Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Three Men on a Horse (1936) - '30s Dialogue and the Decline of Joan Blondell

Three Men on a Horse seems to be a fairly well regarded film but I found it on the whole, a bit puzzling. Not really for anything contained within the film itself but for the things it made me think about while I was watching it. The movie is an adaptation of a popular play and stars Frank McHugh, in a rare starring role as the hapless Erwin Trowbridge, a simple man with a knack of picking winning racehorses. The only problem being that he does it for fun and doesn’t believe in betting. When he falls in with some gamblers they try to befriend him in order to make their fortunes. This snappy premise is ably milked by the talented cast of character actors to showcase their considerable, and usually overlooked wares. And in the middle of it all, in a secondary role is one Joan Blondell, who at this point in her career definitely is not a character actor, and whose presence is, well…a bit odd.

From the beginning you can tell that the movie is essentially a filmed stage play. The sets are sparsely decorated and large, the cast is small, the script is dialogue heavy, there is virtually no location work and much of the action happens off screen. Of course there is nothing wrong with this approach, and despite the fact that the production screams “B-picture” the basic set up allows the experienced cast to flex their acting muscles in ways that I’d imagine many of them had rarely had the opportunity to do.

Despite all this, as the dialogue went whizzing by between the fast talking characters, all I could think was that in the last few years my mind had really become subconsciously attuned to Pre-Code movies. The dialogue in Three Men on a Horse is sharp and frequently amusing, but I think I’ve just become accustomed to there being a bit more bite in my ‘30s wordplay. It made me realize that the Hays Code for the most part really delayed the progress of movies as a form of entertainment to be enjoyed by adults. A lot of people hear so much about Pre-Code movies that when they finally see some examples they are vaguely disappointed by a perceived lack of scandal or overt sexuality. For me this is missing the point. Early sound films are so enjoyable because of their sense of freedom. The lack of any heavy censorship wasn’t a free pass to push taste boundaries, rather it made sure that dialogue could be written to not only better reflect life but to represent the viewers’ and the writers’ often varied tastes.

In contrast, late '30s movies like Three Men on a Horse seemed to develop a ‘wise guy’ patter that gives the impression of street level talk in its pitch, speed and rhythm, but in actual fact ends up saying nothing. Of course, this in itself was all part of Hollywood’s ‘re-branding’ in the post-Depression years, as the studio product got slicker and the stars became vehicles to push the glamour and prestige of film making. The point is, despite the witty script, it gets to a point where it’s just a group of men loudly talking at each other. In 1931, it would have been a different story. Perhaps not as well filmed and acted, but certainly a different story.

The cast in itself is mostly excellent. Frank McHugh is mesmerizing in the lead, tripping through the movie in a sort of naïve daze. His bleary eyed look gives the impression of a man out of step with the world and who has to put up with suburbia and a nagging wife in order to have a hobby that gives him enjoyment. The gamblers, played by Allen Jenkins, Teddy Hart and Sam Levene are impressive in that typical Warners way and hugely energetic but sadly hampered by really stagey accents. In fact everyone in the movie seems to have a really annoying thick Brooklyn accent of the ’I’ll moider ya’ and ‘you goys got a noive' variety. In fact Sam Levene’s accent as the dimmest of the three hoodlums doesn’t just verge on caricature, it practically throws caricature off the cliff then sets fire to it. Now, if all this is meant as some warped parody of the Warner Brothers gangster cycle then all is well and good, but I really doubt that was the intention. It may be a result of the script’s stage bound beginnings giving it a sense of heightened reality, but for a mostly stage bound movie it just becomes distracting. At times (and especially in the bar scenes) it really is as if the director Mervyn LeRoy just decided to do a performance of the play and film it for posterity.

Of course all this criticism is overlooking the good points of the film. The rest of the cast is really excellent, with Edgar Kennedy restraining the slow burn as a bartender, Carol Hughes (a childhood favourite of mine for her turn as Dale Arden in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe) as Mc Hugh’s eternally crying wife, Guy Kibbee as McHugh’s blustering boss and a brief, funny appearance from a pre-Jack Benny Eddie Anderson. As noted, it’s an excellent cast, but the approach just doesn’t work as a film and the accents are exactly what you hear in modern dramas when they do some awful pastiche of 1930s Broadway. Which brings us to Joan Blondell…

Unfortunately Joan Blondell succumbs to the theatrics of the play and sports a heavy, heavy Brooklyn accent, a la Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday but with none of the subtlety and charm. The accent is so thick that her character, the girlfriend of gambler Teddy Hart who has pretensions of a quiet life in the suburbs, can't avoid becoming caricature rather than character. Strangely enough I’ve just listened to a Lux Radio Theater production of She Loves Me Not from 1937 where she does exactly the same accent and it’s equally distracting and ridiculous (kind of like a lower pitched and more worldly wise Dorothy Lee). So the accent must have been her idea and a favourite to boot. Anyway, accent aside she really doesn’t do enough to merit her second from top billing, which begs the question, what was she doing in the picture in the first place? It’s clearly a B picture populated with character actors in featured roles, so why is she, the biggest star in the film, reduced to a minor supporting part?

