In a bid to make his wife, Constance Talmadge, sorry for neglecting him, Harrison Ford (not that one) fakes an affair but the whole thing backfires and he is divorced in a flash. And so you’re probably wondering how he ended up hiding in the wardrobe in his wife’s bedroom… (Yes, it’s one of THOSE plots.)
If you’re into that kind of thing…
Adapting stage comedies for the silent screen may seem like a no-brainer but there are a dozen pitfalls at least to consider. Can the play be “opened up” or feature more settings without losing its basic appeal? Will the witty dialogue translate well to the screen?
A Pair of Silk Stockings was a 1914 bedroom farce by Cyril Harcourt (not to be confused with the short story of the same name by Kate Chopin) that was adapted for the screen by Edith M. Kennedy. It’s a pretty standard comedy of marriage and divorce, the sort of thing Cecil B. DeMille would make his stock in trade over the next few years.
Molly (Constance Talmadge) and Sam (Harrison Ford) Thornhill do not see eye-to-eye about a new car. She wants sporty, he wants practical. Hoping to employ reverse psychology, Sam gives Molly the money and tells her to pick what she wants. He thinks that she will pick the practical touring car to please him but when she heard “Pick what you want” she took it to mean “Pick what you want” and returns home with a sporty roadster.
Sam is in a huff so he decides that he will employ another cunning plan. He goes to a furrier and purchases a £450 coat, which he sends anonymously to Maudie Plantagenet (Florence Carpenter), a woman he does not know but, it is indicated, is no better than she ought to be. He also sends tickets to a theater box. What is this silly man about?
(It strikes me that if he has £450 to blow on fur coats for total strangers, plus whatever the theater box cost, maybe he should have just upped the ante a bit and purchased both a £900 roadster and a touring car but, as the title cards indicate, Sam is not exactly a rocket surgeon.)
At the theater, Sam makes googly eyes at Maudie and Molly proclaims that she would almost believe he is flirting. When the couple return home, Sam’s plan is revealed and boy is it stupid. Having shown an interest in Maudie at the theater, he leaves the receipt for the fur coat with Maudie’s delivery address where he knows Molly will find it. The idea is that Molly will realize that she has been treating him poorly and forced him—FORCED HIM—into the arms of another woman.
What Sam fails to realize is that this ain’t The Women and “leave him alone and he’ll come home wagging his tail behind him” has not yet become the mantra for marital comedies. Molly sees that receipt and Sam is in divorce court before you can say “Do I look like Clare Boothe Luce and Anita Loos?” And since he refuses to justify himself before a jury of (ugh!) commoners, Molly triumphs in court and is a free woman. Go, Molly, go!
Sam hasn’t had a chance to tell his side of the story but it seems that an opportunity falls in his lap when Molly shows up at the same country house party he is attending. All he has to do is sneak into her bedroom and confess his silly plan to her, what could be simpler?
Did I mention that there are burglars in the neighborhood and the house is on high alert? And that Molly has borrowed the bedroom of Jack (Louis Willoughby), her ex-fiancé, but that he has missed his train? And that Jack has a jealous fiancée of his own named Pamela (Wanda Hawley)? And that Sam is wearing fake whiskers because the party was engaged in amateur theatricals?
Those of us who have read at least one P.G. Wodehouse story know exactly where all this is going but getting there is all the fun. Suffice to say, Jack and Molly are accidentally in the bedroom together after dark, take Sam for a burglar and truss him up with Molly’s silk stockings. Then Pamela walks in on them, Sam escapes and nobody believes there was a burglar at all. Scandal! Disgrace! Will anyone end up with the person they love? Watch A Pair of Silk Stockings to find out.
While it is predictable at least the plot doesn’t take bizarre leaps in logic to drag its characters from Point A to Point B. For example, it is perfectly logical that Molly would be put up in Jack’s bedroom as absolutely everyone thought he was leaving by train. It is also logical that Sam would try to sneak into the bedroom to talk to his wife about their divorce and hiding in a wardrobe has been a proud stage tradition since time immemorial.
It’s not the most unique plot but at least the characters act like actual human beings with motivations we have probably experienced or seen ourselves. For example, a variation of Sam’s “make her jealous” plan for Molly is something I have witnessed a few times (it always backfires) and who can’t relate to the Expectation vs. Reality? My main objection to many rom-coms and farces is that the author’s hand is too visible in dragging the characters into compromising situations. Just a dab of logic is enough to please me and it is present here.
