Manhandled Blu-ray Review: Come for the Opening Sequence, Stay for Gloria Swanson

A forgettable silent comedy is made watchable by the great Gloria Swanson, and worth buying by a terrific scene on a subway.
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As the working day ends, we see tired feet marching down steps, and a pair of worn-out hands clock out.  A shopgirl tries to buy her ticket for the subway but is pushed this way and that way by the hordes coming in and out of the station.  Once on the train, she is jostled and pushed, pried and prodded.  She spills the contents of her purse.  Two men reach for the handle bars when the train moves, accidentally lifting the girl off her feet when they do.  Her hat is knocked to the floor, stepped on, and smooshed.  When the train stops at her station, she can hardly get off for all the people getting on.  When she does manage to get out of the train, she’s suddenly pushed back in.  When she finally makes it to the platform, she pauses to catch her breath  only to find someone has pulled a chain across the stairs tripping her when she turns around. It is a beautiful sequence of events.  Shot with dexterity by Allan Dawn and performed to perfection by Gloria Swanson.  Unfortunately, it is the best scene in the movie and the remaining 50 minutes or so never live up to that beginning.

Swanson plays the shopgirl, Tessie McGuire.  The shop is a dreary basement department store where she is prodded by the customers and bullied by the boss.  She catches the eye of an artist who wants to sculpt her.  After one session, he declares she’s hasn’t got it and kicks her out.  At a party, she pretends to be a Russian socialite and is hired by a high-end fashion shop to continue pretending and add some mysterious class to the place.  He keeps her in fancy dresses and expensive jewels while he takes her out to all the fashionable places. This doesn’t sit well with her boyfriend, but it takes him a while to notice as he’s busy off in Chicago designing a specialty automobile part that if he can get it to work will make him rich.

This is all played for laughs, or at least amusements, but hardly brings any.  At least not to me.  It was a pretty big hit in its day, so maybe it is just me. Or the film's age.  It was made in 1924.  It's also a silent film and admittedly, I don’t have a lot of experience with those and thus don’t quite understand its film language.

It's easy to see why Swanson was a huge star. She’s absolutely beautiful and her expressive face completely sells the story without the need of audible dialogue.  She’s mesmerizing every moment she’s on the screen, which thankfully is most of them.

The liner notes on this new transfer from Kino Lorber notes that no existing 35mm elements of Manhandled are known to exist.  They culled together 16mm elements from a variety of sources to make this the most complete print of the film available.  As such, there are a lot of problems in the video quality. There are many multiple scratches, the film regularly warbles, and the lighting fades in and out through the film.  But considering it is 94 years of age and was cobbled together from various prints, it actually looks pretty good.  It is at least very watchable.

A new piano score was created and performed by Makia Matsumura.  I didn’t care for it.  It sounded like a lot of dreary tinkling to my ears.  Extras include a nice little booklet with a good essay on Gloria Swanson and an informative, if a little dry, audio commentary from film historian Gaylyn Studlar.

Manhandled is a pretty light, sometimes dull, romantic comedy that showcases what a star Gloria Swanson was.  It would be rather forgettable were it not for that opening scene in the subway, but it's magnificent and more than worth the price of the Blu-ray.

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