Teary with Beery

PORT OF SEVEN SEAS (1938), like a lot of MGM “class” product, throws together a mismatched collection of megatalents with strong material and kind of hopes for the best. I slotted the DVD-R in, with Fiona’s approval, on account of the director being James Whale. As the film went on, Fiona mostly drifted off to tweet on Twitter, and I stayed for the Preston Sturges screenplay. But I could see why she didn’t stay with it: something just doesn’t work about this movie.

The source material, Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy of MARIUS, FANNY and CESAR, filmed in the early 30s by Alexander Korda, Marc Allegret and Pagnol himself, is in some ways an odd match for Sturges, with its salt-of-the-earth characters, but in other ways pretty sympatico — there’s a blend of raucous comedy and dewy-eyed sentiment which does have some common ground with the author of CHRISTMAS IN JULY and (especially) THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK. And Sturges’s script, basically concentrating on the middle part of the story, is very funny in places, at least as I imagine it on the page.

The bruised codfish.

James Whale’s sense of humour was very distinctly his own, mining veins of gallows wit and camp long before they were fashionable or even widely recognized. It doesn’t have much to do with Sturges at all, or with Pagnol, and he seems to have treated the film as an assignment and invested little of himself in the movie. Central to his discouragement, it seems, was the casting of Wallace Beery as Cesar. A loud, brash, sentimental proletarian, Beery’s persona is just right for the loudmouthed, quick-tempered but good-natured Marseilles saloon-keeper… but unfortunately he was a silent movie star whose relationship with dialogue was always somewhat rudimentary. He can talk convincingly enough (the blubbery lips move, and intelligible noises emerge), but he doesn’t have a way with a line. And there are so many lines here…

“Now, now, it’s nothing to faint. I remember my cousin Bella on my father’s side — no, it was my mother’s side — she used to faint every day — sometimes twice a day! — in fact, she fainted so often we never knew whether she was conscious or not.”

(Sturges obviously liked this rhythm, because in CHRISTMAS IN JULY he repeats it: “I make mistakes every day, sometimes several times a day. I’ve got whole warehouses full of mistakes!”)

Strange trapezoid head of Morgan safely contained in derby.

One aches for William Demarest to step in from the wings, kick Beery in the pants, and steal his role. But that isn’t going to happen. Instead we have Frank THE WIZARD OF OZ Morgan to show how it should be done. Beery’s main co-star, he has form with Sturges material, having been excellent in THE GOOD FAIRY (“Did you see his eyes? Like angry marbles!”), and though he dithers and faffs comedically with his lines, they get well and truly delivered. Into the right slot.

“I had a friend like that once: his brain began to soften. Everything in there started to melt, and at the end, when he would shake his head to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ you could hear it, splashing around in there. It went, ‘Flip-flop, flip-flop, flip-flop.’ Oh! It was very gruesome!”

[Skeptical] “What an unusual malady.”

“You don’t believe me?”

“Of course! Certainly I believe you! Because I had a friend, even more unusual. Instead of softening like your friend, my friend’s brain hardened. Yes, it began to evaporate, to dry up.”

“Really — you don’t say so?”

“Absolutely. Little by little it shrank to the size of a pea, a fried pea. So when he walked down the street, this little brain of his would bounce around in his skull and make a noise like a bay’s rattle.”

“Ugh — horrible!”

“Yes, especially when he walked on cobblestones.”

[Suddenly indignant] “I don’t believe a word of it! Monsieur Panisse, it grieves me to say so, but I think you’re a liar.”

“Of course I am, what about you?”

With Whale contenting himself with shooting coverage, we still have some really impressive soundstage docks, and Beery is pretty good at the necessary schmaltz — I usually prefer his bellowing to blubbering, but here the natural order is reversed since he makes such heavy weather of the talk (and Sturges’s actors would say how easy his lines were to handle, because they flowed). Maureen O’Sullivan makes a rather well-spoken young fishmonger, and John Beal as Marius doesn’t stand much of a chance since the early part of the story, which would establish him in a sympathetic light, has been lopped off.

All available sources suggest that the later Joshua Logan version of FANNY is an even bigger snore, so interested parties are referred to the French originals, starring Raimu as CESAR, Orane Demazis as FANNY and Pierre Fresnais as MARIUS, which constitute quite a moving epic, part comedy and part soap.

28 Responses to “Teary with Beery”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    The 1961 Joshua Logan film of FANNY has exquisite camera work by Jack Cardiff, but very little else to recommend it. It’s based not on the Pagnol novels but on the 50s Broadway musical version…oh, and they cut all the songs out. Go figure.

