Woman to Woman (1923)
Graham Cutts’ Woman to Woman (1923) has been regarded as the most ground breaking British film to be released in the 1920s and although the film is lost and cannot be viewed, from the available commentary, reviews and remaining stills it was obviously a lavish and sophisticated production. It was a commercial success both at home and in the USA and launched the careers of three men who would play major roles in the development of British Cinema – Michael Balcon, Victor Savile and Alfred Hitchcock.
‘Woman to Woman… does one important thing astonishingly well – it forever blasts the delusion that a production, technically perfect cannot come out of a British studio.’ Kineweekly
The director, Graham (Jack) Cutts had already made his mark directing two films starring Mae Marsh in The Flames of Passion (1922) and Paddy the Next Best Thing (1922) for Herbert Wilcox at the Islington film studios. He was a colourful character, pushing forty, with energy and stamina, and had quite the reputation as a womaniser. He was also the best director in London at the time with a great attention to detail and vision.
Cutts had secured an option on the film rights of Woman to Woman, Michael Morton’s successful stage play that had run in the West End in 1921. On parting company with Wilcox, Cutts approached Balcon and Savile to make the film and formed the Balcon-Saville-Freedman company raising £40,000 to finance the making of the film. They decided to lease the former Famous Players Lasky studio in Islington to shoot the film. It had been the home of the abortive attempt by Famous Players Lasky to create a British based film studio. Formerly a power station it was situated in the rather dreary and grubby surroundings of the New North Road and Poole Street in Islington.
A young Alfred Hitchcock, who had been left at the studio, was appointed to look after the scenario, continuity and art direction. Espinosa was secured to arrange the dances, Dolly Tree was engaged to design all the costumes and gowns and Claude McDonnell hired to look after photography.
Cutts and Hitchcock went to Paris to do research for décor as the film was to require elaborate Parisian scenes and Saville went off to America to find a star securing Betty Compson at £1,000 a week for a two picture deal. Her salary was believed to be a record for any film actress in England. Using a big American movie star was becoming more commonplace with obvious advantages at the box office. Herbert Wilcox had already shown the benefit of this arrangement by using Mae Marsh and was also using Betty Blythe in Chu Chin Chow (1923) filmed at the UFA studios about the same time.
Betty Compson was at the time highly regarded for the success she had created in The Miracle Man, At the End of Road, The Law and the Woman and The Green Temptation. Small, dainty and with a delicate femininity she arrived in the London on 10th May and was immediately adored as a ‘jolly, effervescent and yet firmly practical young woman who puts on no airs and graces.’
As supporting stars Savile engaged Josephine Earle, Clive Brook, Henry Vibart and Marie Ault and a range of supporting players.
‘This is a film of exceptional artistic and dramatic interest.’ Bioscope
Production started in April 1923 and the picture was finished by August. The screenplay was written by Michael Morton adapted from his play and for 1923 it was considered daring, although looking at it today, the story was really rather naive and melodramatic.
A British army officer (Clive Brook) falls in love with Delores (Betty Compson), a French dancer at the Moulin Rouge. It is 1914 and he goes back to the trenches, is wounded and looses his memory and fails to carry out his promise to marry the dancer. When the war is over he returns to England and marries (Josephine Earle). In the meantime the dancer has borne his child and becomes internationally famous. Engaged to dance in England she meets her old lover and his wife with the climax of a confrontation between the two women and the death of Delores.
‘The director has certainly had at his disposal a greater latitude of treatment and an accompanying freedom in expenditure which few British directors have ever been able to experience…the gorgeous dance and stage settings are quite lavish – and as daring as any American efforts on the same lines.’ Motion Picture Studio
One of the first scenes to be filmed was at the end of April, prior to the arrival of Betty Compson. It featured a life-sized reproduction of the exterior of the Moulin Rouge with showy electrical illumination of the frontage and the revolving sails of the mill itself. There was a length of pavement and a street, French taxis and adjoining cafes.
The bohemian atmosphere of Montmartre was all pervasive and the set was populated by a vast array of supporting players representing a mix of people including typical British Tommies, French poilus, artists, nondescript dilettantes, street urchins, gendarmes, sailors, waiters, flower sellers and of course delightful specimens of Parisian femininity.