Further, the film has the good sense to call out silly characters for being silly with wry title cards offering eye-rolling commentary on Sam’s latest plans. While this bedroom farce never quite reaches the heights of DeMille or Lubitsch, it is still plenty entertaining and those droll title cards help things along enormously. (Reader, I LOL’d.)
The play was adapted twice more: once at Universal in 1927 (the George Eastman House has a complete print) as Silk Stockings with Laura La Plante and again very loosely as They Just Had to Get Married in 1932 as a vehicle for ZaSu Pitts and Slim Summerville.
A Pair of Silk Stockings was not remade again in the sound era, which is not surprising. The entire plot hinges on a question of hanky-panky and while the censors of the Breen era were pretty chill with fascism, they bristled at hanky-panky. By the time Breen and co. had loosened their death grip on the cinema, the play was quite out of date. For the most part, one pair of women’s stockings looks very much like another unless you want to go all Irma la Douce and go for a standout color but then again, that would hardly fit a conservative English society lady, would it?
You see, stockings would have been far more expensive and distinctive at this point in history, more on par with a pair of shoes. Even the cheap silk stockings in the Sears catalog ran about $35 in modern money and you can bet Molly’s cost a good deal more. This was also the last gasp of elaborately embroidered ankles on stockings, in short, the very thing that made Molly’s stockings unique and instantly identifiable. These little decorations offered an interesting view when the ankle peeped out from under the skirt. Obviously, kneecaps would be the new thing in a few years and while patterned tights and fishnets have their fans, the distinct ankle décor is pretty much extinct.
(If you’re interested in a pair of these Victorian/Edwardian stockings, here is a breakdown of how one seamstress made her own.)
Further, the very idea of “You drove me to cheat!” that gets Sam into the pickle in the first place probably would play about as well to modern audiences as it did to Molly with the added bonus of nobody understanding what the heck he was thinking. So, the film is a dated period piece but I never said that was a bad thing.
Constance Talmadge had signed on with Selznick soon after her triumph in Intolerance. Her most famous starring films are probably the pair of comedies she made with Ronald Colman as her leading man (she shared him with big sister Norma) but… I have to confess that I don’t care much for her 1920s work. Connie tends to mug, you see, and broadly. The sort of thing one expects in a Keystone comedy circa 1912 and not in a mainstream rom-com. However, I was very pleasantly surprised to see her in The Egyptian Mummy (1914) and discover that her earlier work actually featured more subtle acting.
Talmadge is similarly enjoyable here. She overplays things during Sam’s fantasy sequence imagining his wife apologizing for her bad behavior but that is clearly intentional and meant to spoof his overactive imagination. Other than that, the only scene of outright mugging is when Molly is hunting for a burglar in her bathroom.
In fact, I would say this is one of the most enjoyable Constance Talmadge performances I have seen to date. Her character is lively and takes an active part in the action, including subduing the “burglar” in her bedroom.
Harrison Ford rather overplays Sam’s, um, unique personality and it is rather difficult to root for him. Why the heck would any woman, let alone one as cute as Molly, want to marry him not once but twice? He comes off as one of the dimmer members of the Drones Club but without the goofy sense of humor and his bizarre activities with his ex’s stockings… I mean, I don’t want to spoil anything but such behavior with hosiery is usually reserved for kittens and serial killers.
The film works only because Constance Talmadge manages somehow to sell the fact that she loves the little weirdo and wants him back. You do you, Connie, but I would cut my losses and flee.
Wanda Hawley is on hand as the jealous fiancée and let me just repeat for everyone in the back that the myth that she had a bad voice for talkies is absolute rubbish. Her career was on the rocks by the mid-1920s due to audiences tiring of her “saccharine” comedies and you can hear her speak in the talkie western Pueblo Terror. Her voice is perfectly normal. She’s fine here but the part isn’t much. She basically has to spend much of the film sobbing that her fiancé is cheating on her.
The direction by Walter Edwards is okay but I could have done with a bit more scenery, maybe an amble in the garden or something. By the way, Edwards died two years later while vacationing in Hawaii and no cause of death was released. DA DA DUM! (I blame Woodrow Wilson.)
A Pair of Silk Stockings is a rather good little bedroom farce that overcomes its staginess thanks to some excellent title card writing and the charm of Constance Talmadge. This is a fun one!
Where can I see it?
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