Gertie’s got a garter but now she needs to unload it for reasons. Marie Prevost and Charles Ray star as the ex-couple that is still bound together by a garter. It’s a lot less wild than it sounds.
I’ll also be covering the 1945 talkie remake. Click here to skip to the talkie.
Born to be Mild
In theory, silent films and farces were an ideal match. The somewhat otherworldly feel of silent cinema could and did meld beautifully with the improbable plot threads required in a proper farce. The combination did work (The House in Kolomna, The Oyster Princess) but there were also times when silent movie farces went out with a whimper.
Getting Gertie’s Garter was a 1921 play by Wilson Collison and Avery Hopwood that had run for 120 performances in New York. With its plot revolving around, well, a garter and the climactic hide-and-seek in a hayloft, it would have seemed like an ideal picture for the late 1920s and an ideal vehicle for Marie Prevost, who specialized in being no better than she ought.
Gertie Darling (Marie Prevost) has become engaged to Algy (Franklin Pangborn), the best friend of her ex-fiancé, Ken (Charles Ray). Before her marriage, she has one bit of unfinished business. Ken was the talk of Paris when he presented her with a diamond-encrusted garter and the thing has both their pictures on it. What would Algy think?
Meanwhile, Ken is engaged to Teddy (Sally Rand, pre-bubble and fan) and he is terrified that she and her uptight aunt (Lila Leslie) will find out about the garter. It even made the newspapers! The horror!
Also, Fritzi Ridgeway, Dell Henderson and Harry Myers are hanging around and managing to get themselves into compromising positions. So there’s that.
Anyway, the rest of the film is taken up by Ken and Gertie trying to get back the garter and everybody else thinking they have rekindled their romance. There’s a lot of running around, losing of trousers and dresses but it’s all in kind of a Saturday morning cartoon way. Not really as naughty as everybody seems to believe.
Marie Prevost is just as cute and charming as she always was and the role of Gertie suits her seen-it-all persona just perfectly. Prevost could be a fine dramatic actress when called upon (she stole The Godless Girl right out from under Lina Basquette) but her roots were in comedy and she singlehandedly saves several scenes with her skills in that department.
Some jerk at Photoplay described Marie Prevost as being “pounds beyond the pleasingly plump stage” which leads me to wonder if they were in need of corrective lenses. I would also like to point out that the Photoplay reviewer is anonymous, which is a pity as I was looking forward to critiquing their flawless body.
Charles Ray is miscast, in my opinion. The role of Ken involves not being to tell a bracelet from a garter and Ray comes off as too… intelligent to pull off the role. The part requires something a bit more Woosterish, an amiable ditziness. Ray is amiable but he is also bright-eyed and alert. This would not be a problem in another film but it is a fatal flaw here.
In further bad news, I cannot think of worse casting for the prudish halves of the main couples than Frankling Pangborn and Sally Rand. Those two can’t even walk into a room without turning it into a double entendre and we’re supposed to believe that a garter would send them into fits of puritanical horror? Nope, not buying it. Everybody’s very charming but certainly not prissy.
Truth be told, the entire cast seems entirely too worldly to pull off that innocent routine. From Teddy’s knowing remarks on presents from men to Ken’s obvious relish of feminine company to Gertie stating that engagements do not always equal marriage to Algy shrieking that he loves rough girls, it certainly seems like this quartet gets around and all of them have seen, given and received garters a time or two.
The characters may have sown their wild oats but the film itself, aside from some Taco Bell spicy title cards, is pretty milquetoast for a self-proclaimed farce. But how was it viewed back in ye olden days?
Getting Gertie’s Garter was compared (in Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang, no less) to Hollywood marital comedies like Why Change Your Wife? but I think that it has a considerably more Gilded Age outlook with all of the spice loaded in its title and not its content. This view is supported by reviews of the time, which consistently state that the play was a bit of an old hat in the farce department and that the main attraction was watching the audience and seeing who laughed at what.
So, it looks like Getting Gertie’s Garter might have offended some rural puritans but everybody else gave it a collective yawn. (Or sneeze. The play used real hay in its climactic hayloft scene and apparently sent some theatergoers fleeing due to allergic reactions. Well, that’s one advantage of motion pictures.)
Getting Gertie’s Garter is all about Teddy and Algy not discovering that their respective intendeds were engaged before. The stakes could not be lower. (In the original play, both Gertie and Ken have married other people, which raises the risk a little but not by much. Just remove the photo and mail the garter back to Ken, Gertie. Boom! Done.) Really, the film should have been set in the 1890s when its central premise would have been a bit more shocking.
Reviews of the time pointed out these issues. Picture-Play called it conventional, Photoplay found it ridiculous that engagements and garters would trouble the modern woman and the New York Times described the comedy as slap-dash. Well then.
The basic flaw of this film is that its plot is a strain for even the most devoted fan of farces to believe. Since Ken’s French garter purchase actually made English language newspapers, it seems delusional to believe that he could somehow keep it from Teddy. A jewelry purchase so saucy and lavish that news reports were frantically typed? Oh yeah, that will stay a secret.
I know farces are meant to be broad and silly but they must follow the rules set in their own crazy world. Getting Gertie’s Garter does no such thing. Characters are nudge-nudge-wink-winking one minute and then fainting at the sight of a man in shorts the next. This could have been turned into a commentary on the hypocrisy of American culture or something but nobody seemed interested.
The film is further marred by the overuse of title cards, which slow down the action and are often redundant. I expect these antics from a lower budget picture but this film had some money in it. They should have sprung for an editor.
