I’ve seen Lillian Gish in several silent films, and of course in character roles in later films, but this was a chance to see her as a young woman in an early talkie. Also I have never seen the Grace Kelly version of this Ferenc Molnar play so I came to this with an open, if not actually empty, mind. Lillian is charming, but the role of Princess Alexandra is a little dull and stuffy, so I look forward to seeing her in something more challenging. The real delight of this film is Marie Dressler as Alexandra’s mother, Princess Beatrice. She seems incapable of delivering a line straight – there is always a sigh, a gesture, that makes the saddest scheme or the most frustrating setback something comic.
The family, mostly women, is on its last financial legs. Alexandra must marry and soon. There was apparently some sort of semi-official arrangement that would have married her off to Prince Albert (played by Rod La Rocque), but Albert’s casual disregard for his father’s wishes and his wild party-loving nature have put a cork in that plan. In the meantime Alexandra has a more than passing interest in the fencing tutor (Conrad Nagel) hired for her two barely-adolescent brothers. And the tutor, though he knows nothing of Alexandra’s thoughts, has a deep, abiding, but utterly hopeless love for her. Then a letter arrives announcing Prince Albert’s upcoming visit. His father has tried to lay down the law, and Albert must give old dad at least the appearance of filial obedience. So the mother rejoices, the princess looks at the tutor and despairs, and during the first evening of the visit, at a ball for the prince, the two men square off. No matter that the tutor is not merely a tutor but is also an astronomer, because, alas for a fair fight, the prince is working from a position of wealth and title. The piece is more light-hearted than I may have made it seem, but the issues of inequity are truly serious, and a great deal is riding on the outcome. What will occur? Since she has almost zero control over events, will Alexandra be satisfied with what fate brings? And possibly more important, will you?
One strange thing about this film – both TCM and IMDb say the title is “One Romantic Night”, while the film itself has only the title card reproduced above: Lillian Gish in “The Swan”. I’ll believe the film instead of those other guys.