Part of the answer may be down to Joan’s own lack of ambition and her then recent marriage to Dick Powell. She was known to just want to keep working and looking after her family rather than play studio politics so it’s likely that she was offered the script and chose to do it based on the strength of the writing and relative fame of the play. However, her appearance in the movie could also be a sign that her star was beginning to slip. Her screen appearances in 1936 give some hints as to this, despite three pictures teaming her with Dick Powell. In Sons O’ Guns she is lumbered with (and smothered by) Joe E. Brown as a leading man, and while Bullets for Ballots gives her a choice role with Edward G. Robinson, it is really just as the featured female lead in a 100% Robinson movie.

This was a pattern she would fall into more often than not in the years to come: the bright dependable leading lady to be paired up with A-list featured male stars (with Errol Flynn in The Perfect Specimen, Leslie Howard in Stand In and Bing Crosby in East Side of Heaven to name a few). In the late ‘30s and beyond there seemed to fewer and fewer opportunities for an equal pairing with her co-stars, with Dick Powell and Pat O’Brien being notable exceptions. Three Men on a Horse, silly accent aside may be one of the first indications that Joan was an actress to be slotted in to brighten up a movie, rather than a featured star in her own right. Of course, Joan being Joan, she didn’t fight it, choosing rather to get on with the work at hand. Perhaps if, like Bette Davis and Myrna Loy she had stood up against the quality of her parts it would have made a difference to her career. On the other hand, perhaps the example of the then fading Kay Francis at Warners was enough to make anyone forget such ideas.

I don’t know, but I can’t help but think that Joan Blondell is wasted in Three Men on a Horse, though ultimately she lends some class and real star power to a pretty cheap B-picture (Paul Harvey even fluffs a line and it stays in the film!). It’s not a perfect movie by any means but it is entertaining (in a 1936 sort of way) and features a generous spotlight on a number of actors more used to smaller roles. For my tastes however, it raises too many problems to make it a classic. And those accents…ugh. Did people in Brooklyn ever speak like that?


  1. Hello Russell: Re: “Did people in Brooklyn ever speak like that?” Not in my experience -- and I was born and raised in New York City and worked there for forty years. You touched upon a long standing irritant of mine, the sound of which will start a tirade when my wife and I watch a film at home. The “dese, dose and dem” school of Hollywood dialogue is inescapable if you watch a goodly number of thirties and forties films – which obviously you and I both do.

    I liked your succinctly written piece and also read your introductory posting. Like you, I am new to such endeavor, having started only a few months earlier. I found your site through Matthew Coniam who has been a bit of guiding light to me in these waters.

    Your first posting mentioned the inadequacy or unavailability of TCM in your region. Being an Anglophile, I spend quite a bit of time in England – and I understand, and empathize with your plight. Conversely, yesterday we had John Mills day. I will revisit regularly. Best. Gerald of Laszlo’s.

  2. Hi Gordon, and thanks for the kind words.

    After writing the piece I had a horrible feeling that someone from Brooklyn would post a comment saying that the movies got the accent exactly right! Thankfully not. I guess it's the same for all accents really, from Scots to Irish to French, Hollywood just amps up the recognisable parts and proceeds to make them more or less unrecognisable.

    As for TCM Europe, well it breaks my heart when I spend money to buy a DVD from a collector and find out that it has been taped off TCM. If I lived in the US, despite the fact that I'd never leave the house I'd save myself so much money. Of course maybe there are collectors in the US who are jealous of the same old British '40s and '50s films being shown on tv here over and over. Swings and roundabouts, as they say...
    Thanks again.

  3. I just got in DANCING LADY (1933) and Joan Crawford's accent convinced me quite. Then I looked her up on Wikipedia and **DANG**:

    Born in Texas (father in Tennessee), then Oklahoma and Missouri ... hm.

    On the other hand: Joan Blondell was born in NYC, her mother even in Brooklyn! So why shouldn't she be supposed to speak Brooklyn slang? 100 years ago the accent might have been different there. NYC moved very fast at that time.

    Mary Astor sounds British to my American ear, although she was born in NYC. Isn't that peculiar? And the funniest accent I ever heard is that German in FOOTLIGHT PARADE and THE EX-MR. BRADFORD (I love that, laugh myself to death each time)! Peculiar accents like this belong to NY too.

    You can never tell - don't be too smart (even if you're from NYC yourself). Take me for example: Years ago I met a fellow who couldn't believe that I'm not from New York. He said he was from NYC himself and my accent would show I was supposed to be from New York! Why, I've never been to New York. How comes? ... hahaha - I'd say it can only be the influence of old films.

