For a number of years now I’ve been meaning to engage in a research project to learn more about the American film editor Irene Morra (1893–1978). This interest first began because we share the same last name. I don’t think we’re related, but as a wise friend once told me, trees have lots of branches! We could be relatives, but my in-depth genealogical and filmographic research has yet to begin. Irene Morra spent decades working at Twentieth Century-Fox with directors such as Frank Lloyd, Norman Foster, and her longtime collaborator, David Butler. As a young woman, Morra worked as a negative cutter for D. W. Griffith in the earliest days of American cinema. She was also instrumental in founding the Motion Pictures Editors Guild. So how best to learn more about Irene Morra? Watch the movies she edited.
MoMA has dozens of films in the collection on which Morra is credited as editor. Starting at the beginning of the alphabet, I decided to watch Adorable (1933), directed by Wilhelm Dieterle. (Later in his career the German-born Dieterle took screen credit as “William.”) Adorable—based on Hans Schwartz’s 1931 German film Ihre Hoheit Befiehlt (Her Grace Commands), a charming light operetta written by a team that included Billy Wilder—is a light romantic musical in which Princess Marie Christine escapes from the palace in her home of Hipsburg-Legstadt to have some fun among the hoi polloi. At the local beer garden, Marie Christine meets and flirts with Karl, a young man who tells her he works in a delicatessen. Marie Christine, who calls herself Mitzi while away from her royal confines, enjoys her night on the town but must make her escape before it gets too late. In something of a Cinderella story, the princess returns to the palace well after curfew only to be found out by a regiment of sleeping soldiers when a balloon she is carrying bursts. Marie Christine asks the soldiers to keep her secret and they do—she’s very charming.
In the kind of improbable criss-cross of identities that is typical of romantic films like Adorable, it turns out that Karl does not sell pickles in the delicatessen. Rather, he is a corporal in the regiment of soldiers organized to guard the princess. Marie Christine must soon find a suitable husband but, having been educated in the sophisticated city of Paris, she is keen to find a man she loves, rather than one she is told she must marry for the benefit of Hipsburg-Legstadt. The Prime Minister, who advises the King, tells him he has found an appropriate husband for the Princess in a prince from a nearby kingdom, but the Princess wants Karl. Ultimately, when she discovers his true identity, Marie Christine uses her royal prerogative to have Corporal Karl promoted to Captain.
Janet Gaynor stars as Princess Marie Christine. Gaynor was in her late 20s when she played the schoolgirl princess, which may explain why I struggled to appreciate her in the role of a petulant teenager. There is, however, a frothy coating of delicacy, conviviality, and merriment as Gaynor and her costar, Henry Garat, sing their love songs while dancing in a lively beer hall or skating in a rink in the town center. The songs “Adorable,” “My First Love to Last,” and “My Heart’s Desire” are set to appropriately sumptuous production numbers that privilege Gaynor and Garat, but also the many bizarre citizens of Hipsburg-Legstadt, including the royal kitchen filled with toque-wearing chefs—and a contingent of boy-chefs too!
Though my initial viewing of Adorable hasn’t lead to any specific conclusions or insights just yet about Irene Morra’s career or aesthetic as a major film studio editor, I nevertheless look forward to watching more films and diving into her history. Her long partnership with director David Butler is also intriguing. Stay tuned for more on Irene Morra, as I hope to reintroduce her to the film-going audience at MoMA.
Adorable was preserved by The Museum of Modern Art with support from the Mayer Foundation.