In the film’s favor, I will say that everybody is an equal opportunity prude and there’s no double standard. Everybody acts like an idiot, yay! Hey, I take what I can get.
I would also be remiss if I did not praise the costumes. They’re everything you could want in a 1920s picture: fur-collared capes, dear little frocks and negligees with long trains. One of everything, please!
Getting Gertie’s Garter has a game cast that tries hard but is completely done in by its weak premise and lack of suspense. There’s never a moment of doubt about who Marie Prevost will be wedding in the end and the production is unwilling to abandon the original play’s prim perspective. This film is worth it for Prevost’s fans but anybody else should consider heading into more Lubitschy territory.
Where can I see it?
The Allan Dwan-directed the 1945 remake of Getting Gertie’s Garter came during a time when Dwan was almost exclusively working in broad comedy and follows Up in Mabel’s Room. All I can say is that thank heaven Dwan jumped over to westerns after this bout of madness.
Getting Gertie’s Garter (1945)
The setup of the film is the same as before with the added complication (present in the original play) of everybody being married or almost. Ken (Dennis O’Keefe) is an absentminded professor and who once gave a Napoleonic garter to Gertie (Marie McDonald) after having engraved a romantic message on the priceless antique. The vandal.
Ken is married to Patty (Sheila Ryan), a whiny little creature who is green with jealousy at any mention of Gertie. Gertie is engaged to Ted (Barry Sullivan), who won’t let his wife work and who rounds out possibly the most Celtic-surnamed cast 1940s Hollywood had to offer.
Anyway, Ken is about to be honored by a scientific board but then he receives a court summons. He purchased an expensive garter years before and there’s some kind of theft involved at the store so he is wanted as a witness. Ken have the garter to Gertie and somehow thinks that destroying it will remove all evidence. But Patty knows about Gertie and surely a garter…
Shut up! We are having a farce here!
Anyway, Gertie is cool with giving up the garter until Ken starts acting squirrely and she worries what Ted will think, so she decides to keep it as evidence of… something. Why she just didn’t snap a picture with her Kodak Brownie, I have no idea.
What follows is everybody chasing everybody else with additional Binnie Barnes as somebody’s sister—I stopped caring at a certain point. There’s some amusing business with Ken accidentally carrying around one of his lab mice but that is quickly abandoned. We can’t have amusing in THIS farce, mister.
First the good news: Dennis O’Keefe starts out marvelously as Ken. He’s so daffy and absentminded that it’s easy to believe he would mistake a garter for a bracelet. Except he doesn’t. Ken buys the garter knowing full well what it is. Oh well, so much for that.
However, as the film progresses, O’Keefe’s behavior becomes more bizarre, demanding and entitled. In the finale, he seems to be trying to channel Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace except, you know, without the bodies or the serial killers or the actual humor. I kept wishing he really would choke on that ridiculous garter.
Unfortunately, O’Keefe is the only point in this love trapezoid that is appealing at any stage of this film. McDonald is a rather boring Gertie, Sheila Ryan is a shrewish Patty and Barry Sullivan is depressingly chauvinistic as Ted. To be honest, I couldn’t care less about any of these awful people and just wish that Ken had taken Beatrice the mouse and relocated to Chile or something at the start of the film.
If at all possible, the 1945 film has even less suspense than the 1927 edition. Both the main couples are aware of the past love affairs and three of them are reasonably okay with the notion that their darlings have dated other people. This renders Patty’s childish cattiness to Gertie pretty off-putting and her objection to the garter doubly so. Come on, they can even say “garter” out loud and the Code is still well and truly in place!
Look, it’s not like Ken was seeing Gertie behind Patty’s back when he gave her the garter. He was seeing Gertie, bought her something, they broke up (Patty doing the breaking, it is hinted) and he married Patty. No muss, no fuss, nothing to complain about. I can see the science board being a bit prissier but it’s hardly unheard-of for a fella to buy his gal something personal if they’re serious and vice versa. Again, it’s not like he was cheating.
Further, the central problem is that Ken must testify to purchasing the garter in court. As he is listed in the receipt book, I don’t see how destroying the garter will help matters. A $500 piece of jewelry is nothing to sneeze at today and in 1945 that was $6775 and change. The prosecutor would surely wish to know what was is even if Ken did destroy it.
Plus, Patty is running around sniveling about Ken’s attentions to Gertie. Surely just explaining the garter would be easier. I hate movie plots that could be entirely resolved by one painless conversation. (“We could have skipped all the melodrama and sharp things!”)
The whimsy doesn’t work either. This very much reminds me of Give My Regards to Broad Street in which Paul McCartney is trying desperately to be whimsical, by gosh! See? This is fun! We’ve been having fun for exactly 73 minutes! Fun! How fun! (Locks self in closet and cries.)
So, the story makes no sense and I wanted the entire cast to die in a freak asteroid strike. Not exactly what I would call a successful farce. Paging Mr. Lubitsch, paging Mr. Lubitsch.
And the winner is…
The silent version makes almost no sense but there is at least Marie Prevost holding things together as Gertie and some gorgeous 1920s frocks to covet. The cast comes off as too smart and worldly to worry about garters but I don’t hate them. The 1945 film is pretty dowdy and I wanted the cast to be hunted down by Xenomorphs, which makes quite a difference. I hope they get Patty first.
Like what you’re reading? Please consider sponsoring me on Patreon. All patrons will get early previews of upcoming features, exclusive polls and other goodies.