Early sound films, particularly those made in 1929, are always fascinating to watch. Virtually overnight the shockwave of sound sent Hollywood back to the Stone Age, and once the silent films that were already in production were completed and sent out into the world (ironically including some of the greatest pieces of cinema ever created), the real work of getting the big stars ready for their sound debuts begun in earnest. It's almost heartbreaking to see the lyrical, fluid camerawork and complex adult storytelling of films such as The Wind, The Crowd or The Wedding March wiped out in a matter of months for the sake of tinny sound and stilted acting, and all in the name of progress. As a result the language of film and the artistic strides being made were damaged irrevocably and in fact really never recovered, but that's an argument for another day. The fact remains that sound was in and silence was consigned to history, and the stars had to earn their place in Hollywood all over again.
The first few sound films of established silent stars are always the most interesting to watch. Sometimes, such as in Dangerous Curves, you can almost see the fear in their faces. I'd say that pretty much all the major stars survived the test, unless they had impenetrable foreign accent or fell foul of studio politics. Of course, some such as Ronald Colman, Laurel and Hardy and W.C. Fields did so well that it made their silent films an almost forgotten afterthought. With Clara Bow, her success and failure in sound seemed to be mostly out her hands. However, for some reason, silent stars that didn't go onto long and enduring sound careers (like for example Harold Lloyd) are deemed by modern critics to have been failures regardless of the reason for their lack of output and despite their actual critical and financial success at the time.
Clara Bow, by all accounts made a successful transition into sound with her early films receiving good reviews and box office. However, by that time her private life was spiraling out of control and faced with court cases, scandals, debts and near mental and physical collapse, the studios and Hollywood society in general backed off from supporting their former "It" girl and her movies were quickly withdrawn from exhibition, and eventually ended up playing to empty houses. I haven't seen her sound debut, The Wild Party as of yet but consensus opinion states that it was popular but an artistic disaster and that under the supervision of Ernst Lubitsch, the follow up was a vast improvement. Now having seen Dangerous Curves, I'm a bit fearful of watching it's predecessor.
It's not that Dangerous Curves is a bad film as such, it's just that it shows the typical teething pains of an industry finding it's feet once again. The story concerns a circus high wire performer played by Richard Arlen who is in love with fellow performer Kay Francis, while good girl and wannabe tightrope walker Clara Bow looks on. When Arlen falls during a performance after finding out that Kay is two-timing him he retires and it's up to love sick Clara to coax him back and convince him that she's the right one for him. The film is typically short and snappy and the stars generally carry the action but as you find with these early sound films, there are some wayward and at times bizarre moments.
Clara Bow's performance ranges from charismatic and sincere to out and out train wreck. Sound films were a good opportunity for her to emerge as the character she really was, not the character others perceived her to be. Rather than the formulaic flapper, in sound she uses her natural Brooklyn accent to become a fast talking streetwise go-getter with a good heart, a character much better suited to the times and one that stood out amongst the clipped theatrical tones of the many stage actors unaccustomed to sound. However, even with the patronage of Lubitsch, a good script and a fresh screen character, Bow could not escape her fragile health and nerves.
It feels awful to say it but there are times in the film where she just looks a little too overweight for a leading lady. She had always struggled with keeping in shape for the screen but she loses the battle here, and the skimpy circus outfits she has to wear don't help matters much. As well as that, as was common in classic movies of the golden age (Bette Davis I'm looking at you), star actresses frequently played teenage girls well into their thirties and beyond. I thought that she looked far too old to be playing the 17-18 year old character, until I realised that when making the film Clara Bow was only 23. Not good. Clearly the partying , the over-work and the stress had taken it's toll. Added to that, according to on set accounts, Clara developed a bad bout of microphone fear and broke down several times after making repeated mistakes during the particularly wordy scenes. Clearly, she was on the verge of some big problems and her performance in the film veers uncomfortably close to reality at times.
There is one very odd scene where she is sitting talking to Richard Arlen as they rehearse their act in the circus ring. The director, Lothar Mendes who infuriatingly refuses to use close ups at all throughout the film, frames her sitting down from a medium shot in one seemingly continuous take. She sits there really awkwardly in her circus tutu, with her legs at a strange, almost unladylike angle. She then begins her long monologue and continually pauses and stutters, at times visibly looking like she's trying to remember her lines. She also keeps looking up, presumably at the looming microphone above her, and generally looks very nervous and uncomfortable. The scene seems to never end and is just horrible as she trails on indeterminably with her speech. There are moments when time just stands still and and you feel she really is going to burst into tears at any moment.
Thankfully she shows moments of real sparkle in the rest of the film, though ultimately she never really connects fully with the viewer. This is mainly due to the absence of close ups, making it hard for the silent screen veteran to use her trademark expressions to charm the audience. Despite her constant giggling and bouncing about like a love sick teenager she just about wins out, and certainly audiences in 1929 took to her new persona with no questions asked. There's a charming scene where she woos Richard Arlen over coffee where you get the feeling that if she had just held her private life at bay and gotten studio backing (a tall order in reality) that she really could have made her mark in 30's popular cinema.
The rest of the cast fare well, especially Kay Francis in her third film appearance. Kay was just beginning the short-haired villainess phase of her career (for another great example see The Marriage Playground) where she ably played slightly aristocratic "other women" constantly trying to lure the hapless leading man away from their true loves. She's good in this despite the plainly ridiculous premise that she's supposed to be a top high wire performer. Her cultured accent and worldly ways make a good contrast to Clara Bow's love struck teen. Based on her real life, I bet she could have had a great time off set comparing notes on bohemian high living with Miss Bow. Then they could have met up 15 years later to discuss having their careers shortened due to studio politics. In many ways they were very similar, just from different decades.
Previous to this movie the only other Clara Bow sound film I'd seen was the frankly astonishing Call Her Savage, which is without a doubt the most jaw droppingly outrageous pre-code movie I have ever seen. Living up to the retina scarring memory of that little epic was always going to be hard and Dangerous Curves, doesn't reach such giddy heights. However, all in all it's an interesting snapshot of the movie industry adapting to sound. It doesn't live up to its hype (even the "dangerous curves" of the title refer to Richard Arlen's character's career path, not the literal curves of Clara Bow, sadly) but it does show what could have been a new beginning for her as a 'good' girl. Alas, it was not to be and after a few more under promoted films, combined with the pressure of several major court cases and the onset of mental illness she retired from the screen aged only 28. I'd have to say that although it's not a particularly good film, there are still moments when she shines like the Clara Bow of old and you see hints of what made her one of the biggest stars in the world, and personally that's enough for me.