Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Thursday 16 December 2021

The False Madonna (1931) - Kay Francis and the Art of High Melodrama

Sometimes the premise of a classic movie is so ridiculous that you know that audiences back in the day were rolling their eyes at the hackneyed melodrama and shaking their collective heads at the sheer stupidity of the picture play unravelling before them. It's always reassuring to read the letters in old fan magazines to see that movie mavens from practically day one were a sophisticated bunch who could recognise lazy writing, poor direction or blatant exploitation when they saw it. However, occasionally a film has a nonsensical, soapy plot, contains characters so over the top that they verge on comic and pulls the heart strings in such an obvious melodramatic way worthy of early D. W. Griffith, that despite the sheer absurdity of everything on screen, it somehow works. Not only that but it works in a beautiful, punch the air in delight sort of way that brings a smile to your face and a tear to your eye. That, as we all know is the magic of the movies, and believe it or not The False Madonna is such a movie.

Kay Francis plays Tina, one of a quartet of con artists led by William 'Stage' Boyd's disbarred physician Dr. Marcy. On the run after another failed confidence trick they hitch a train ride out of town and stumble upon a dying woman in a nearby compartment. The woman's last wish is to see her estranged son Phillip Beddows again after 14 years and, crucially she also happens to mention that he has recently inherited $10 million. Seeing an opportunity, Marcy uses the knowledge gleaned from her final utterances to set up Tina as the long lost mother in a plot to swindle the boy out of his fortune.

Right from the start we are in somewhat muddy waters as the general conceit of the plot already hinges on the audience suspending their disbelief on a number of key points. Most obviously, that the son, or indeed anyone in his close family or household would realise that the woman returning home bears no resemblance to the one that left. To make matters worse, once the impersonation begins there is no attempt to make 26 year old Kay Francis look remotely like a woman with a 17 year old child, (let alone the fact that the woman in question is played by 52 year old Julia Swayne Gordon).  Surely a gang of experienced con artists would have at least thought to change up her make up? Admittedly a number of these details are addressed during the movie but Kay's youthful appearance stands out as an obvious flaw in their plan. However, as the film progresses, the number of implausible moments increases, and after a while it's best just to accept everything and move on. 

Initially sceptical, and wanting out of the criminal life, Tina is convinced to do one last job and "Play the long lost Madonna". All she needs to do is "Be sweet, be poor and shed a few tears" and so she begins by sewing some holes into a dress and adding some motherly braids to her hair. Now looking at least 27 she reluctantly sets off to meet her long lost 'son' and find a way to get his newly acquired money. As luck would have it, and because this is the highest of melodrama, the son in question turns out to be blind (the result of a plane crash) and the only obstacle to her scam is the boy's family friend and lawyer, Grant Arnold. He has met the real Mrs Beddows but conveniently admits it was many years ago, his memory is vague and that all photos of her were destroyed when she left 14 years previously. Though highly implausible at outset, all the angles have now been covered and Tina is set to cash in. What could go wrong?

Reunited with her long lost son, Tina spends time in the gardens with him and they sing songs (badly) by the piano and he is so happy that he decides to give her a cheque for $50,000. Phillip's boyish enthusiasm for life despite his disability starts to thaw Tina's icy heart and before long a crisis of conscience emerges. Finally, Grant admits that Phillip is actually dying and, in true melodramatic form, that "any shock, no matter how slight might finish him", and so Tina's mind is made up - she will forego the money and stay with Phillip.

In the midst of this tragic situation returns Dr. Marcy posing as a physician and eager to get the fortune. He threatens to expose Tina if she doesn't get the money by the next morning. However, Phillip takes a turn for the worse and dies that night. Marcy returns and is outraged that Tina has let him down. Luckily Grant has been researching Marcy's crooked past and has called the police. Tina, tells him tearfully, "When I came here I believed in your code. I believed that life was a racket. It was a case of get mine first cause the world owed me what i could grab...I was to play on the feelings of a boy, a lonely boy aching for the love of a mother...that boy believed in me. For the first time in my life I learned the joy of giving, not taking".

Dr. Marcy escapes and later, Tina readies herself to leave. Out of nowhere, Grant asks if she would stay for him. Replying "Sometimes the blind can see so much clearly than we can", Tina decides to stay and start a new life with Grant.

Now, in the above summary, the plot seems to be as old as the hills, which it is. It has many classic elements of melodrama; a criminal with a conscience healed by love, a rediscovered family relationship (sort of), the constant threat of exposure by outside forces, tragic and sudden illness and death, inexplicable romance between characters to give a happy ending and many more. All of these are standard tropes seen in films right back to the earliest Biograph reels and the dramatic stage before that. Silent movies, for the entirety of their existence loved this type of high drama as it leant itself easily to its visual and emotional style to the point of it unfortunately becoming a cliché, both then and now. This love for torrid theatrical melodrama continued unabated with the coming of sound, and early talkies are littered with a seemingly endless supply of drawing room dramas, essentially filmed plays. Apart from being a way to get hit Broadway plays a showing in the provinces, these were easy to film, used limited sets, showed off the new technology of sound and provided a healthy dose of drama and romance for audiences.

However, the problem is that for a motion picture, a filmed stage play is not too interesting and not every director had the 'Lubitsch touch' to make such things sparkle with life. As a result a lot of early sound pictures, though often of historical and cultural interest are in fact dull as dishwater and awash with semi remembered secondary players getting to grips with talking pictures with varying levels of success. As a result, for a melodrama to stand out from the crowd and shine, a number of elements need to be in place. 

Firstly it needs a plot that is bordering on the ridiculous, with situations and coincidences that are both obvious yet outrageous. The melodrama also needs lead actors that can pull off the material, with the ability to make audiences invest fully in the seriousness of the nonsense going on around them, and if possible wring every droplet of emotion out of the tortured words and scenes. Additionally, supporting actors need to be stoic and sincere, a calm inlet in the middle of a storm. If possible there needs to be at least one cast member who doesn't get any of the above memos and just freestyles a memorable and excessive performance. Add a director with just a smidgen of flair and you possibly have yourself a great example of high melodrama. 

It's a difficult balance, especially for modern audiences, as the worst thing a classic movie can have is an audience laughing at it when it means to be serious. Yet at the other end of the spectrum, there is a fine line to be maintained between high melodrama and high camp. Those are two different things, but often audience hold a movie up as a 'camp classic' when it is not intended that way. We can always laugh with a movie, but laughing at it is unkind and unnecessary. The False Madonna is indeed silly, but it's never funny and contains a sincerity of its convictions at its heart that makes it something bigger than the sum of its parts.

Going back to my essential requirements, The False Madonna scores big with its plot. As if the 'criminal pretends to be the lost mother of a dying blind boy for his money' plot wasn't silly enough, the layers of ridiculousness pile up when the lead is a clearly too young for the part Kay Francis in all her finery. As discussed earlier, this essentially exposes the preposterousness of the story as absolutely no effort is made to make her look even a few years older. Strangely, her 17 year old 'son' is played by John Breedon, an actor a full year older than Kay Francis! Luckily he somewhat looks the part, but is clearly nowhere near his teenage years. These unusual casting decisions actually make the worn out plot that bit more interesting and the quick transitions from criminal enterprise to heart warming love with the addition of sudden tragic death become somewhat more memorable as a result.

However, the real cornerstone of the the whole movie is Kay Francis in a truly star making performance. Here, Kay was at the tail end of her contract with Paramount and on the cusp of her breakthrough move to Warner Bros. It was her first film as the top billed star and showed that she easily had the ability and aura to headline a movie. From her first scenes in the railroad car sitting in thoughtful silence while her criminal cohorts complain about their latest failed grift, we are drawn to her as a conflicted character. The fact that she looks so out of place with a cast of grotesques just highlights her plight, and shows how far she has been pushed to end up so numb to her lifestyle immediately invests the viewer in her dilemma. Kay Francis proves to be an incredibly subtle actress at this stage in her career; she never completely commands or dominates the screen but her furrowed brow and perpetually worried look draws the audience's attention and sympathy. It builds towards her closing speech - a beautifully orchestrated exercise in restrained hysteria that belongs in any Kay Francis highlight reel. It's the sort of lip trembling performance that she perfected at Warner Bros, but in The False Madonna it seems she already has a real understanding of her screen persona and its potential for pathos and tragedy.

