Do you recognize this glowering visage — haunted, hangdog and criminous?
The film is GOING STRAIGHT, a 1916 Norma Talmadge vehicle in which the serious one of the Talmadge sisters is rather sidelined, screen hubby Ralph Lewis getting most of the (melo)drama as a former housebreaker who’s built up a respectable business, only to have a wretched former cohort turn up to blackmail him into undertaking one last “job” –
The fiend in human form, who works, Fagin-like, with the assistance of a saintly street urchin, is played by your friend and mine Eugene Pallette.
My friend Lawrie once told me during a screening of SHANGHAI EXPRESS, rather to my astonishment, that the bloated wine-sack with the bullfrog basso-profundo was once a handsome leading man. It’s not really true. The earliest Pallette sighting I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy was INTOLERANCE, in which he plays a huguenot with the emphasis on huge. Though not the full cannonball of later years, he’s still sufficiently chunky to make the sight of him in tights… memorable.
But in GOING STRAIGHT, made the same year, Huge Euge seems pretty willowy. Maybe it’s just the more forgiving nature of men’s fashions in the twentieth century, or maybe he put on a bunch of weight during the months between productions. However, a strange effect occurs watching the film, in which E.P. initially appears unrecognizable, a wispy figure, robbed of his orotund orations and dirigible circumference, but as the footage unspools before you, it’s like he’s slowly donning an ectoplasmic fat suit, spreading and darkening like a volcanic cloud, and his low-key playing assumes the familiar gestures and expressions we know from the boisterous pre-code fat man, until his eventual defenestration threatens to tear the film from its sprockets.
The movie itself is a Griffithesque morality play from that era when the American crime movie had more in common with Dickens than with the later gangster cycle. Everything’s slanted to favour the upwardly-mobile protagonists, who may have started as housebreakers but who are now allowed to lie, conceal, rob and kill in order to protect their respectability!
Some kind of underworld slang? No, children’s midnight pantry raid. I always get those two things mixed up.
The movie is available from Grapevine Video, which means you get a print that looks like it’s been blasted with buckshot and fed through a lawnmower, but this is one of their better-looking releases: contrast and brightness are strong, and I think they even chose a nicer door to project it on.