Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Are You Listening? (1932) - On the Run from Radio with William Haines

William Haines was a major star in the late silent era and his fame and success was such that he was named the top male box office star as late as 1930. Sound presented no problems to him and the silly, energetic all American boy he portrayed translated effortlessly to the new medium and continued to appeal to audiences despite the subsequent economic downturn. However, within a few years, he was done as a performer and is largely forgotten by history today. The reason for this was the fact he was gay, and worse, openly so. When pressured by Louis B. Mayer to leave his long-term partner and marry a woman (any woman would do it seemed, just a woman), William Haines quit M.G. M and was pretty much never seen on the screen again. What is so interesting about the Haines story is that he was possibly the only star to clash with the tyrannical Mayer and emerge with his head held high, leaving on his own terms. In contrast, others who got on the wrong side of Mayer’s favour, such as John Gilbert, Buster Keaton or Erich von Stroheim, (though Irving Thalberg had a large part in the demises Keaton and Stroheim too) limped on with their careers, clearly broken and largely unemployable men. Haines quit, became a celebrated interior decorator, kept his relationship, kept his friends and walked out with no regrets. All of this was great for him, but a pretty bad break for the movie going public, as on the strength of that I’ve seen of him he’s a charismatic and dynamic actor who would have undoubtedly maintained a high level of stardom as the years went by, with studio support.

The movie starts with the words “Are You Listening?”, highlighting that its odd title is in fact part of a call sign and that this drama takes place in a radio station. There is a strange dynamic going on in the movie as the film makers obviously want to cash in on the burgeoning popularity of radio yet still feel the need to highlight the superiority of film as a medium. This exhibits itself in many ways throughout the picture and at times it seems a lot like Hollywood taking cheap pot shots at its sister art form. Nevertheless, the movie uses radio very well, and succeeds in making it a supporting character in the drama. Everywhere the characters go radio is present. It entertains yet it also intrudes and cleverly, it ultimately proves to be a key factor in the resolution of the plot.

However, early on we are treated to what undoubtedly was an accurate reflection of the spectacle of early radio broadcasts – live synchronised roller skating. Why exactly the radio station felt the need to put their orchestra in a skating rink to play the song “Skating in the Dark” we’ll never know. If anything it highlights the tension between representing an audio based medium in a visual way without endless scenes set in a recording booth. This backdrop sets up our main characters, Bill Grimes (William Haines) a writer of jingles and skits for radio shows and his sweetheart Laura O’Neill (Madge Evans) who also works at the radio station. Their first scene together displays their great chemistry, with plenty of rapid-fire dialogue and easy smiles. Haines cuts a rather odd figure with his high hairline, button eyes and big smile. He is slim, well dressed and comes across relaxed and easy going in front of the camera. In fact his laid back presence is at odds with the frenetic style of many of his contemporaries and exudes a pleasingly different sort of persona. He just stands still and smiles a lot. It’s very engaging, oddly mesmeric and refreshing not to see an actor constantly trying to impress his control over every scene.

This romantic interlude is soured somewhat by the disclosure that Bill is already married, but miserable as his wife won’t divorce him to be with Laura. While this conversation is going on the radio blares out in the background, with an announcer constantly talking about happiness. It’s not exactly subtle, but after a short while these ironically juxtaposed radio voices start to take on a slightly claustrophobic and oppressive resonance. Radio is everywhere and inescapable - at home, at work, interrupting the private and emotional moments of your life.

The plot takes a back seat for a moment as we are treated to what is obviously a sneering cheap shot at the radio industry by way of a recreation of an average radio drama. As the cast histrionically recite an overblown melodrama, we see a haughty German actor filing his nails as he says his lines, obviously bored. The sound effects are also lampooned as an avalanche is recreated by dropping some bricks into a metal bathtub (admittedly this probably was how sound effects were done much of the time in early radio). The whole production reeks of amateur hour, and something that attracts only the bored, the down of their luck or the talentless. Played for comedy the scene is amusing but there is definitely an element of ridicule in the way it is presented.

The film then seems to break into two distinct stories. On one hand we have the plight of Bill and his loveless marriage as he tries to get a divorce to be with Laura, and running parallel to this plot is the tale of Laura’s party going sister Sally (Anita Page) and their new in town younger sibling Honey (Joan Marsh) as she learns first hand some life lessons about men. The theme that links both the stories is that of people using other people, men using women and vice versa. Though Laura is used to the ways of the world, Honey is innocent and we follow the pair as they try to do their best gold digging around town in the company of rich older men. Despite wining and dining with the upper reaches of the social circle, Honey eventually falls for Jack played by Neil Hamilton. She thinks they are going to get married but in a pivotal scene he blows her off with the line “Men make promises, and girls believe them”. Crestfallen, Honey replies that she believed his promises, only to be told, “Well don’t again, for anyone”. Such is the way of the modern world that as if nothing had happened he then makes a lunch date with her.