William 'Stage' Boyd gives a suitably snarling performance as the amoral Dr. Marcy. His single minded pursuit of wealth by deception contrasts ably with Kay Francis' conflicted mindset. Although off screen scandal derailed the early promise of Boyd's career in talking pictures, he is supremely believable in the part. There's a great moment when he learns that he's not going to get hold of the boy's fortune and he just calmly asks to leave, mentally moving onto his next victim without conscience. Perhaps he could have been used as a more theatrically evil villain but with everything else going on in the story it probably would have been a bit too much. Instead he is a villain in a far more realistic and satisfying way, an eternal grifter.

The rest of the cast are uniformly solid, highlighted by a smooth and understated Conway Tearle deftly weaving through the household drama between the false mother and her son without giving away his hand until the right moment. Other notable players on screen include Marjorie Gateson and Charles D. Brown as a cynical, eternally bickering couple in the quartet of conmen and frequent Hal Roach supporting actress May Wallace expertly lending her motherly face to the role of Phillip's nurse. As usual from a movie of the early sound era, the mix of long time silent bit-parters and recent theatre recruits makes for a rich supporting cast of believable faces.

However, one member of the cast that needs to be mentioned is that of John Breeden, who plays the tragic blind teen Phillip Bellows. He suffers from the same problem as Kay Francis does in playing his supposed mother in that he is plainly too old for the role. Despite his youthful face and costuming he just isn't particularly good in the part, mainly due to the strange acting choices he makes. Age is always a weird thing in classic movies, where 20 year old men wear tweed and smoke pipes and teenagers look like they are in their 30s, and this is no different. Breeden acts with a breathless enthusiasm of a child and an unnerving intensity that makes him borderline creepy. Whatever news he is given, be it his lost mother's poverty or his own fragile health it is all received with the same toothy grin and unwavering puppy dog positivity. Unfortunately the script does him no favours either with dialogue such as "It's lots of fun to be able to give things!". In the end, Breeden being so hyperactively happy is one of the main factors that pushes the movie into the strata of High Melodrama, as his performance is so ridiculous and off tone, like a boy having the best day of his life as the plane he is on is crashing to its destruction. Just a very, very odd performance.

There's not a lot to be said about the direction by Stuart Walker, it's workmanlike and keeps the pace going nicely. Walker only had a brief career as a director before switching to being a producer, but his body of work is solid, with Werewolf of London perhaps being his best known film. Here it could be said that he does an excellent job making the most of such a preposterous script, but some of the performances could have done with more work from him, particularly in toning down John Breeden and perhaps ramping up an often overshadowed Conway Tearle. However, his handling of Phillip's death scene, left mostly in silence and with a static camera fixed on a bedroom doorway, the opening and closing of which cueing the audience in to the health of the ailing boy is sensitive and beautifully staged and probably the highlight of the whole film.

Whether The False Madonna can be considered a good film is entirely reliant on the viewer's personal tastes regarding dramatic styles. It's old fashioned even for 1931, the plot is ridiculous, the key casting is ridiculous and some of the acting choices are ridiculous. For some this would be enough to consign it to the bottom tier of early sound features, but for me the disparate and (have I mentioned?) ridiculous elements somehow come together to produce a hugely entertaining piece of pure unadulterated escapist fun. Holding together this patchwork of preposterousness is an emergent Kay Francis, finding solid feet as a headlining star and previewing a blueprint for the kind of high drama she would go on to be queen of at Warner Bros throughout most of the 1930s. It's also the sort of movie that is meant to be enjoyed when you need to forget all your everyday worries, just as it was meant to be back in 1931. Essentially it's an unmemorable, fairly average movie, but if you decide to buy into its sincerity and histrionics, there's no better way to spend your time than with Kay Francis and some High Melodrama. 

Wednesday 30 December 2020

I Want a Divorce starring Joan Blondell - On the Radio!

 “Judge, I want a divorce!” “Divorce granted!”

Judge, I want a divorce!” “Divorce granted!”

Judge, I want a divorce!” “Divorce granted!”

I want a divorce!” “I want a divorce!” “I want a divorce!”

Faster, ever faster does the divorce mill grind away yesteryear's happiness!”

Why? Why? Why? Ask millions!”

Listen to 'I Want a Divorce', the copyrighted program approved by many leaders of church and state. The program that dramatizes the real life happenings in other people's marriages”.

So begins the radio version of I Want a Divorce starring Joan Blondell, a half hour series featuring cautionary tales of marital misadventure that ran for one season on the Mutual network from October 1940 to April 1941. Each week the show would focus on a hapless mismatched couple with marriage difficulties, with Joan playing with female lead in a variety of situations and genres. Sadly, there's not a great deal of information available about the show and only three of the episodes appear to exist. It's an unlikely movie spin off considering that the filmed version opened to poor reviews and box office just a month before the radio premiere, but one would have to guess that the guardians of morality saw it as a great opportunity to improve the minds of the enormous radio audience, using the melodramatic format and the lure of a genuine Hollywood star appearing each week.

However, it appears that Joan Blondell was hesitant to take on the show but was encouraged to do so by husband and radio veteran Dick Powell (who also appears in an couple of episodes). She ended up enjoying the experience as it gave her a chance play a different part each week, sometimes the hero, sometimes the villain all with the hope was that it would show people that she was in fact an accomplished and versatile actress. When promoting the show, she remarked:

"I have had to stand on my own feet again. You forget all about real acting in pictures. You have to concentrate for one minute and then you have perhaps a couple of hours rest. You have no worries about timing or anything else, for the directors, the camera men do it all for you. But on radio you have got to be alert; you have to prepare as well as execute whatever evolutions the script calls for”

Despite the versatility Joan displayed on the show, the radio version of I Want a Divorce failed to make waves both with listeners and casting directors and it soon disappeared into obscurity alongside the movie version with neither helping her career significantly.

One of the great things about listening to Old Time Radio is the proliferation of Hollywood stars making regular appearances in a variety of often unusual situations. Sometimes you discover previously unheard talents for comedy or drama and other times you realise that maybe your favourite star was just not cut out for radio. After all, acting on radio requires a different skill set from movies or theatre though it is surprising how many of the stars adapted seamlessly. In the early days, the worlds of radio and cinema largely kept themselves separate, with comparatively few making lengthy full time careers in both (Bing Crosby, Dick Powell and Don Ameche being notable names who did), but before long movie stars were being courted by the airwaves to helm their own shows. The real boom for this was in the late 40s and early 50s when A-listers like Humphrey Bogart (Bold Venture), Cary Grant (Mr and Mrs Blandings) and Ronald Colman (The Halls of Ivy) and many others had their own shows (all incidentally co-starring their wives). Joan Blondell wasn't unique in having her own dramatic radio series in 1940 but it definitely wasn't yet the norm, and the fact that she had to be talked into it either shows the lack of money from doing radio or perhaps a perceived lack of prestige.

From the mid 30s to the early 50s, Joan Blondell was an infrequent radio guest star, averaging a handful appearances in most years. By no means a familiar voice on the airwaves she nonetheless made sporadic appearances on the 'prestige' drama shows such as Lux Radio Theatre and Screen Guild Theater with their adaptions of current Hollywood movies. During the Second World War she was heard fairly regularly on Command Performance and other morale boosting shows on the Armed Forces Radio Network. She even made a few rare appearances on comedy and variety shows with the likes of Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Danny Kaye and Edgar Bergan (with Charlie McCarthy of course). All in all she had a small but solid radio resume which, if it still survived intact may have been crowned by I Want a Divorce.

Of the three existing episodes, only two currently circulate to listen to online and of those by far the most interesting is the episode from April 4th 1941 entitled “June and Perry”. The story concerns a mismatched love affair between June Hansen, (“a magnificent specimen, a farm girl in Wisconsin”) and Perry Hurst (“less than average size, an artist with an artist's outlook”). She lives with her father, is “like a Viking” and “loves the land” but doesn't think much of the local farmers as future husbands. While out swimming she happens to meet wandering artist Perry and immediately throws him in the lake, injuring his leg. She carries the wet and weedy artist home and despite having nothing in common, soon they are married.

Hard at work on the farm Perry quickly finds that his artistic hands are losing their touch with all the manual labour and he starts to hold a grudge towards June and her ideas. She tells him how art is just a “childish pastime” and no “business for a grown man”. She makes him choose between her and painting, saying “I want my husband to be a man, not a sissy”. Despite her father imploring June to meet Perry half way, painting wins out and Perry leaves. Later on Perry, now living in the relative safety of the city, finds out that June is pregnant so decides to return home to give the relationship another go.

