The Sunday Intertitle: Puff Daddy

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.

12 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Puff Daddy”

  1. Yesterday I saw the already rotund Pallette in DANCERS IN THE DARK. He was amusing as always, but a friend told me about what a horrible person he was off screen. Apparently Otto Preminger had him fired for his racist behavior on IN THE MEANTIME, DARLING. I always hate to hear that an actor I’ve enjoyed was, in fact, a rat.

  2. I’d say give Grapevine a break, but I’ve seen some prints from them that I would send back to a gray market bootlegger.

    If Pallette managed to stay thin, that voice of his would’ve been a bit incongruous. He needed to become spheroid to complete the transformation to an anthropomorphic bullfrog.

  3. I go in assuming every actor from long ago who I see on screen is a rat in one form or another (i.e. has views we would find repellent today). Saves time and gives me pleasant surprises when I find they aren’t rats. I think Pallette was a paranoid nutcase from what our host has mentioned in the past. It really makes me wonder how the antisemitic ones could even stand to be in Hollywood. Oh yeah, the money and fame.

  4. Yes, it was another age, and lots of those people would have thought and said things we couldn’t countenance today. Pallette’s unpleasantness was enough to get him fired by Preminger (with Zanuck’s backing, I believe) so it must have been of an extreme order. It becomes a surprise the rest put up with him, but he was a great asset to the movies…

  5. David Boxwell Says:

    Does he sing anywhere on screen except in THE GANG’S ALL HERE (43), in which his disembodied head croaks out a tune?

  6. I’m sure he must sing to himself in something, but that’s the only film where he does it as a sort of flying bowling ball of death.

  7. That and The Lady Eve are all I know of so far. I wouldn’t be surprised if he sang in an early sound Paramount, but so far I haven’t seen it.

  8. A slim Eugene appears in the silent version of Chicago as the man Roxie kills.

    In his later years he became quite paranoid and retured to a heavily-armed compound. He was afraid either nuclear catastrophe and/or a race war was on its way.

  9. Oh, Eugene is still pretty spherical in Chicago. In Man Trap he seems to be deliberately emphasising his portliness with the pugilistic protruding-buttocks stance one associate with Wally Beery and George Bancroft. A few years later he could stand straight and still protrude.

  10. Christopher Says:

    When I first saw these pictures,I thought maybe Javier Bardem was jumping on the Silent Movie bandwagon. :o))

  11. Yeah, there is some kind of resemblance — those heavy lids. Later, the rest of Eugene caught up with his lids.

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