  2. What a brilliant set of decisions! They might have simply remade the Sturges script with a more suitable cast: Caron is a nice idea for the role.

  3. I’ve never seen the film, but wow, even that small bit of dialogue sounds way out of Beery’s range. I see him more as a lug like Stanley Fields.

  4. I agree with Mr. Wingrove about the Josh Logan. Harold Rome wrote a nice score for the musical and while reviews were tepid David Merrick publicised the living shit out of it so it had a decent run.

    Irma La Douce is another example fo a musical whose songs were ditched when the movie was made. Not my favorite Wilder by a long shot. It was a big hit, however.

  5. Irma lacks not just songs, but most of what I like in The Apartment. It’s OK, but not major. Wilder had a real resistance to making a musical, possibly stemming from The Emperor Waltz, a film he disliked. He was very tempted by Cabaret, since it spoke of a time he remembered with passion, but he backed out of making it in the end–leaving the way clear for Fosse, who was something like tenth choice.

  6. Tenth time’s the charm!

  7. Was inspired to go on a Wilder youtube search….
    What’s happened to th art of trailer making?


  8. Avanti! is a minor but incredibly charming Wilder. The Straubs (of all people) adored it.

    I frequently run into its star Juliet Mills (and her gorgeous hubster) here in L.A. Most recently at our annual French Film Festival.

  9. The most interesting thing about Wallace Beery is that he’s suspected of beating Ted Healy to death, accompanied by Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, in 1937. So this film apparently came out after Beery returned from studio-imposed exile; apparently he wasn’t using that time to hone his acting skills or line delivery.

  10. Trailers, like posters, have become amazingly samey. Mind you, so have mainstream movies.

    I’m very fond of the Mills sisters.

  11. Kevin… that, I did not know.

    Louise Brooks found Beery the only remotely sympathetic collaborator on Beggars of Life. Asked him why he never did his own stunts. “All directors want to kill actors,” he explained.

  12. Christopher Says:

    I almost can’t stand to watch Wallace Beery when I think of some of the stories about him..his abuses to teenage wife Gloria Swanson and such..The lovable Lug charm ain’t working on me..

  13. Charm? Beery? Where?

  14. It’s like the simulacrum of charm assembled out of raw timber by troglodytes. You can sort of tell what it’s meant to be, but it doesn’t do what the real thing does. Cargo cult charm.

  15. On a recent TCM show featuring a bevvy of child stars Dickie Moore recalls Beery as being creepy.

  16. I can imagine. He is very effective in certain kinds of role… and in a way it’s refreshing to have a grisly-looking movie star occasionally. But perhaps he takes that too far. *shudder*

  17. Someone like L.B. Mayer once referred to him as a “galoot”, and that seems apt. Dickie Moore probably thinks of him as that “creepy galoot”, maybe to distinguish him from all the other galoots or creeps he remembers from his childhood. Maybe someone somewhere is working on a screenplay that combines an old dark house type movie with a Western: “The Creepy Galoot”. It could happen.

  18. Or The Galoot Creeps…

    He’s definitely a galoot type.

  19. Christopher Says:

    Kelloggs new breakfast cereal for kids…Lovable Lugs and Creepy Galoots

  20. On Imdb, was suprised to see that he had been in “pictures” since 1913. Was it the wear and tear of the business that made him who he was, or was he just who he was?

  21. More the latter, surely — there are, after all, people who work in the business for years without getting nasty.

    I think the earliest Beery I’ve seen was Victory, which he’s very good in. If dialogue wasn’t involved, his range was pretty impressive.

  22. kevin mummery Says:

    When he speaks, it seems like his tongue is too big for his mouth or something; he almost sounds like he has some sort of speech impediment. As long as the writer sticks to one and two syllable words, Beery seems able to adapt…beyond that and he sounds like Mushmouth on the old Fat Albert cartoons.

  23. Just for the sake of indulgent cinematic time travel… Beery would have made a good Franz Biberkopf… if Berlin Alexanderplatz was made as a silent.

  24. Christopher Says:

    plenty of booze will fatten that tongue….MGM did backflips keeping him out of jail after that Ted Healy business..

  25. Christopher Says:

    scary beery with then wife gloria swanson…who looks like shes wearing a dog collar! in the 19-teens

  26. “I know what you’re thinking — ‘Wrestling? Wallace Beery? It’s a B picture!'”

    Wallace almost looks human there. Although Gloria doesn’t look too happy.

    Must read that books about Eddie Mannix at MGM, although it’s sure to upset me.

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