attempt to jump ship as the betrayal of a friend when he needed support the most. For the remainder of her tenure at DeMille’s studio, Joy was cast in programmers but no prestige productions. She felt these films were awful but I think she didn’t give herself enough credit. She is excellent in any film she appears in and the movies themselves have the quirky DeMille charm even if they weren’t directed by him personally.
Joy makes no mention of reconciliation. It seems that the estrangement was permanent. What a waste for both actress and director, especially since the misunderstanding could have been so easily cleared up over the course of a professional lunch. There’s no real bitterness in Joy’s narrative, just regret and wistfulness. I told you this was a sad story.
In Saturday Night, Joy brings a subtlety and intelligence to her role, something that the other three leads lack. I suspect that Shamrock was intended to be a spunky cutie-pie but I hated the character from the moment she was introduced. She’s not smart, she’s not nice and she’s not charming. Her complete lack of empathy and self-awareness make her one of the most obnoxious Cinderellas on record.
Tom is a boor but I’m not sure if we are supposed to be rooting for him or not. Richard is a weakling who always manages to make a stand at the most inconvenient, inappropriate and damaging times and places. More skillful actors may have been able to do something with these characters but Jack Mower and Conrad Nagel don’t seem to be up to the task. Leatrice Joy acts circles around them.
Acting kudos are also due to Julia Faye as Elsie. DeMille’s longtime mistress, Faye’s performances are more often endured than enjoyed but she does a great job in a complicated role. Elsie is often dismissed as a beast for her behavior toward Shamrock but I think she is the only young character to display a shred of common sense. She sees that the Shamrock/Richard union will be disastrous and tries to cut it off but once the deed is done, Elsie tries her darndest to walk Shamrock through the fateful dinner party but the latter’s stubbornness and lack of basic social graces dooms any attempt to assist her. I can hardly blame Elsie for asking Shamrock to sit out the pool party.
(Speaking of pool parties, this is the film that made William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd’s career. According to DemIlle’s memoirs, Julia Faye’s bathing suit top popped mid-scene but Boyd, who was an extra, was able to shield her from the camera in such a way that the scene was not spoiled. This quick thinking impressed DeMille and he cast him in the lead of his very first independent production, The Road to Yesterday.)
Whether they were intended to be or not, the unlikable characters actually help to shed light on the tropes and archetypes of the fairy tale and illustrate how everything can go terribly wrong outside the storybook.
Saturday Night is a welcome surprise. It’s easily one of DeMille’s best films overall and certainly one of his best pictures from the twenties. Leatrice Joy and Julia Faye act up a storm and the smart script gives them plenty to do. This fractured fairy tale is a real winner.