Thanks to Mark Medin for aiming me at this one — a follow-up to last week’s Keaton, which was co-directed by Mal St Clair.
St Clair’s THE SHOW OFF (1926) is a movie where we can be truly grateful for silence — Ford Sterling, a longtime Keystone cop, plays a braying jackass who is already rather hard to taken without sound. If we had to listen to him, we’d end up climbing into the screen to throttle the bastard. Sterling plays the chief of the clowns in my favourite film, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, but he hasn’t got much to do in it and isn’t required to engage our sympathy. His abrasive personality is probably what kept him from being a bigger success, though he was obviously well-known enough.
The film is strictly domestic comedy, with few visual gags and most of the humour deriving from Sterling’s crass behaviour. There’s also a big helping of pathos, with a dying parent and so on. St Clair negotiates the tonal shifts fairly well, though Sterling basically just bulldozers through, the script failing to supply him with much of a redemption. The highlights turn out to be scenes of more-or-less straight suspense, protracted to a nerve-shredding degree at the climax where Sterling ambles home with the money to save the family home, just as his poor mother-in-law is hunting for a pen to sign the property away.
The film also features Gregory Kelly, who was the first Mr. Ruth Gordon, and who looks Japanese. And then it also features Louise Brooks, which I expect is the reason most folks watch it. Brooks is used quite effectively, and though as romantic interest for the second male lead, it should be a nothing part, it actually affords her some nice moments.
St Clair’s direction is pleasing too, with some dynamic tracking shots that reinforce the swaggering idiot hero’s conceit of himself, as he pushes the whole frame along with his jaunty march. And there’s this ~
Really nice, and so modern. There’s been a certain amount of debate down the years about whether Brooks was an actress or just a great screen figure. I think she’s the embodiment of the kind of star who excelled in silents and wasn’t so effective in sound, not because of any flaw in her voice but because the rigidity of sound filmmaking stifled what was amazing about her. And then in filmed interviews in her later years she’s quite relaxed (to the point of not bothering to get dressed and doing them in her dressing gown) and you can see the vibrancy again. I guess the Kansan accent wasn’t ideal, and wasn’t what you’d imagine when looking at her in a silent, but I don’t find it a big problem (but then, I’m not American so it has fewer dust bowl associations for me).
Her delicacy and dancer’s poise improve every composition in THE SHOW OFF. A shame more St Clair features of this era don’t survive. And a shame about Ford Sterling.
Oh, do be quiet, you silly man.