Now that I’ve outed myself as a part time Stanwyck fan and earned your eternal distrust and revulsion, I’ll continue. I just needed to get that out in the open. I feel like a weight has lifted off my shoulders…
The Locked Door is yet another example of the stagy melodrama so prevalent in early sound films, and a movie generally considered by most (including Stanwyck herself) as being, well not the best example of the art form. To my alarm, during the first couple of moments I tended to agree with the critics. The opening scene sees Barbara wined and dined by bad boy Rod La Rocque on an illegal drinking cruise. The acting by both of them (but especially La Rocque) is just awful with stagnant dialoque and wooden delivery of the highest order. The horrible scene is only saved by the assured and subtle comedy of Harry Stubbs as a incompetent waiter. His appearance imediately shows both of them up and luckily deflects most of the pain.
From there (and 18 months later) the plot concerns Stanwyck’s attempt to split up the affair her sister-in-law is having with La Rocque while also trying to hide the shame of her own past with him to her new husband. You know, the usual fare for the early sound era: scandalous pasts and secret shames. The locked door of the title is the door behind which Stanwyck hides as her husband (played by William ‘Stage’ Boyd) scuffles with La Rocque and accidentally kills him. She confesses to the murder for the good of the family name and drama ensues, as you would expect.
In Rod La Rocque I thought that I’d finally found a silent star that just couldn’t act in sound if his life depended on it. I’ve no way of knowing if the film was shot in sequence but it certainly seems like it as it’s almost as if you see him grow in confidence as the movie goes on. The terribly wooden actor of the first scene is gradually replaced by a swaggering, slimy lothario played with a good attention to character. He makes you hate him but lets the veil slip every so often to see a cracked soul behind the charade. Rod La Rocque’s career wasn’t exactly stellar in the sound era but from this outing he certainly should have been given more of a chance to play villains as he seems well suited to playing the heel. I think I need to see more of his work.
There’s a quite charming relationship played out throughout the film between La Rocque and his butler, played by George Bunny. The implication is that many secrets have been shared (and covered up) between the two and although of differing characters and backgrounds, there emerges some real but unspoken affection for each other. As La Rocque sits idly in his room he puts away the photo of a woman on his desk and replaces it with the new flame, mentioning the oncoming “fresh flower” to his life. Bunny wistfully says to him “You’d be such a nice man if there weren’t any ladies in the world”, to which La Rocque’s equally wistful reply is “But it wouldn’t be such a nice world…” He may be a serial womanizer, wrecker of marriages and all round cad, but underneath it all perhaps he just wants to be loved. Or perhaps he just has fun doing it.
With the high melodrama of the murder comes one of the film’s other highlights in the shape of the wonderful Zasu Pitts. She plays the bored telephone operator at the apartment block where La Rocque lives. As the police arrive she gets more and more excited until she pleads with her boss (played by Keystone great Mack Swain) to be allowed to go up and watch the action, saying, “Oh let me go up, I may never see a murder!” Later, the police call for her to give evidence. As they open the door she falls in, having obviously been listening. She totters around, almost falls over then regains her balance all in one swift movement with a triumphant cry of “I’m in!” It’s a simple but beautifully played piece of comic business and is in fact the highlight of the whole movie. More movies need Zasu Pitts to liven them up.
Of course, none of the aforementioned chatter has really mentioned Miss Stanwyck and her performance. Well, she’s really not too bad. In fact, for her first sound appearance she gives the impression that she’d been at it for years, She has a tendency to shout a little too loud but having just listened to her reprise Stella Dallas on the Lux Radio Theater, that’s not something she got over very quickly (my advice: turn the volume down for that episode). With some minor tweaking, it’s almost as if she arrives on the screen fully formed as the (early) Barbara Stanwyck we all know and love. Her pairing with La Rocque, though starting off on shaky ground, develops into a confident showing for both of them despite the creaky melodrama of the plot and its characters.
And you know what? I’ve just realized that I started out wanting to talk about Barbara Stanwyck and ended up becoming a new fan of Rod La Rocque (my Stanwyck fan credentials just slipped even lower). I think really that says it all about The Locked Door. Barbara Stanwyck is good but she’s far from the most interesting thing on show. However, she’d have her day. Well, until 1936 if you're me.