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Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, The
For as long as there have been beautiful women, men have been ruining themselves over them. G. W. Pabst had Louise Brooks and Pandora's Box and Max Ophuls had Martine Carol and Lola Montés. Darryl Zanuck and Richard Fleischer have Joan Collins and The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, which is no classic but still managed its share of thrills in 1955. Censorship standards wouldn't allow screenwriter-producer Charles Brackett within a mile of the facts of the scandalous 1906 murder of Stanford White -- see the 1983 Ragtime to get a better idea of the situation -- so this CinemaScope production forms itself into a respectable morality tale. Instead of enjoying her transgressions, Evelyn Nesbit suffers at the hands of one man who cannot marry her, and another who becomes a madman. Sadder but wiser, she delivers a final line worth remembering: "My mother taught me a proverb. If you lie down with dogs, you come up with fleas."
Nobody expected The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing to dish the real dirt about Evelyn Nesbit. The 65 year-old Nesbit was hired as a special consultant on the movie and the details of the Nesbit-White 'love nest' that came out in the murder trials are conspicuously absent. The red velvet swing of the title must serve as a substitute for their sexual relationship, as the Production Code would barely allow the adulterous couple to even kiss. History at least provided for the unlucky Stanford White to receive his just desserts in a way the Code would approve, while Evelyn hides behind the Code-sanctioned notion that she was an innocent babe in the woods. Just what was the couple doing when the red velvet swing stopped swinging, playing patty-cake?
Ray Milland was a very handsome 50 during shooting, making him the proper age to play New York's most amorous married playboy. Joan Collins plays her part well enough but the Evelyn Nesbit character remains little more than a beauty with boyfriend problems. We don't learn much about her vanity or her real motives. She's just (sigh) beautiful, love-struck and sad. Lola Montés and Lulu Schön drove men mad with desire but Nesbit's story is much more sordid. She was the under-aged lover of an older man with a fondness for nymphettes. The Milland / Collins chemistry is curiously lukewarm because the script won't define their characters. Is she immature, or knowing? Is he a romantic -- or a sexual predator?
Farley Granger is also short of the mark as the impetuous, spoiled and abusively insane Harry Thaw, his second outing in an odd demented characterization after Hitchcock's Rope. Granger's reads his dialogue flatly and his tantrums are unconvincing. We don't feel the irresponsible menace that must have lurked behind Thaw's baby face.
The elaborate production reproduces several fancy stage presentations from the period and plenty of antique settings, costumes and vehicles. Where CinemaScope movies of this period fail is in their high key, flat lighting. The visuals are devoid of depth or atmosphere except in Stanford White's love nest, and even there most of Fleischer's compositions are defeated by a lack of imagination with the ultra-wide screen shape. Although opinions are softening, in the 1950s and 60s Richard Fleischer was considered a promising talent who became dull with the advent of CinemaScope.
The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing twists history to make Evelyn Nesbit a plucky victim instead of an irresponsible Lolita, but at least it's consistent. Glenda Farrell's faithful mother tells the vain Evelyn that in her experience, beautiful girls shed a lot more tears than the plain ones. Yet the movie fudges facts, denying that Evelyn is a kept woman and her mother an accomplice to profitable adultery. When the Thaw family was through with her Evelyn had nothing, not even her good name, so the ending with promoter Emile Meyer on the Atlantic City boardwalk brings the story back to the facts again. Free of her romantic illusions, the former Gibson and Floradora girl swoops over the heads of a drunken crowd on her red swing. The image should be the equal of the devastating finale of Lola Montés, where an endless line of customers pays to kiss the courtesan's hand. The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing is not in the same league, and remains interesting mostly as a valentine to Joan Collins' beauty.
Fox's Cinema Classics Collection presentation of The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing looks better than ever; most of us have only seen wretched pan-scanned television prints. The color and sound (4.0 Dolby) are excellent. An isolated track allows us to hear the cues for Leigh Harline and Edward B. Powell's music. Fox has loaded the disc with extras. Author Aubrey Solomon's commentary only runs over selected scenes, and he covers the facts and curiosities of the production as only a studio historian can. Especially recommended is From Ingénue to Icon, a good featurette about Joan Collins' early career; it quickly sketches the other films in the Joan Collins Collection and explains that the actress came to Fox because Darryl Zanuck was impressed by her in dailies for Warners' Land of the Pharaohs.
Other extras include a trailer, several galleries of stills and artwork and one of Fox's clever Interactive Pressbooks. An additional track in Spanish is added, plus subtitles in English, Spanish and French.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing rates:
Movie: Very Good
Sound: Excellent 4-channel stereo
Supplements: Commentary by author Aubrey Solomon, Isolated Score track, Featurette From Ingenue to Icon, Galleries of photos, magazine covers, advertising; trailer, interactive pressbook, press release
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 8, 2007
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