This story of lost innocence in the big city would have perhaps made for an interesting movie on its own as Joan Marsh conveys the naivety of the character very well in contrast to jaded Anita Page. However, it has to compete with the main story about Bill and Laura (which gets surprisingly little screen time considering it involves the stars of the picture – possibly reflecting the studio’s view of William Haines). Bill’s story reaches a crescendo ironically at Christmas, having lost his job due to splitting up with Laura. We find him with his nagging wife (expertly played by Karen Morley) pacing up and down their small drawing room whilst he sits slumped over in a chair, head in hands. Again, the radio blares out in the background, this time giving a Christmas message of peace and joy. It’s a wonderfully framed scene, reminiscent of silent cinema (though for 1932 I suppose that wouldn’t have been much of a compliment). In despair, Bill tries to stand up to his wife, and in the commotion she falls, cracks her head and dies instantly. In an intriguing twist to the wronged man story, Bill despite being innocent decides to not phone the police and so goes on the run.

After all the melodrama, the final reel of the movie provides a neat tying up of all the themes. Bill escapes from the law but due to the work of a zealous journalist, is tracked using the ever present voice of radio (“We’ll use radio to catch the radio man!”) We hear the APB go out as a brief montage shows the different people that hear it such as families putting up the Christmas decorations and men gambling round a table. Radio reaches everyone, everywhere. This is a clever use of the new technology and a prescient realisation by the writer of the encroachment of media on our everyday lives.

Here, the movie perhaps takes another shot at radio, as the journalist character successfully uses the broadcast to catch Bill, not for justice but for the excitement of the scoop. There is the sense that a certain type of sensationalist radio broadcasting is being criticised (in contrast to it being glorified in later “the scoop at any cost” films such as Too Hot to Handle and His Girl Friday) On a live feed, Laura frantically pleads Bill’s innocence only to be met with a callous “wasn’t that a thrill folks?” from the excited journalist. Bill himself protests his innocence only to be described as a “cold, surly” killer. Radio is just another instrument of the yellow press.

The second plotline, that of Sally and Honey comes to a head in a neat convergence when it is revealed that Sally had been dating a high-powered judge (played by Jean Hersholt). Only he can give Bill a fair chance at justice but he refuses as to do so would implicate him in scandal by admitting an indiscreet dalliance with Sally. The penny finally drops for her as she screams at him “We’re of no importance therefore we’re not human!” You see, even gold diggers have feelings too. Sally decides to chart the whole thing up to “education” and everyone moves on with their lives, though all the while probably a little more dead on the inside. Laura is heartbroken, Sally and Honey have lost their faith in men, Bill gets convicted of manslaughter and three years in prison, but the rich old men continue with their affairs, the journalists still search for their scoop and, I’d imagine, there is still synchronised ice skating on the radio. At the end, Bill is led onto a train bound for prison at a gloomy station. After a last kiss and a weak attempt to remain cheerful, he’s led away to his fate. And on that downbeat note, the credits roll.

Are You Listening? is undoubtedly a minor entry in the resumes of all who worked on it but it is nonetheless very watchable and interesting on a number of levels. First is the way the tone just changes half way through, going from a silly romantic comedy to the darkest of melodrama. This is probably down to poor plotting more than anything but makes for quite compelling viewing. Characters mainly start off as stock figures but by the end all but the leads are revealed to be interested in using others for their own gain. Overall it’s a really odd mix that is perhaps too schizophrenic to be called successful but as noted, makes the proceedings fascinating in a “what is going to happen next?” kind of way. One can also only wonder what the movie would have been like if Warner Brothers or Paramount had produced it rather than MGM (and an MGM who wanted rid of its star). There’s nothing particularly racy to get pre-code hearts pulsing but the tone of the second half is so bleak that it’s really quite unusual, considering the jaunty way it started.

Sadly it would be William Haines last movie, though he had another released after Are You Listening? I believe this was the last one he filmed (I could be wrong though). Despite two more Poverty Row appearances in 1934 that would be all for him and that fact more that anything is the main story of this film. Last time I talked about starlets who had all the potential in the world but who, for whatever reason didn’t make it to the big time. As sad as this is, it’s kind of sadder when the failure is that of an already established star. John Gilbert could have been so good in sound if he was given the right treatment, and similarly William Haines should have worked for many more years, entertaining audiences. It happens in all walks of life but is especially tragic when the victim is one who gives enjoyment to so many others, struck down for petty, political reasons. The sad fact remains that Haines was ousted by the system, and not by the real deciders of these things, the movie going public. Are You Listening? is a testament to another failed career, but in a way I guess William Haines had the last laugh. I just don’t think he was in any hurry to decorate Louis B. Mayer’s front room…