Here the drama pauses for its mid show break (it doesn't appear to have garnered a sponsor), with the format seemingly that the couple split up in part one and get back together in part two. Next we skip forward five years and Perry has given up the forbidden art of painting “bending to June's will” and they now have a son to bicker over. Immediately we are introduced to their wayward bull Old Satan and the fact that their son, Jan should never play with him. This is foreshadowing.

Perry buys his son an easel, much to Jan's delight (“Oh boy look! I can paint just like a real painter!”). June takes the opposite view and here we come to the pivotal moment in the play - June's disapproval of her son becoming an artist. Thus far, Joan Blondell has been fine in the role of June. She's tripped over a couple of lines, but is trying to bring a certain physicality and inflexibility to the frankly unlikeable role. However, here in the most important line of the show, she fluffs her line completely (or if in fact she's reading the line as written, delivers it so badly as to reverse its meaning), proclaiming “Perry, you deliberately disregarded my wish. My son is is not going to be a farmer!” (cue dramatic chords). Wait, suddenly you're fine with him being an artist? Now, I know that most of these shows were recorded 'as live' but surely some sort of overdub could have been added in later to save the show? Oh well, let's just move along quietly and pretend it never happened. Nothing to see here.

Perry wants to encourage his son to be an artist but June, ever the optimist thinks it is only teaching him to be an “incompetent kind of a man” like his father, and will ruin all their lives. Jan shows great talent but then tragedy strikes! Jan decides to play with Old Satan (while wearing a red scarf, obviously) and is seemingly crippled by the brute. June takes the accident with her usual motherly grace, saying “I'd rather he had died...never to be able to walk or run like other boys”. Having just wished death on her only son, June suddenly realises that it's all been her fault and since he can only use his hands now she will help him to be an artist.

Jan naturally becomes a great artist with the full support of his mother and June realises that she is closer to Perry as a result. She even admits that “I think I begin to feel a little of what you meant when you talked of 'beauty' and 'nature'. It's a little like the love I feel for the farm”. Of course, this being Hollywood melodrama, Jan gets a last minute cure that will enable him to walk again just before the curtain falls and everyone lives happily ever after. The announcer then sums up what we have learnt tonight -

“And so ends tonight's I Want a Divorce play, emphasising the fact that sometimes it takes tragedy to awaken us to a true perspective on out lives”. Also, artists are undersized, underachieving losers who need to get out and do real work in the fields to earn a woman's respect. We also learned that I Want a Divorce contains no divorces! I want my half hour back! Joan Blondell then briefly returns to the microphone to say that Dick Powell will be her co-star next week, but unfortunately that episode doesn't exist.

Of course, it's easy to mock the high handed moralising of I Want a Divorce in both radio and movie forms but obviously the threat of divorce was something that concerned the powers that be in the early 40s. In fact, divorce rates in the United States had been steadily rising since the end of the Depression, and in 1940 stood at 2 per 1000 people (up from 1.3 in 1933) and peaking at 3.4 in 1947. Naturally, that number was nothing compared to the latter half of the 20th century but it was obviously troubling to the holders of moral decency. A number of reasons prompted the increase not least of, as the show highlights, the comparative ease of getting a divorce. Though it wasn't quite the conveyor belt of approval depicted in the opening credits, all a couple had to do was show fault in one party of the marriage. This is a familiar trope of movie melodrama of the 30s and 40s which regularly depicted the spousal abandonment of affections, cruelty, all manner of cheating and even divorce due to mental incapacity. As long as one side of the relationship was “innocent” the divorce could be approved. This gave rise to all sorts of chicanery and set ups to enable divorce seekers to escape their relationships. Conversely, if it was found that both parties were at fault (you know, like often happens in actual real life) then no divorce was granted and couples just had to grin and bear the crushing realization that they were stuck for life with someone that they hated.

Added to all this, the growing presence of places like Reno, Nevada with its ever dwindling residency time for a quickie divorce obviously led Hollywood to consult with those “many leaders of church and state” to see if something could be done. Of course, Hollywood and its stars had also been doing their bit to popularise the attraction of divorce for the last few decades on and off screen but better late than never I guess.  The line that they wanted to impress on their audience was to stay married. In the other available episode, Joan Blondell plays a singer who is married to a song writer and due to their work commitments they separate. At the end they decide to try again (despite still having the same commitments) and our announcer summarises that a marriage “in order to survive the so-called separation test, must have two people who are imbued with tolerance, understanding and a highly developed sense of logic”. Well, if they had all that, surely they wouldn't need to separate!

Anyway, despite the high number of actual happy marriages in society, the radio show paints a pretty grim picture of relationships. They were just towing the party line in showing that divorce was not in the interests of decent society but the 'just make the best of it' approach is kind of depressing and hardly makes of an entertaining half hour of radio drama. Again, it's difficult to assess the series as a whole when so little of it survives, and apparently there was a wide variety of styles used (the next episode after “June and Perry” appears to be a comedy about in-laws). What does survive is a prime example of over the top radio melodrama and is fairly entertaining in its own way. It's also just great to hear Joan Blondell in a different role each week, and so disappointing that we can't judge whether she proved the range of her acting abilities like she hoped in the missing episodes.

However, due to being a movie that precisely no one was asking for a radio version of, I Want a Divorce has to be regarded as a failed experiment but a nonetheless curious footnote in radio history. Sadly, though it gave Joan Blondell 26 weeks of challenging dramatic work, it didn't appear to do anything to improve the trajectory of her movie career and it certainly didn't lower the divorce rates.

Saturday 30 November 2019

I Want a Divorce (1940) - So, Marriage Isn't Meant To Be Fun?!

It takes a brave celebrity couple to star in a movie called I Want a Divorce, especially if they are married in real life and the subject of regular magazine coverage regarding their glamorous relationship. Joan Blondell and Dick Powell were one such couple and were half way though an eight year marriage when the movie came out in 1940. Luckily the reviews were so bad that the film quickly disappeared into obscurity to the point that when they eventually divorced in 1944 it was a long forgotten footnote rather than a punchline. Still, a married couple even entertaining the notion of a movie with such a title in the notoriously relationship fickle world of Hollywood was surely just asking for trouble.

I Want a Divorce is a strange little film that knows exactly what it wants to say but can’t settle on the right way to go about saying it. It advertises itself as a rip-roaring comedy (“A Lovable Wise-Cracking Comedy Drama!!” declares the poster) but in execution resembles a particularly pious Public Service Announcement. It’s ninety minutes of half-hearted attempts at comedy competing with a dreary, bad tempered atmosphere of moralising in which every character is affected in some way by the demon divorce and most come out of it losing someone they hold dear, if not more.

The mood is set with the first scene as Joan Blondell’s character Geraldine walks through the divorce courts looking for the room where her sister is campaigning to ditch her husband and have the sort of carefree lifestyle she has always desired. As Joan walks through the halls we meet a litany of miserable broken families, from a young girl screaming “You think dad’s a heel but that doesn’t make me believe it!” (Her mother’s touching answer: “Oh shut up!”), to a little boy wailing “I don’t wanna live with you, I want my mommy!”). When she arrives at the right courtroom we see her sister Wanda, played with impeccable disdain by Gloria Dickson proclaim that she wants a divorce because her husband’s occasional criticism has caused her public humiliation (“He also criticised my clothes!”). Her lawyer sums up that this despicable act has caused her “great mental anguish, seriously endangering (her) health”. Divorce granted, next case!!

All that was needed was perhaps the wailing sounds of motherless babies cast aside by their divorce happy parents accompanied by the sounds of lawyers counting their money and the intended picture of a modern day Bedlam would be achieved. Divorce is bad. Divorce breaks up families. Divorce makes everyone miserable. Okay, we get it. So, when exactly does the lovable wise-cracking comedy start?

Next we meet the rest of Geraldine and Wanda’s family, namely their grandparents and Wanda’s son David. These characters are used to hammer home the message even more as the grandparents have been married forever and have endless nuggets of homespun wisdom to impart about the sanctity of marriage, while the son is supposed to be an adorable young scamp (he's not) whose innocence is in peril by the actions of his selfish mother. Even the now ex-husband David (played with a dignified restraint by Conrad Nagel) comes across as a good and loving parent brought down by Wanda’s actions and lifestyle. Inappropriately, Grandma starts her sermonising the minute the sisters get back from court, telling Geraldine "Divorces don't take long these days. What should I be saying to her, 'Sorry, congratulations or many happy returns?'" When she is told that it seems she got up on the wrong side of bed this morning she replies "Yes and it's the same bed I've slept for nearly 50 years. And with the same man". She's a delightful character.

