By BERNIE FLETCHER
There was pomp and pageantry and horses aplenty at the recent coronation of King Charles III. Perhaps that spectacle of high society dressed to the nines is what director Ernst Lubitsch was looking for in 1925 when he brought a cast and crew to the old Woodbine Racetrack all the way from Hollywood.
Lady Windermere’s Fan was a silent film adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1892 comedy of manners. Lubitsch came to Hollywood from Germany in 1922 at the invitation of Toronto-born Mary Pickford. He would go on to direct such classic films as The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and To Be or Not to Be (1942).
Newsreel cameras rolled at “the Woodbine” as early as the 1900s.
One 1904 ad for Massey Hall boasted of “Splendid moving pictures of the King’s Plate and the crowd at Woodbine”, but Lady Windermere’s Fan was the first big Hollywood motion picture to film here in Toronto. This was before the advent of “talkies” or the Oscars.
The Toronto Star gushed over “Irene Rich, the Movie Star, who will arrive in Toronto from Hollywood on Saturday…Miss Rich is a former Buffalo girl and well known in Toronto society.” (Sept. 30, 1925).
A later Star story reported that “the crowd must look as English as possible.” The Beach was rather British at the time.
There were several days of filming capturing one real race and then hundreds of fashionably dressed extras came back the next week when “the race meeting was just a meeting for the screen and the men and women merely players.”
The Globe and Mail wrote that the film gave “Toronto people last fall their first real opportunity to see movies in their making…one of the features of their own society on the silver screen.”
“I can resist everything except temptation.”
— Oscar Wilde
Lubitsch wanted to “open up” Wilde’s play by adding racing scenes shot on location.
Irene Rich plays Mrs. Erlynne who is trying to rejoin the social elite after a scandalous affair. All eyes are on her. Top-hatted men are ogling her. Gossiping society ladies in fur collars are literally looking down on Mrs. Erlynne with binoculars as a title card reads, “I wonder where she gets all her money.” See an amusing excerpt from this scene at http://www.acinemahistory.com/2017/02/lady-windermeres-fan-1925.html?q=lADY+WINDERMERE%27S+FAN
The horse race is merely a backdrop to satirize British aristocracy. People are there to see and be seen in their finery. The camera captures emotions by facial expressions rather than with Oscar Wilde’s famous witty lines.
“What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
It is ironic that Ernest Hemingway once wrote that “there is only one Woodbine” (I Like Canadians, 1923).
Our racetrack by the lake from 1875 was replaced by the New Woodbine and eventually torn down for housing.
A moment of glory came in 1939 when huge crowds cheered as King George VI (1895-1952) arrived for the running of the King’s Plate. His story was told in the Oscar-winning film, The King’s Speech (2010). His grandson Charles has been invited to attend the King’s Plate on Aug. 20.
The Kew Beach Fire Hall is glimpsed in the background of the 1925 movie race scenes. Does anyone know when the cupola atop the tower was taken down (sometime between 1948 and 1952)?
A big thank you to Gene Domagala for telling me about this filming at the Woodbine. I had never heard of it!
“We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.”
— Lady Windermere’s Fan