    I certainly don't speak slang. I even don't know anything about the slang of that certain area I'm from. Well, I was born to a school teacher family - father, mother and several uncles and aunts were teachers. We don't speak slang and I'm hardly able to understand that. Sometimes I try a bit, but then I see it doesn't work - anyway it's not part of my identity and I don't really want to be like that.

    The ideal New York voice to me personally is Jean Arthur, although born in upstate NY, but her family later moved to NYC, she worked there for years and returned quite often later.

    Anyway NYC is a melting pot, with more than only one accent. During the early 20th century Brooklyn was quite a melting pot. Many people who couldn't find work somewhere else went to NYC and this happened during the great depression again. So NYC was always changing.

    If you live in a town you can hardly judge, above all if you've been born there. You'll always feel the way your family and friends spoke was the typical way of your town. So I just trust my feeling as an outsider.

    Maybe this is the reason why I don't wanna see NYC: I love the old New York I know form 30s movies and not the real, modern NYC.

  4. Hey Russel, I had forgotten, you like Joan Blondell. Me too. :)

    But maybe I wouldn't like her Brooklyn slang either. She speaks so beautifully in FOOTLIGHT PARADE and the 1933-GOLDDIGGERS. But if she spoke slang now and then (I didn't hear that yet) - maybe that's the real Joan. Sometimes we seem to like people, judging them totally different from what they really are. And when they behave authentically we say: "Oh, please don't be that way!"

    Well, I don't like low-class attitude and slang too much. So I guess I'd feel the same way like you.

    And again: Accents do change. Every 30 years we have to consider a new generation and as 60, or even 90 years go by it sounds quite different.

    I ask myself why Ginger Rogers pronounces "water" this way: [wɔ:tə] ... Maybe she liked it?

  5. Hello Clarissa

    You are right, accents do change over time and sometimes they are very difficult to pin down. Especially the leading ladies of the 30's accents as they probably went to so many elocution lessons that most of them, such as Bette Davis or Myrna Loy end up with a sort of weird transatlantic accent.

    The problem with "Three Men on a Horse" is that the accents are just ramped up to a ridiculous level. I don't doubt for a minute that growing up in Brooklyn, Joan Blondell encountered many that had the accent she uses in the film but even for Hollywood it's a bit distracting. I much prefer her "natural" voice sucgh as in Gold Diggers.

  6. Russell: I must admit difficulty in the premise that living in a city, and being born there, in some way puts one in the position of hardly being able to judge the authenticy of accents. And I (for one) have never assumed, after spending three generations in New York, that the way my friends and family speak is typical of the way those in my city speak. That would be a false and unreasonable assumption.

    I certainly do not object to outsiders considering themselves more qualified to assess authenticity in this matter. Yet I do feel it imprudent to have lifelong residence (and false assumptions) disqualify one from somewhat accurately assessing the sound of one’s city. Best. Gerald

  7. Gordon, if you spent 3 generations in New York, you're kind of historical source yourself. You must be 90 years old at least. And I guess you've heard and seen things, many people in this classic film community would like to hear. So you shouldn't be too modest, because this makes you very-very interesting!

    Joan Blondell is quite an authority to me, because she speaks so excellently. I always listen very carefully to her. But as I read she was "born to a vaudeville family": Maybe Joan didn't get the Brooklyn accent, because her world (family and stages) was different. Such artistic families often represent kind of alternative culture. They're different.

    But if Joan tries to speak a Brooklyn accent, I'd like to tolerate this. In Dames she had to sing and this was really problematic, because she couldn't sing. Here it seems you're right Russel: Joan rather cared about her family (although her husband was truly a competent authority as great vocalist). But even in this case I prefer to listen generously and thankfully.

  8. Russell and Clarissa:

    For clarification I am 75. General consensus considers a generation from 20 to 25 years. Best. Gerald

  9. The "general consensus" believes a lot of hooey. Please consider this:


    Anyway "20 to 25 years" can't be. If a generation marries at age 20 to 25, they'll conceive children over many years (some even at age 40 still!) - 30 years is a realistic average.

    Well, I don't distrust Wikipedia in any case, but in this case I do.

    But IF 20/25 years WAS true ... then local accents would even change faster. But in fact 30 years are historically authoritative.

    Nevertheless your personal experiences are extremely valuable. Here you have really something to say and here you could be a real authority! I think everybody here would be excited!!

  10. Russell:

    I will not take up any more of your space on this matter by responding. Thank you for your patience. Best. Gerald.

  11. Russel said...
    "And those accents…ugh. Did people in Brooklyn ever speak like that?"

    I still think we don't know. And I still rather trust Joan Blondell. Although I would have appreciated to go deeper into that discussion ...

  12. It should be obvious that she speaks with a Brooklyn accent because the film is about New Yorkers, Brooklynites, who actually talk the way she is talking. Would you have preferred that she spoke with a Suhthuhn accent?