After that the comedy portion finally begins, and it really wasn’t worth the wait. Joan Blondell and Dick Powell co-starred successfully in many movies during the 30s but for whatever reason, by the time this film was made they have little or no chemistry on screen. Joan tries her best, but Dick (as up and coming lawyer Alan MacNally) just seems to be going through the motions (honestly, he looks so bored) and it doesn’t help that the script is so leaden for the majority of the movie that there is nothing for them to work with. Anyway, events conspire to make our stars meet and soon they are courting, everything is wonderful and before we know it they decide to get married. Fittingly the ceremony itself is a rather mute affair as the camera pans round the group of friends and family in the church staring furtively as the priest intones the solemn wedding vows to the blank faced couple. It’s the furthest thing from the joyful celebration of union, but I guess that’s the point – marriage is a serious business. Divorce has even taken the fun out of getting married!

Just in case you really haven’t picked up on the message the movie is trying to impart, Geraldine and Alan are getting on swimmingly as newlyweds until Alan gets offered a chance to make more money and rise up the ranks at his law firm by becoming (gasp) a divorce lawyer! From there the marriage immediately falls apart, and the legal eagles start circling the wagons. In the end it takes the suicide of Wanda, inconsolable after realising the mistake she made, to wake everyone up to the fact that divorce destroys lives (all part of the lovable wise-cracking comedy of course). Finally, while Geraldine is in shock, numb at the fact that her sister has died, Grandma decides to monologue about how it was all Wanda’s fault and that “She broke a promise she made to the Lord God almighty. She started something that grew big and evil and it finally was too much for her”. Grandma continues in this vein, oblivious to the human cost of the ensuing drama, and indeed her own family. The incessant nagging must have worked though, as the couple reconcile and order restored.

Obviously, times and attitudes have changed since 1940 and divorce is now no longer a scourge of society but one would hope that even back then people would be rolling their eyes at the incessant, heavy handed lecturing in the movie. The movie shows the worst excesses of the Production Code in action, pushing message at the cost of entertainment, and even advertising itself as a screwball comedy to do so. Quite what Dick Powell and Joan Blondell were doing in such nonsense is difficult to understand. Apparently they got a very good financial incentive to come to Paramount but it doesn't appear that bothering about a good script was included in the deal.

The movie is fascinating mostly for how far it hammers the point home about divorce and its destructive effects. From the opening court scene where we see the broken families and hear the obviously fabricated testimony of the selfish plaintiff, to the juxtaposition of the happily married grandparents from an earlier simpler time (I guess divorce was only invented in the 20th century) the message is stay together at all costs. In the key line of the movie, Grandma tells Geraldine “Getting married isn’t the important thing, it’s staying married that counts”. In the movie, marriage is about the long run and the institution is the most important thing. It’s understandable that they are trying to tell young people to stick it out throughout good times and bad but the inference is also that if you are stuck in a broken, unhappy marriage that it’s your lot in life (and probably your own fault) and you should just grin and bear it. That combined with the frequent assertion that all a woman needs to be kept in line is a swift slap (and that men too can be kept in line with a fist or some flying crockery) gives the impression of a society where being single sounds the best option. 

If the picture given of the ideal marriage is bad, then the view of divorce is even worse. There are two things in particular that the movie saves its disdain for, two things that it considers the lowest of the low. Firstly it’s divorce lawyers, who seem to be the pushers in this scenario, planting the seed of doubt in the minds of the married and making it so, so easy to take a trip to Splitsville, all the while gleefully pocketing the cash. When Alan and Geraldine get married, the nuptials go south the minute he decides to take up with the devil’s brigade of the divorce lawyer.  Though he is saved from this soul destroying fate in the end, he still feels the need to repent his sins and convert his occupation to good, becoming a “Child Conciliation“ lawyer and thus putting broken families back together for a living (presumable whether they wanted to or not). I hope it’s enough to pay the bills.

The second thing that raises the ire of the movie is women. Or rather women who dare to divorce. The movie seems at pains to point out how the lowest thing a woman can do is file for divorce and break up the sacred family unit. Though to be fair, no one would want to be married to Wanda in the first place as she is vain and selfish and concocts the divorce plan to spend less time at home and more in the nightclub. In reality people get divorced for all sorts of complicated reasons but it’s telling here that the reason is portrayed as almost entirely the fault of the woman and everyone else suffers for her sins.

However, lest we forget I Want a Divorce is supposedly a comedy and does spend at least a small proportion of its running time attempting to raise a smile. Unfortunately because the script can’t decide if it’s a searing melodrama or knockabout comedy the result is that it’s successful at neither. Luckily, despite the miserable atmosphere and the fact it looks for all intents and purposes like a Monogram B picture, it is saved but a decent cast of reliable faces. As mentioned earlier, neither Joan Blondell nor Dick Powell are at their best here. It’s 1940, so Joan Blondell is firmly in her brown hair and big shoulder pads phase (and she wears some extraordinary examples here – I’m surprised she could get through doors!) but there is the occasional flourish of the charm that made her famous. In particular a scene where she asks Grandma about love while waiting for her new beau to arrive (and fetchingly dressed in a big hat and checked farm girl outfit). She sighs dreamily as Grandma begins once again to lecture about marriage then suddenly her face lights up with innocent charm when she spots Dick Powell approaching. With her big round eyes and wide smile, for just a brief moment it’s 1934 again. The simple problem with the comedic sections of the movie is that they are not funny, nor do they have any remotely comic situations for Joan and Dick to enact. There’s no one liners, no snappy dialogue and really nothing for the stars to wring some laughs from. It’s as if the romance sub plot exists to kill time until the punchline (ie divorce) and thus allow the movie to go back to preaching.

The supporting cast do at least provide some amusing moments, with entertaining appearances from Dorothy Burgess (a brief but wildly over the top turn as a Mexican Spitfire type), Louise Beavers (a sensitively played maid) and a genuinely funny cameo from Roscoe Ates as a summons server. However it’s the presence of Frank Fay as their jaded friend Jeff that steals the show. I never thought I’d say this but (whisper) Frank Fay is by far the best thing in this movie. Obviously it’s no secret that in real life Frank Fay was a despicable and reviled human being, an egotistical, alcoholic, racist wife beater, but if it’s possible to put that aside (and granted it is very difficult) he’s rather wonderful in I Want a Divorce. Maybe it was the fact that he hadn’t had a dramatic part in a movie in close to eight years, or that he had finally begun to accept that he was no longer the star he once was, but his character has a melancholy demeanour that is quite compelling. He is used entirely for comic relief and constantly on the run from his crazy wife but his almost punch drunk wistfulness sets him apart from the rest of the cast. Maybe it was the effects of the booze but he delivers his lines in an unsteady manner, with a twinkling detachment of a man who has lived life and takes each day as it comes. It could equally be seen as a terrible performance given by a man the shadow of this former self or an actor coming to terms with his mistakes and finally showing a degree of vulnerability. Either way he’s the most memorable thing about the movie, which granted, isn’t saying much.

All in all, I Want a Divorce isn’t a good film, but it’s strangely fascinating for its mismatched mix of genres and tone, the odd lack of chemistry between the married leads and the unexpected charm of a much despised former star. Most of all though the endless moralising and preaching about the sacred vows of marriage and the utter disdain at the mere concept of divorce (and especially those who facilitate it) results in a tone more like the “Red Menace” movies of the late 40s and early 50s. As ever, it was a bit rich for Hollywood to lecture anyone of the sanctity of marriage, but it’s always been a 'do as I say not as I do' type of place. Nonetheless the heavy handedness of the whole enterprise may not particularly unusual for the time but is unintentionally amusing now. Sadly, it's the sort of subject one would expect to see as a short film or perhaps as a programmer produced by one of the Poverty Row studios, not a Paramount movie with two major stars. As such it's a complete waste of Joan Blondell’s talents at a time where she really could have done with a career boost.

However, before I pack my bags and head to Reno there is a curious postscript to this whole affair. Despite the film getting terrible reviews and flopping at the box office, someone, somewhere decided that the general public needed to know even more about the evils of divorce. Thus was born, I Want a Divorce the radio show, starring Joan Blondell! Stay tuned until next time and we shall lift the lid on the sequel of sorts that no one really asked for.