Pedestrians strolled along the pavement, taxis dodged people crossing the road, the café tables were bustling with life, the manager of the Moulin Rouge outside the entrance nodded to passing acquaintances as two street urchins bickered on the kerb. The male lead Clive Brook walking along the street glanced at the entrance to the establishment and is ushered inside.
Another major scene to be filmed with Betty Compson took place at the end of May. Cutts had replaced the exterior of the Moulin Rouge with the interior for the great cabaret scene. A large crowd of assorted picturesque Parisian types sat at tables and the terraces with the bohemian gaiety augmented by a large negro orchestra. Betty Compson emerged at the head of a sextette of dancers all scantily, but artistically decked out to perform their cabaret dance in rather beautiful dresses by Dolly Tree.
Cutts was one of the few directors around who valued the art of the costume designer to add glamour and real class to his films and was rather particular that every costume detail was absolutely right. Dolly Tree would have not only dressed the principals but would have been responsible for ensuring that the supporting cast were all suitably attired. Since she had also worked extensively in Paris her knowledge about Parisian nightlife and culture would have been an asset. Her creations showed ‘artistic merit and ingenuity’ and ‘compared favourably with the best mannequin displays’ ranging from exotic cabaret costumes to appropriate contemporary fashions. The most praised creation was the ostrich–feather dress that Betty Compson wore toward the end of the film which allegedly was composed of over 200 ostrich feather plumes and 1,000 pearls described as one of the most extraordinary dresses that has ever been seen on the screen. Picture World wrote ‘A small fortune must have been spent for one dance number.. with the star in an elaborate costume suggestive of those worn by Gaby Deslys.’
The cabaret scene in the Moulin Rouge culminated in a representation of a stage show with the print being allegedly tinted to provide greater novelty value. Variety thought that this was in fact a filmed segment from the Hippodrome show Brighter London (it was in fact a filmed segment from the Casino de Paris in Paris) and commented that ‘for eccentric and flash costuming will make the wise boys over here look the second time.’
‘The producer has given his story beautiful and lavish settings, but never once does he allow these to overshadow or interfere with the action of the plot…rarely does one see so well staged a theatre scene as the one in this picture.’ Kineweekly
When Woman to Woman was finally released in November 1923 it was adored by the critics. The performances of the principals were laudatory. It was thought that Betty Compson gave the best performance of her life and that it was a great piece of screen acting: ‘in the dramatic scenes she shows considerable power of emotion while her lighter moments are full of grace and charm.’ There was praise for Josephine Earle for handling a difficult part with remarkable skill, for Marie Ault who contributed a delightful study of character as the dresser and confidente and for Clive Brook who gave one of the finest performances of its kind on the screen with the comment that no actor could have played the part better.
‘An example of the better grade of work over there. It is unquestionably equal to a vast majority of the releases viewed in the first run houses over here.’ Variety
Betty Compson had accepted the role in Woman to Woman on condition that her contract should be for two films. This proved to be a costly mistake for the Balcon-Savile-Freedman team. They were so engrossed in the first production they foolishly had made no preparations for the the second picture and had no other property ready to exploit for their expensive American star. As a result they rushed into production with The White Shadow which had originally been called The Awakening, which was billed as the same star and same production team as Woman to Woman. This second film was the story of twin sisters, played by Betty Compson, differing in temperament who suffers tragedy. Although there was plenty of evidence of expenditure in the picture as it was staged effectively with first class sets and costumes which included a big Montmarte cabaret scene it was regarded as a rather ordinary production which fell drastically short of the essential qualities of good story, sincerity and continuity and had a rather unconvincing theme which was indifferently edited and confusing to follow. The White Shadow became a box office disaster and wiped out the profit from Woman to Woman, which basically meant the end of Balcon, Freedman and Savile.
After the demise of the Balcon-Freedman-Savile combine, Balcon formed a new company with Cutts called Gainsborough and released a new picture called The Passionate Adventure, (1924). A more modest production than its predecessors, it was scripted by Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Morton and starred another American import Alice Joyce. Other Balcon/Hitchcock films followed such as The Rat (1925), Sea Urchin (1926), The Pleasure Garden (1926), The Lodger (1926) and The Triumph of the Rat (1926).
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
Pictures and Picturegoer, Motion Picture Studio, Bioscope, Kinematograph Weekly, Variety, Picture World
Michael Balcon Presents. A Lifetime in Films by Michel Balcon.
Hitch: Life and Work of Alfred Hitchcock by John Russell Taylor