The Million Dollar Dollies (1918)
Produced by Emerald Pictures and distributed by Metro, The Million Dollar Dollies, was the first and only film that the Dolly Sisters appeared in together. It was released in early 1918 in the USA but did not surface in the UK until 1920.
Leonce Perret (1880-1935), the celebrated French director saw the Dolly Sisters dance in one of their vaudeville engagements at the Palace Theatre, New York in late 1917 and ‘was caught by their lithsomeness, their personalities, the sheer expressiveness of their twinkling feet, their nimble bodies and their provocative faces. ‘Absolutely’ he said to himself ‘the Dolly Sisters were born for the screen.’ He decided to write a screenplay especially for them and persuaded them to appear together in what was rather aptly titled The Million Dollar Dollies, a name that certainly stuck to them like glue thereafter.
Perret had been director-general of the Champagnie Gaumont film company in Paris for fourteen years and had written or produced over three hundred feature films mostly prior to First World War but had now made his American debut with Captain Robert Warwick in The Silent Master and The Mad Lover, The Accidental Honeymoon and others.
Both sisters had already appeared individually in one picture before. Rosie in The Lily and the Rose (1915) and Jenny in The Call of the Dance (1915), but neither had succumbed to further screen offers.
After lengthy appearances in vaudeville and cabaret in 1917, the Dolly Sisters spent part of the winter performing for the Red Cross in the glamorous American resort of Palm Beach before rushing back to the Biograph studio in New York to begin filming in February 1918.
The film itself was a romantic fantasy with comedy elements and had a silly plot about the Dollies, Maharajahs and a million dollars. An Indian Maharajah (Ernest Maupain) living in New York had been cast under a hypnotic spell by his ferocious uncle the Rajah Ismael (Paul Doucet). He exercises his power over the Maharajah forcing him to detest and have nothing to do with his wife, the Princess (Dolores Cassinelli) and spends his time instead dragging the depths of his marble aquarium looking for fish.
Two beautiful dancers are engaged to marry two wealthy young men (Jack Hobson (Bradley Barker) and Huntley Gordon (Tom Hylan) but decide to postpone their marriage until they can, by their own efforts, equal the fortune of their future husbands. Rather timely, whilst skating at a hotel, they meet a celebrated psychologist (Marshall Phillip) who is trying to cure the Maharajah of his ailment. He promises the sisters a million dollars if they will visit the New York palace of the Maharajah, break the spell and reunite the royal pair.
After many dangerous adventures, one of the twins obtains the Maharajah’s ring and gives it to the Princess and breaks the spell, The twins return home with their million dollars and prepare to marry their sweethearts.
It was a picturesque tale with extremely good sets designed by Henri Menessier that evoked the right atmosphere of the mysticism of the orient with the hall of a Moorish palace, the marble courtyard, the Maharajah’s bedroom, the Princess’ room, underground chambers of the palace, the interior of a theatre, rooms in an apartment and a replica of the very fashionable Sherry’s restaurant.
The palace was an excellent example of Moorish architecture with its intricacies of design. Arabesque decorations with mural ornamentations of grotesque figures, griffins, dragons and chimeras and costly tapestries, with costly rugs and carpets rendered a splendid scene. According to one reviewer ‘the palace looks as if it had been spirited into existence by the magic of a genie from the Arabian Nights.’
The theatre scene was also admired and here on the stage, representing the boards of a prominent vaudeville house, the Dolly Sisters presented the dancing act that had made them famous.
The swimming pool in the palace was also magnificent. It was deep enough for one of the sisters to do a high dive into it and real swans mingled with the swimmers. In the big fight scene between the Hindu attendants and the police near the end of the picture, many of the participants were thrown into the pool!
In essence the film played up the Dolly Sisters as the Dolly Sisters and was a vehicle to display their dancing, mannerisms and of course their amazing wardrobe, which allegedly comprised forty-eight different costumes all more than likely created especially for them by Lucile.
The film did not surface in the UK until the Dolly Sisters made it big at the London Hippodrome in the Albert de Courville revue Jigsaw in early 1920 and it was then decided to release the film via Gaumont in the summer of 1920.
Kine Weekly thought it was ‘cleverly done… very entertaining’ and ‘handsomely set.’ Of course the Dolly Sisters were liked because they looked ‘bewitchingly and bewilderingly alike in a whole series of dresses and undresses.’ Needless to say the story was considered weak and improbable but the reviewer stressed it was a spectacle and more or less a screen pantomime where it was ‘unnecessary to discuss probabilities too seriously.’
For the Bioscope, it was ‘novel’ and ‘unique’ and ‘typically American in its dash and sparkle’ but overall a very ‘bright and pleasing entertainment’. Although they thought the story ‘fanciful and ingenious’ the Dolly Sisters were described as ‘charming… clever and attractive’ and thought they had a pretty talent for comedy which the scenario brought out to admiration.
After becoming stars of the silver screen the Dolly Sisters became a more highly visible commodity ‘their rise has been more rapid that that of any other girls on the stage. Their remarkable grace and beauty combined with their rare ability as dancers made a strong popular appeal.’ The Dolly Sisters secured more vaudeville and cabaret engagements and then starred in the Elliott, Comstock and Gest show Oh Look (1918) before conquering London and Paris.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
New York Public Library / Dolly Sisters Scrapbooks, the Shubert Archive
Kine Weekly, Bioscope, Variety, Photoplay, Motion Picture World
The Delectable Dollies by Gary Chapman