Tuesday 26 March 2019

The Green Goddess (1930) - George Arliss, Alice Joyce and Warner Brothers Before the Gangsters

The Green Goddess is one of those movies that appears to be fairly commonplace in the early sound era in that they are obsessed with the British aristocracy and their affairs. In this instance it positively revels in its Britishness, from the cast and their clipped accents, to the colonial setting in India and right through to the “brownface” and casual racism. Filmed in 1929, but not released until 1930 the movie was an adaptation of a popular 1921 play (which additionally spawned a silent film version in 1923). Watching it today or indeed in 1930 it’s ridiculously stagey and old fashioned, but does hold a certain Kiplingesque charm that brings to mind the early output of Ronald Colman and the like. The play certainly must have been popular in its day as it brought forth multiple adaptions in film and radio. Orson Welles was seemingly an admirer, adapting it for stage and radio performances of The Mercury Players and it even inspired a salad, which is something you can’t say about a lot of plays.

What’s interesting to me about the movie is with its exotic locale, savage tribesmen, British stiff upper lipped resolve and general plodding presentation that it’s surprisingly produced by Warner Brothers. MGM maybe, Fox definitely - but Warner? This is the studio that within a year would be producing Little Caesar and kicking off a wave of violence, sex and sin so beloved of Pre-Code movie fans. However, when you look at Warner Brothers output in 1929 and 1930 it’s clear that they were a studio still finding its voice (so to speak) in the world of the talkies.

In fact, while the studio’s movies from this era include some minor gems, overall it’s a weird patchwork of genres and styles. There’s biblical epics (Noah’s Ark), operettas (The Desert Song), historical biopics (Disraeli), exotic dramas (The Squall) and whatever Golden Dawn is supposed to be. Add to that a raft of Al Jolson vehicles, a ton of Broadway based fluff starring Alice White and some attempts at drawing room drama and comedy with the likes of Dorothy Mackaill and Billie Dove and you certainly have an eclectic selection. It’s definitely a mixed bag in the days before Cagney, Robinson and Blondell hit the scene. Yet in the middle of this potpourri of cinematic uncertainty sits Warner Brothers' most bankable and dependable star of the era, George Arliss

Whilst mostly overlooked these days, make no mistake about it - George Arliss was a very big deal in the early 30s. For an industry desperate to achieve artistic respectability, he provided it in spades. Arliss began his theatrical career in his native Britain but found virtually all his success in America. Touring in plays such as “The Devils”, “Disraeli” and “The Green Goddess” made him a hugely successful and respected actor in the early part of the 20th century, a position that he used to transition to movies in the early 20s. By the time sound films arrived Arliss, then in his 60s was one of the unexpected successes of the period. I first realised the power that he commanded in the industry when I heard his debut on Lux Radio Theater in an episode from 1938. The hushed tones of reverence used by host Cecil B. DeMille to introduce him let the radio audience know in no uncertain terms that they were in the presence of greatness, and were glimpsing a dramatic talent far beyond the abilities of the average studio player. George Arliss represented artistic quality and with his extensive stage background, that all important ‘legitimacy” so craved by certain quarters in Hollywood.

However, the mark of quality surrounding his movies was not just hype. When he signed to Warner Brothers to make talking pictures starting in 1929 he was given an extraordinary amount of control over his output, at a level which possibly no other actor had at the time. He was responsible for virtually every element of his movies from casting to scripts to set design and his productions had essentially their own unit on the Warner lot. Though his movies are now fairly unfashionable, being largely overwrought historical biographies or adaptions of his theatrical successes, they were incredibly popular in their day and brought in a lot of money and prestige for Warner Brothers. It’s also worth noting that despite his own success he had an undeniable eye for young talent and cast the likes of Bette Davis and James Cagney in early roles and took an active part in cultivating and mentoring new stars. 

Even though The Green Goddess bears all the hallmarks of an Arliss production in terms of cast, crew and treatment, pretty much everything about the movie is absolute hokum. There is possibly a serious point to be made about the role of race, class and colonialism in India submerged somewhere within the setting but it is lost in a sea of melodrama. The plot concerns a three British people who crash land their plane on the kingdom of Rukh (supposedly some Indian province currently warring with the main government) The Rajah, played by George Arliss holds them prisoner and intends to execute them in retaliation for the government executing three of his countrymen for acts of terrorism. Our plucky heroes must try to escape before the Rajah has his ‘eye for an eye’ revenge.
For modern audiences such movies, featuring the otherness of another (usually non-white or certainly non-Western) culture leave a bad taste in the mouth, especially since as in this case the lead actor is essentially in ‘brownface’ to portray an Indian. This was not unusual in 1930, and indeed for many, many decades to come in movies and television. One unfortunately just has to accept the film for what it is - a product of its time made with noble intentions and with a small world view that was painfully unaware of its cultural surroundings. At the very least there is some discussion of the issue of British colonialism in India which serves as an attempt to paint the characters in a few minor shades of grey.

The Rajah is initially assumed by the British contingent, and especially the arrogant Major (played with impassive superiority by H.B, Warner) to be a savage (his line about wanting to get ‘back to civilisation’ starts relations with the Rajah immediately on the wrong foot) but is nonetheless erudite, educated and modern. There is an amusing scene where the Rajah points out this ‘household cavalry’ and we see a group of misshapen and elderly old codgers, one of which can’t even stay awake. This makes the British contingent bristle with satisfaction until at the snap of his fingers the real soldiers turn up like a modern well-oiled machine (bizarrely assembling in speeded up fashion). Despite tribal beliefs and idol worship going on amongst Rukh’s people (hence the titular Green Goddess who demands appeasement), the locals seem to be a strange lot, combining every available stereotype of movie tribesmen. The men carry spears, play the war drums, all the while whooping and shrieking in a variety of weird outfits. Conversely the women glide about like concubines in a harem, seductively shaking their hips in a hand me down 'Dance of the Seven Veils'. Typically with Western culture’s then-portrayal of the mysterious East, this exotic hodgepodge seems to have no connection with anything remotely Indian. One of the tribesmen even inexplicably carries a trident! Why he does so is never explained...

While the arrogance of Hollywood and its cultural view is never taken to task, luckily the movie at least attempts to tackle the attitudes of the British and their rule in India. The Rajah refuses to back down on his threat to have his British visitors killed, saying "Asia has a long score against you swaggering lords of creation, and by all the gods I mean to see some of it paid tomorrow" Of course, he has a valid point and the play brings up an interesting moral dilemma. Sadly, when he clasps eyes on the lone white female of the group, this ethical high ground goes swiftly out the window as he becomes another typically lust crazed foreign devil. He then goes out further on the crazy scale by attempting to justify his actions on some eugenic level, "For though I hate the arrogance of Europe, I believe that from the blending of a flower of the East with a flower of the West that the man of the future, the Superman will be born!" Not surprisingly, our flower of the West quickly turns down his advances.

Despite some of the more dubious elements of the scenario, the movie undoubtedly belongs to George Arliss. He commands the screen, resplendent in his silken finery as the sly and arch Rajah and is positively glowing with both charm and menace. It’s no wonder he is so confident in role having played it on and off for the better part of a decade. What’s surprising is how easily, at his first attempt, he adapts to talking pictures. His performance is assured without being theatrical, adept at the small moments as well as the large and seemingly at ease with acting within the new medium. Admittedly Arliss does at times chew the scenery with his proclamations and he holds a cigarette in the most weirdly off-putting manner - horizontal!  Most divertingly, his appearance and manner immediately brings to mind Kenneth Williams’ tour de force Khasi of Kalabar in Carry On Up the Khyber, but to me that’s the highest of praise.

The whole production, while having that certain rough at the edges charm of early sound movies, still retains a sense of gloss and grandeur. The interiors of the Rajah’s palace look impressively dressed and the courtyard set with its enormous thick doors (which I couldn’t figure out if were real or realised by visual trickery) at times brought to mind hints of silent Babylonian epics. If this had been made six months earlier one could easily imagine The Green Goddess being a lush and expensive silent melodrama of the highest order. 

There is a lot to like in some other members of the cast, most noticeably in the lovely Alice Joyce as Lucilla, the beleaguered housewife who wants only to be reunited with her children but who has to put up with the Rajah's creepy advances. Although is it a standard underwritten ‘woman in peril from evil foreigner’ role which requires her to look anguished and nervous for most of the film, Miss Joyce succeeds in being quietly understated and rather charming. Like a lot of great silent screen actresses, she excels when having to emote and her ability to use her face gives her character a lot more depth than perhaps appears on the page. Alice Joyce retired from the screen in 1930 and only appeared in a couple of more movies after The Green Goddess, which is a real shame as I would have likes to see more of her. However, at her age (a positively geriatric by Hollywood standards 39 in The Green Goddess but still looking delightful), her days as a leading lady were probably over. To be honest, she probably didn't have enough charisma in sound to be a big success, and her persona is definitely that of an earlier more demure era. However, she definitely appeals to my love of seeing silent stars making charmingly serviceable attempts at talking pictures so to me she's just right.

