White Squaw

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Majestic as David Chierichetti’s book Hollywood Director is, and as I’ve said before it deserves to be counted among the very best filmmaker profiles ever assembled, I think perhaps it underrates BEHOLD MY WIFE, his 1934 melodrama. With its implausible and hokey plot, its Amerindian impersonations by Sylvia Sidney and Charles Middleton, and its wayward tonal shifts (any film with both a tragic defenestration AND Eric Blore as a bumbling valet has got some major ground to cover), it can’t possibly be counted among Mitchell Leisen’s best directorial efforts. But he seems to invest a lot of effort into keeping the thing afloat, maybe because it has a trip to Mexico in it and Leisen was mad about Mexico, maybe because Gene Raymond and Sylvia S seem like agreeable leads for a Leisen film.

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The show is stolen, however, by Ann Sheridan as the unfortunate defenestree, whose plunge to street level curtails her role in terms of duration: nevertheless, she packs a lot into her few minutes of screen time, ably suggesting an honest working girl all excited about her approaching nuptials to society swell Raymond, until his sister (Juliette Compton) arrives to call it off. She lies, pretending that Raymond is a serial dalliance kind of guy who enjoys toying with women’s affections. She does it with every apparent sympathy, but as Sheridan descends into powerfully rendered despair and starts sobbing, she heads for the door with an air of exultation, like a child who’s just gotten away with something deliciously naughty. A pretty hateful character, which is worth remembering when we get to the end of the movie…

With Sheridan’s powerhouse perf over with, we follow the distraught Raymond: justly blaming his family for his sweethearts death, he motors off south, drinking and driving recklessly. Cue Vorkapichian madness of spinning wheels and superimposed relatives murmuring “Disgrace!” over and over again.

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A father in every hub cap. Sexy Jesus HB Warner does his Vorkapich thing.

Crashing his roadster conveniently close to a bar, he makes the mistake of buying whiskey for an Indian (a young Dean Jagger) and gets shot for his trouble. Sylvia nurses him back to health and eventually falls in love with the rather obnoxious rich kid. Not before a deliriously sadomasochistic bullet removal scene, where she distracts him with tales of Indian torture and revenge as she digs around in his bicep with the sterilized tweezers.

Raymond marries Sydney purely to shame his family — of course he’s eventually going to realize he really loves her, but not before SS can languish in some of her trademark suffering and heartache. Leisen moves mountains to keep as at least slightly invested in Raymond, selfish prick that he is, and just about pulls it off. A third act murder may just push the story over the Precipice of Madness, but you can’t say it isn’t fun.

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Chierechetti dismisses the story as ordinary, and one can see what he means — it isn’t amazingly skilled or deeply meaningful — but what strikes one at this added historical distance is how barking mad it all is. In a sense, that’s business as usual for 1930s Hollywood, but for devotees of the peculiar, this elegantly shot (by Leon Shamroy) movie has much to commend it. Watch particularly for the moment in Sydney’s shack when the sun suddenly comes out, offscreen, and a glow sweeps across the dingy interior, illumining it with love’s radiance.

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11 Responses to “White Squaw”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    Sylvia Sidney was said to have the best eyes in Hollywood – after Garbo, of course! You can really see it in that first image.

  2. She’s amazing. Apparently discovered by Paramount to replace Clara Bow, but apart from her ability to convincingly play working class, she really has nothing in common with the It Girl.

    My students are generally freaked to discover what the granny from Mars Attacks! once looked like.

  3. david wingrove Says:

    She probably ties with Gloria Stuart for the longest career of any Hollywood star. Early 30s to late 90s is a jolly good run and that’s what both ladies achieved…unless Olivia trumps them by coming out of retirement for James Ivory?

  4. A capital suggestion — certain to annoy her sister. Hey maybe Joan can trump her by coming out of retirement for Quentin Tarantino.

    Ann Sheridan’s early-on-in-the-action defenestration reminds me ofAnn Dvorak doing same in Cukor’s A Life of her Own

  5. david wingrove Says:

    I doubt that Tarantino would have the balls to handle Joan. That old gal makes Django look like a wimp.

  6. I hate it when the most interesting person in a movie goes out the window.

    I’d love to see both sisters make comebacks the same year. That’d really get people rediscovering their work, whatever the quality of the new films.

  7. Ideally both sisters should appear in a film by Manoel de Oliveira.

    Sylvia Sidney was incredible in the 30s. Street Scene for Vidor, An American Tragedy for Sternberg, Early Lang, Sabotage.

  8. Your talk of Sheridan reminds me of her dynamic shorty appearance in De Mille’s CRUSADES, where she begs to kiss the cross one more time before the *vile* heathens carry her away …

  9. She was obviously groomed for stardom by both DeMille and his sometime art director Leisen. There are a couple more movies Leisen was connected with in which she appears, though it’s hard to know if she’s in any of the bits of Bolero he shot.

    I think a movie with two nonagenarian stars and a centenarian director would give the insurance company conniptions. Plus, you’d have to carefully schedule so the two sisters never crossed paths!

  10. Hey, when it comes to Sidney’s incredible ’30s, let’s not forget SABOTAGE – an inexplicably underrated Hitchcock, near the very top of his work in my mind.

    I’m embarrassed to admit that I was not aware the De Havilland sisters were still alive.

  11. You’ll find a favourable review of Sabotage here, dating back to Hitchcock Year. I think the film might not be as strong overall as its strongest scenes, but those are as powerful as anything in Hitchcock. “Hollywood must hear of this!” said SS, in reference to the Master’s montage.

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