“I’ve seen more tears run down the pretty faces than the plain ones.”
Many years ago I saw the film The Red Velvet Swing–a story of the explosive love triangle between prominent New York architect, Stanford White, Philadelphia millionaire Harry K. Thaw and showgirl, Evelyn Nesbit stayed with me. The three formed one of those poisonous cocktails of a relationship, and it all ended badly with one of the most infamous murder trials of the 20th century. The film is based on this true story, and the names of the major players haven’t been changed. Note I didn’t say the guilty or the innocent here, but more of that later. I’ve thought of the film–and its characters–quite a bit over the years, and when I saw a copy recently, I decided it was time to revisit the film.
Set in The Gilded Age, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing is an explosion of colour and rich sets, but in spite of all its gorgeous trimmings, the story falls down by a superficial, uninteresting and whitewashed version of the character of Evelyn Nesbit. She was the only one of the three main characters alive when the film was made. All three of the main characters are whitewashed, by the way, but the script at least created well-formed characters in White and Thaw.
The film’s strength is to be found in its portrayal of White (Ray Milland) and Thaw (Farley Granger). The plot indicates that this pair were feuding (Thaw had been barred from White’s gentleman’s club and Thaw thought White was responsible for this) long before Evelyn Nesbit (Joan Collins) arrives on the scene. The plot implies that some of this was envy. White is an elegant gentleman and considered New York’s first citizen. Thaw is rich, but from Philadelphia, and for all of his throwing his money around, he still can’t seem to get the respect that White commands with his elegant grace.
White is introduced to Evelyn by another chorus girl, and the two women are then invited to lunch at one of White’s secret hideaways. This particular hideaway is behind a shop, and the film captures Evelyn’s naivete and wonder as she steps inside and views an exotic apartment designed by White. A brief affair ensues with Thaw’s anger growing as he realizes that White got to the girl he liked first. The plot plays with the idea that Thaw’s main interest in Evelyn comes from the fact that she is White’s, and over the course of several scenes, White and Thaw are like two dogs with a bone–the bone being Evelyn, of course.
While White and Thaw are strongly-drawn characters (White as elegant gentleman and Thaw as a loony with two handlers in tow), Evelyn’s character is problematic. Naive to the point of perpetual victimhood, she’s a bit of a ninny. The plot gives us hints that both White and Thaw are ‘deeper’ than shown here–White for example has the debris from a party strewn over his love nest, and what about the business with the pie? In the same vein, Thaw’s unhealthy relationship with his mother indicates where some of the problems spring from. But that leaves us with Evelyn. Here she’s a gorgeous face (and vain about it), yes, but empty as a drained coke bottle. It’s hard to imagine anyone being driven to insanity or murder by this woman. She’s too docile.
The film is directed by Richard Fleischer who directed a number of noir titles including Narrow Margin and Follow Me Quietly. Marilyn Monroe was originally slated for the role of Evelyn but was replaced by Collins. The dialogue isn’t great, but there are a couple of allusions to the sex sneaked in behind all the heavily whitewashed drama. In one of the film’s most visually stunning scenes, White pushes Evelyn higher and higher in a swing he has set up in his little love nest, and the empty swing indicates…well watch it and see. In another scene, Evelyn proudly lights White’s cigar and gushingly confesses that she used to light her father’s cigar and never “choked once.” Perhaps I have a dirty mind, but I wondered about that line.
The film’s determination to avoid the more salacious details and create the innocent and the guilty spoilt the true real-life tale. The plot sets White and Evelyn’s mother as the moral centres of the film with both characters vainly trying to ‘save’ Evelyn from debauchery. It’s impossible to miss White’s hypocrisy though. It’s fine if he debauches Evelyn–just as long as no one else does. The plot sweeps away this awkwardness by depicting White as so in love with Evelyn that the poor bastard couldn’t help himself. So he has to ship her off to a boarding school in order to keep his hands off her. The truth of the matter, which seems to matter little to the film’s plot, was far from that depicted here. In reality, there were no innocents–just shades of guilt. Back to that poisonous cocktail again, and back to the idea that should a film based on real-events make more of an effort to show what really happened?
According to author Michael MacDonald Mooney’s book, Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White, Love and Death in the Gilded Age (which I read after watching the film), the relationship between Thaw, White and Nesbit was much more complex and corrupted than shown. In sparing our sensibilities, and pleasing the censors, truth is the victim here.