A brief mention also needs to be made of Ivan F. Simpson as the butler Watkins. Again this was a role he had played with Arliss previously on the screen and on stage and he oozes menace and class resentment with every pore. He’s a grubby, bitter little man and expertly brought to life by Simpson, who would go on to be one of Arliss’ regular stock players. The Green Goddess attempts, mostly unsuccessfully to say something about social class but in the scenes between Watkins, the Rajah and the new visitors the dynamic finds its greatest success. There's a great scene where the captured Brits try to convince him to turn on his master and help them out. They try to guilt him into doing it for the old country and offer him a variety of financial bribes. He remarks that if he's going to do it he's "got to have enough to make a gentleman of me" Without thinking the prisoners all laugh at his nerve. Even though their lives depend on him, they still need to remind him of his place in the world. In the end he double crosses them and so they throw him out a window to his death. I think there's a lesson to be learned there for all of us. If you ever figure it out please let me know.

In the end, your opinion of the The Green Goddess depends upon what part you choose to concentrate on. It’s old fashioned even for 1930, it has some misguided racial politics, it makes a confusing and ham fisted mess of untangling British colonialism and class conflict but if you can choose to overlook this there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on. Of course, these issues are difficult to get past but the movie (and the play) are of their time and entertainment and melodrama are the focus, not outdated social mores. On a technical and artistic level the movie is mostly above average, presenting a confident attempt at early sound filmmaking. It also allows a charismatic veteran actor in George Arliss to set out his stall for what would be a string of captivating and successful performances that would seal his legend in the public consciousness (and give Mitzi Green someone to impersonate).

The movie also shows Warner Brothers finding their feet at trying to create an identity as a studio. 'Tales of the British Raj' wouldn’t last long for the studio once they found a successful formula in gangsters, good time girls and slice of life Depression era grifting. It was no great loss when the likes of The Public Enemy started to be the in-house style for the studio at the expense of stagey nonsense like The Green Goddess. Yet the movie is emblematic of an industry finding its feet and trying different things to see what worked and what didn't. That in itself makes the movies of the early sound era endlessly fascinating. Sometimes they work, sometimes you can generously label it as 'a curio'. If I'm being generous, this one is a curio.

If nothing else, The Green Goddess ends with one of the best final scenes I can remember seeing. As the Rajah makes a final desperate effort to enslave Lucilla only to be foiled by the cavalry at the last moment he admits defeat, sits down cross legged and lights up a cigarette. Arliss looks at the camera with a twinkle in his eye and says, "Well, well, she'd probably have been a damned nuisance" It almost makes the film worthwhile. Almost, but not quite but I hope at least The Green Goddess made for a tasty salad.

Monday 21 January 2019

Screen Snapshots Returns! Hooray!

Hello 2019! Wait, what happened to 2018??

Alas, times have been tough here at Screen Snapshots over the last year and a half. On this occasion it’s not because of any fraught personal problems but due to nothing less than good old fashioned apathy. My issue has been with trying to find a way to communicate what I want to say in an appropriately informative and entertaining manner. However, my movie viewing habits have widened considerably since I started this blog, and though I still concentrate mainly on Pre-Code movies, I don’t stick to the same favourite stars as much as I used to (can you ever forgive me Cary Grant?). The result is that the number of interesting films I watch is greatly outnumbered by the amount of average, run of the mill ones. I watch so many movies that I think are fine, maybe even entertaining – but can I find anything to say about them? I could try, but I doubt it would be worth reading. There are enough film reviews out there that just give a basic plot recap with a thumbs up/thumbs down verdict and I’ve always strived to give a bit more than that. Regardless of that, the simple fact is that nothing has really demanded my attention of late.

For example, yesterday I watched Lucky Night, the 1939 romantic comedy starring Myrna Loy and Robert Taylor. I quite enjoyed it so I thought about writing a review. Then I thought more about it and realised that sadly I didn’t really have anything particularly stimulating to say about the movie. I could say that there were no scenes that grabbed me, no performances that stole the show and no minor moments of cinematic genius to be seen. At a push, I could talk about how it has a tone that shifts all over the place and that there were only a few fleeting flashes of brilliance from the cast. I still liked it though, but it would be a fairly worthless blog post. 

I’ve had a year and a half of movies like this it seems and as a result I have been gripped by a sort of movie watching existential crisis. Why can’t I find the right films to write about? Is it me? Have I angered the movie Gods? Has the muse left me? Did I ever have it to start with?

I began to think that perhaps my love of classic movies was waning, but considering it is something I still think about on a daily basis I don’t believe that my passion for the era has diminished. So it’s time for a bit of a rethink. I still want to write this blog, regardless of whether anyone actually reads it (and let’s face it, nobody reads this - but I forgive you, invisible non-existent readers). I’ll have to be a bit more creative in terms of articles until I find that elusive movie that piques my interest. I have a ton of 20s and 30s movie and radio magazines I’ve been meaning to sift through for interesting titbits of gossip. I also have a really cool piece of Myrna Loy memorabilia that I’ve been sitting on for years. Oh, did I ever tell you that my dad went out drinking with Montgomery Clift a couple of times? And also, isn’t Alice White really great? People need to write more articles about her.

So I guess there may be a bit more life in this blog yet. What say we give it another go in 2019? Shall we? .

(cue furious typing montage starring Lee Tracy as me…)

Wednesday 9 August 2017

Snapshot # 8 - The Savage Girl (1932)

What is it about?: An eccentric millionaire hires an intrepid jungle explorer to go to Africa to catch him some wild animals for his new zoo. While there they encounter the legend of the White Goddess – a savage girl who lives wild in the jungle.

The Call Sheet: Rochelle Hudson, Walter Byron, Harry Myers, Adolph Milar, Ted Adams and Floyd Shackleford

Behind the Camera: Directed by Harry L. Fraser, Written by Brewster Morse, Cinematography by Edward A. Kull.

Snapshot Thoughts: I’ve seen plenty Poverty Row movies in my time, and for the most part they pass the time of day and rarely make an impression. Using faded stars and journeymen directors, they are simple tales giving simple thrills, cranked out for an audience that really only came to see the main feature. In this environment it seems that there was little need to stand out from the crowd, but against all odds The Savage Girl does just that. Made by the tiny Monarch Pictures, with a veteran cast and crew, the movie manages to be both funny and entertaining. Unfortunately the print currently circulating derives from the Commonwealth Pictures 1948 reissue and includes a lengthy disclaimer encouraging the audience to see the movie for the childish fantasy that it supposedly is. It’s as if by the late 40s such whimsical jungle adventures were considered a minor embarrassment, despite the fact that much worse examples of the genre were continuing to be churned out by even the major studios. I guess it shows that people have always thought that current movies were the best and that anything old was dated and silly.

Given that the movie is essentially just a standard jungle adventure, all the usual clichés we would come to expect are ready and present – stock footage, pith helmets, ferocious animals, jungle drums and spear wielding natives all make an appearance (not to mention colonialism and casual racism but sadly that’s to be expected). The difference here is that The Savage Girl has a collection of interesting characters, a couple of truly inspired and ridiculous ideas and a script that is at least trying to overachieve. The result is as good example of a fun and entertaining low budget movie this side of the Hal Roach lot. 

The story starts with veteran explorer Jim Franklin (played by Walter Byron) giving a lecture to a bunch of well to do gentlemen about his adventures in the jungle. Franklin confesses that despite his brushes with wild animals (which he proudly boasts, he only kills in self-defence) he feels he is “safer in Darkest Africa than in many a speakeasy or nightclub in this city”. His speech so inspires one of his listeners, a certain Amos P. Stitch (Harry Myers) that he decides there and then that he wants to open his own zoo and needs Franklin to stock it with animals. When asked why he replies “I want to be different!” It should also be noted that Stitch is very, very drunk, to the point that he thinks a stuffed animal head on the wall is talking to him. Franklin, though initially uncomfortable, agrees to his proposal and before you can say “So this is Africa!” they are in the jungle and saying “So this is Africa!”. Along the way Stitch manages to bring a taxi driver and his taxi as well as a collection of mice for his grand experiment – to see if elephants are actually afraid of mice. At this point you realise that the character of Amos Stitch wasn’t just drunk in the opening scene, he’s drunk 24 hours a day (in fact later on when he gets up first thing in the morning from his tent, he’s still drunk – that must be some powerful moonshine!)

Once there, they learn from Dutch explorer Alec Bernouth (Stitch: “Did you say Vermouth?”) the legend of the White Goddess, a figure of mystery worshiped by the native tribes. Before long we meet our Savage Girl, only to discover that she’s actually fairly tame. She’s pretty, very well dressed (by jungle loincloth standards) and kind to animals (she can talk to them too it seems). This proves to be her undoing as she is tricked into falling down a hole while attempting to free some of her captured jungle friends from their safari cages.

Once apprehended, it doesn’t take long for her to catch the eye of the men on the expedition, and she soon finds herself fighting off the unwanted attentions of a drunken and lecherous Bernouth (“She’s white, she’s beautiful, she’s warm, she’s smooth” he intones creepily). Luckily heroic Jim Franklin appears in time to save the day but even he has to muster all the stiff upper lip he can to resist her charms. In the end he sets her free and she runs off, pausing to look back in a sultry manner before climbing a tree and swinging off on a vine (and if you’re going to make a memorable exit, that’s the way to go). Later they meet again and she tries to kiss him, which elicits the classic line (deadpanned perfectly by Walter Byron) “You can’t do this you know - what would Walter Winchell say if he heard about it!” It’s quite interesting watching Byron in his scenes with Rochelle Hudson as he often seems quite flustered and in fact stumbles over his lines on more than one occasion. It’s doubtful that this is a reflection of his acting skills (which are admittedly fairly average) but instead I’d like to think more likely a commentary on how tongue tied one could get doing a love scene with the delectable Miss Hudson!

The rest of the movie is spent dealing with Amos Stitch’s historic mouse and elephant experiment. Once again, the fact that Stich is drunk and staggering around while attempting it just makes an already bizarre scene even stranger. Afterwards, fully vindicated he gleefully declares “Get mousie a steak when we get back to the hotel!” Truly, that mouse deserves to be recognised by science as much as Pavlov’s dog. The whole yarn enters its final reel when Bernouth starts to rabble rouse the natives and our hero is (predictably) tied to a stake awaiting sacrifice while the tribe does its war dance. The end arrives in lightning fast fashion and involves a taxi ride through the jungle, natives frightened by loud noises and a man being suddenly dragged through a window by a gorilla. The Girl finally embraces Jim and is tamed – a savage no more!

Star Performances: The cast across the board give energetic performances and all look like they are enjoying themselves and making the most of the action. Rochelle Hudson naturally gets most of the attention as she is suitably alluring and mysterious in a way that belies her young age (it’s quite incredible to think she’s only 16 in the movie as her looks and screen presence tell an entirely different story). She manages to convey the innocent and feral nature of her character quite well and uses her body language (I’m guessing she had a background in dance given the graceful and fluid way she moves) to suggest a life spent with the jungle animals. She doesn’t have many lines but her hesitant understanding of English is quite endearing, showing her naivety having lived apart from other humans. Far from being a mere Tarzan knock off (which unashamedly the movie attempts to be), Rochelle Hudson has a charm and poise that gives the movie another reason to shine brighter than the average Poverty Row filler.

Rochelle Hudson may be the most attractive element of the movie but mention needs to be made of the comical performance of Harry Myers as Amos P. Stitch. Myers made the movie relatively fresh from his memorable appearance in 1931 as the eccentric millionaire in Chaplin’s City Lights (though he filmed his part in 1929) and here riffs on that role. Sadly, in 1932 Myers' career was beginning to slow down and he was generally finding only smaller, often uncredited parts (despite a respectable career as a star comedian and director in the early silent era) In The Savage Girl he clearly relishes the chance to have a starring role and makes the most of it. It’s one of those performances that is so assured and so full of great comic timing that it makes you wonder why he never got more work. I suppose his plight is similar to that of any number of veteran comic players from the silent era who never got to fully show what they could do on a big stage (for example most of the Hal Roach stock company or perennial comic foils such as Vernon Dent or Stanley Blystone). Here he plays the sort of role that a man of his experience could do in his sleep, and like a true pro makes it hilarious and appealing, milking the full comic potential out of every situation.

Technical Excellences: As would be expected, there’s not a lot of 'High Art' going on in The Savage Girl but what does make the screen is filmed competently and edited to make the 60 minute duration fly swiftly. The director Harry L. Fraser was a veteran of many westerns but had tried his hand at most genres. He would go on to direct and write a number of movie serials and seemed to have a talent for scripting them, since a lot of the better ones are from his pen. A great advantage of The Savage Girl is its use of primarily real location rather than being studio bound like many low budget jungle capers. Obviously the African jungle looks more like a park somewhere in New York but the locations are chosen well enough not to completely lose credibility. Even the use of stock footage works pretty well and integrates into the action better than most.

The Sublime: The best thing about the movie is its silly ideas. It’s as if the writer said to himself “What would happen if one of our central characters was drunk…all the time?”. From that revolutionary brainwave sprung the peculiar sort of madness and whimsy that the movie exudes in which every basic action can be rewritten with the question “Now what would that be like if our hero was drunk?”. It could be quite a fun game – take the plot of any well known film and rewrite the script following the logic of a pie-eyed protagonist. Some movies would actually benefit from this approach! Everything that Amos P. Stich does is off the cuff and a result of his constant inebriation. He hears a lecture about African safaris, and immediately leaves on the next boat to Africa. His taxi driver says he wants to go to Africa, and so he takes the driver and his taxi on the boat with him. Best of all he suddenly decides that he needs to discover if elephants are afraid of mice, and goes about it like it is going to be the scientific discovery of the century (“The National Geographic will hear from you!” he triumphantly tells one of his mice). The inclusion of the character and his silly schemes is what lifts the movie from the less than ordinary to the slightly above ordinary, and the fact that the cast and director manage to deal with such preposterous material in a relatively straight faced (or sober, if you will) manner just adds to the overall fun of the movie.

The Ridiculous: The whole film is ridiculous, but in a good way that adds to the enjoyment. However, from a logic point of view (and with a movie like The Savage Girl, logic very rarely enters into the equation so I don’t know why I even bring it up) some things are more ridiculous than others. First and foremost is the titular ‘Savage Girl’. Now, sadly I was not raised in the jungle Tarzan style but I know that even in a movie jungle I wouldn’t last long. Quite how Rochelle Hudson made it five minutes in the green hell is a mystery. When we first see her, she is cuddling some leopard cubs and seems to understand monkey language, which are both great jungle goddess skills to have (she also seems to have great jungle goddess skills in makeup and hair considering she is immaculately turned out despite probably living full time in a tree). However, some of her other survival abilities are a bit lacking. She screams at a leopard as if she has never seen one before (maybe it wanted its cubs back?) and thus gives herself away to the party of explorers. What’s more she is eventually trapped by being attracted to a shiny thing (aka a mirror) attached to a branch, which causes her to fall into a freshly dug hole. One would think that she would be fully acquainted with shiny things given the obvious amount of time she spends applying her foundation every morning in the mirror, but perhaps her jungle compact had become worn and dull from so much use. Anyway, as ridiculous as the movie is, the idea that somehow she is the mythical White Goddess that inspires awe and fear in the local tribesmen is a bit farfetched since she seems scared of the (fully grown ) animals and can’t see a large trap staring her in the face. In fact, her character brings up more questions than answers. Sadly, and not unexpectedly the movie spends absolutely no effort in answering any of them.

Is it worth watching?: If you like low budget jungle adventures (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?) then this is a superior example of the genre and about as good as you are going to get until the advent Monogram a decade later, The Savage Girl has a rather charming touch of whimsy that is highly unusual for a Poverty Row picture and this combined with a frisson of Pre Code raunch, a solid cast of character actors and the delectable Rochelle Hudson in a leopard skin, the whole affair is an overachieving delight. There are certainly worse ways involving gorillas to spend 60 minutes of your time.

Random Quote: “Keep away from men. We’ve all got a little of the tramp in us”

Friday 17 February 2017

Mary Brian - The Real Talent of "The Sweetest Girl in Pictures"

Given the moniker of “The Sweetest Girl in Pictures”, lovely Mary Brian was the perfect 20s ingénue with her long dark hair, adorable good looks and graceful manner. She was girlish and innocent when that was the fashion, and smart and sophisticated when tastes matured.  Yet she remains a difficult actress to truly define as she was never quite a leading actress, far more than a juvenile lead and never tied herself to one particular style or genre. As the film historian Anthony Slide put it, she was a “competent, intelligent, and compliant actress who exudes a natural charm and personality” Slide, a close friend of Brian in her later years meant it as the highest compliment, yet this summation of her career seems lacking in the usual hyperbole and platitudes typically given to stars of the Golden Age.
Make no mistake about it, Mary Brian was a very big star with a extremely successful career as a marquee headliner from 1925 through to the mid 30s and unlike many of her contemporaries transitioned from silent to talking pictures with an enviable ease. During her career she starred with acting heavyweights like Wallace Beery, Gary Cooper, Ronald Colman, James Cagney and W.C. Fields and worked with top level directors such as Lewis Milestone, Gregory La Cava, William Wellman and George Cukor. She even had a leading role in an Oscar nominated movie but despite these stellar accomplishments, like so many others, she is sadly still often overlooked and underappreciated.

Mary Brian was born Louise Datzler on February 17 1906 in Corsicana, Texas, the daughter of an oculist. Her father died in an accident when she was one month old and the family then moved to live with her aunt, eventually following her from the prairies of Texas to Long Beach, California in the early 20s. Mary received her big break into the movies when she was spotted by silent star Esther Ralston at a Bathing Beauty contest and through that connection managed to get an audition with the director Herbert Brenon. Despite having little to no experience in acting, Brenon asked her to play Wendy in his forthcoming adaption of 'Peter Pan'. Soon Louise Datzler was signed to a five year Paramount deal and rechristened Mary Brian and a new star was born.

From the very beginning in her successful 1925 debut in Peter Pan, Mary Brian was a popular young leading lady in Hollywood. Her status as a rising star was cemented when she was named as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1926 alongside future greats such as Joan Crawford, Janet Gaynor and Fay Wray. Sadly, very few of her silent films still exist today which is perhaps one of the reasons why she is primarily remembered for her 30s work despite making more than 20 silent movies as a leading actress. Among her most popular movies in the silent era were the football comedy Brown of Harvard with William Haines, adventure epic Beau Geste with Ronald Colman and William Powell and Behind the Front with Wallace Beery, the first of four pictures she made with him. She also become a trusted friend of W. C. Fields and starred with him in two of his silent movies, Two Flaming Youths (sadly lost) and Running Wild.
By the time sound came in, Mary Brian was a mainstay at Paramount and was soon rushed into making a talking picture. Her first, a part talkie, was Varsity (also now lost) with her friend and frequent co-star Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers in 1928. She soon followed it up with a well received turn in The Virginian with Gary Cooper that proved to be a break out role establishing her as a successful sound actress (it didn't do too badly for Cooper's career either). In the early sound era she also lit up the screen in The Royal Family of Broadway (a not so subtle poke at the Barrymore acting clan) and the Oscar nominated fast talker The Front Page. Both roles continue to be fondly remembered today and show her to be a talented and resourceful actress. Despite these triumphs, in 1932 Paramount decided not to renew her contract, choosing instead to move away from the sort of ingénue roles she played to more ‘sophisticated’ fare. Since playing the sort of Mae West and Marlene Dietrich roles preferred by the studio was not her scene, Mary freelanced for the rest of her career.

This post 1932 period brought some memorable roles but the good parts began to slowly dry up. Nevertheless she still made some great films in this time such as Blessed Event with Lee Tracy, Girl Missing with Ben Lyon and Glenda Farrell and Hard to Handle with James Cagney, perhaps her last great film (though she sports atypical platinum blonde hair which doesn't really suit her natural beauty). However, B pictures started to appear more and more on her resume and the A list co-stars became replaced more often than not by the likes of Leo Carrillo, Dick Purcell, Jack Oakie and Richard Arlen (though in the end Arlen became her most frequent co-star, they made an astonishing 11 films together between 1926 and 1933). After that Mary worked in theatre and then during the Second World War tirelessly devoted her time to entertaining the troops with the USO. Her last movie appearance was in the Poverty Row crime drama Dragnet in 1947, and save for a brief television comeback in the 50s Mary then retired to devote herself to her family and her painting.

I’ve always likes Mary Brian immensely since she first caught my eye in The Marriage Playground. There she plays the oldest of a large group of children living with their rich, disinterested parents. Despite being incredibly pretty and the camera simply loving her, she was still overshadowed by her co-stars Fredric March, Lilyan Tashman, Kay Francis and particularly Mitzi Green. Next up was Blessed Event, a newspaper caper where she generally stands around while Lee Tracy blitzes the screen with his incendiary delivery and presence. She still looks incredibly pretty though. More recently I watched her in Girl Missing where she plays one half of a crime solving team of gold diggers with Glenda Farrell. The movie has a tour de force performance from Farrell, who commands the screen and gets all the best lines. Mary gamely hangs in there and gives capable support but is really only there to provide a romantic subplot with Ben Lyon. Finally, a couple of weeks ago I watched Charlie Chan in Paris. To be honest, I don’t even remember what she did in the movie and in fact I have no memory of her even being in it. It appears that by that time (1935) she had almost disappeared into the background entirely. 

Going back to Anthony Slide’s earlier words, what at first seemed like faint praise is actually a perfect summation of her talent. She truly is “competent, intelligent and compliant” – a true professional whose role in movies was to be the featured actress there to support a star impeccably without smothering them. Additionally she definitely has “charm and personality”, yet never to the point that detracts from her afore mentioned purpose. What first struck me about Mary Brian was her everyday fresh faced looks and simple style that lived up to her moniker “The Sweetest Girl in Pictures”. She was a girl next door, or a beloved big sister - dependable and gracious, at times streetwise but never brash or rude. This quality, especially when paired up with a larger than life co-star made her believable in her roles and equally trusted by audiences. There is an honestly and charm to Mary Brian that is real and very appealing and could quite easily hold a film together despite being paired with large personalities.

For this reason it’s no wonder that she was so revered by W. C. Fields and was requested by him to play his daughter in one of his best films, The Man on the Flying Trapeze. Throughout the film she is the one person who not only stands by Fields’ character and defends him but who holds together the chaos that he brings. She once said of him “He knew he could count on me to do certain things and never look as if I don’t know what it is. A comedian depends on a straight man…their timing depends on what you feed them” The fact that she could work so easily with a comedian as spontaneous and unpredictable as Fields and not only keep up with him but feed him exactly the reactions he needed speaks volumes about Mary Brian’s talents more than perhaps any one performance. Just like her work with Lee Tracy, Glenda Farrell and James Cagney (and it can’t be a coincidence in her freelancing years that she was hired out to team up with the three fastest talkers in Hollywood) being the straight man is a vastly underrated skill that is essential to the success of the other part of the equation. And if you can do all that and look lovely while you are doing it...well, then that is even better.

Again, when reading reviews of The Front Page, with its constant chatter and cross talk, you very rarely hear anything said about Mary’s performance in the movie. In a way it means she has done her job and let the others shine despite not always getting to show her own skills so prominently. Watching the movie and particularly her performance, she is adept at stunned reactions and timing her feed lines to let the rhythm of the dialogue flow. Of course the problem with being a good straight man is that if the parts across from you are not very well written or performed than your own role is diminished too. Sadly this happened all to often in Mary’s career in its later years where she just turns up and looks pretty (like the afore mentioned Charlie Chan film) or even worse just stands about doing nothing as the nominal romantic interest in a dull picture.

Sometimes in the case of comedy double acts I wonder what would have happened if one of the pair had made solo films or worked as character actor. Would Bud Abbott have managed to show more of his comic range (so tantalisingly hinted at in Little Giant)? George Burns certainly flourished when he went solo though it took him a while to truly find his voice.  In the case of Mary Brian, ever the perfect sounding board for actors and actresses to bounce off, would she have been successful if given Joan Crawford or Carole Lombard level parts? Given her talent and adaptability I have no doubt that she would have been wonderful but in cinema, just like in life we each have a role to play and Mary Brian’s role seemingly was to help others shine. It was often became a thankless job but one that she was supremely gifted at. At her best, Mary Brian was a radiant, charming talent that had a likeability and connection with audiences that made her a popular favourite for over a decade.  Despite sharing the screen with bigger personalities or nearly disappearing into the background with sub par scripts, Mary Brian with charm and grace always gave it her all and made us believe in her, and for me will always be one of the brightest stars in Hollywood. Happy birthday Mary!