The Monday Intertitle: Barnstormers

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In Tay Garnett’s riveting pre-code HER MAN, there’s a cameo by perennial bit-player Franklin Pangborn which may raise eyebrows. Pangborn is beloved of Preston Sturges fans and lovers of 30s and 40s movies generally for his finely-honed fruit characterisations, playing “the pansy” as comic foil, swelling more than a scene or two with his arch antics. It’s not exactly a politically-correct take on homosexuality, and of course it’s strictly coded so as not to offend the censors — Pangborn never, or almost never, has any visible other half with whom a homosexual act could ever occur, even off-camera — he’s “the only gay in the village” so that his persona exists only as a series of caricatured mannerisms. Nevertheless, everybody seems to love Franklin P, gay or straight.

What’s startling about HER MAN is that Pangborn isn’t playing it camp. “A pre-gay Pangborn” is how one amateur reviewer referred to his appearance here, and it’s a touch disconcerting to see that all-too-familiar actor suddenly disporting with unrecognizable attributes. I got the same uncanny valley feel from seeing Mischa Auer without his mellifluous Russian accent in something called SINISTER HANDS (1931), playing “Swami Yomurda.” I know these guys are comic specialists and what we see is schtick, not reality, but somehow I don’t want to see them any other way.

But this seems to be a one-off, for in EXIT SMILING (1926), the Pangborn we know and adore is present and correct, albeit silent.

Pangborn plays the butch leading man in a company of strolling players, who is naturally enough effeminate and sissified off-stage. All the familiar tropes are here — the narrowing eyes, the toss of the head, the near-perpetual air of grande-dame outrage. The following line occurs when the leading lady accidentally tumbles into his berth on the sleeper train.

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The movie’s real good too. Said leading lady is the great Beatrice Lillie, playing a role surely planned for Gloria Swanson (who excelled as a similar stage-struck drudge in STAGE-STRUCK), this being an MGM production. As good (and game!) as Swanson is, I don’t believe she could be as funny as Lillie, who is a true comedian’s comedienne, or vice-versa. I began to appreciate the brilliant things she was doing with her costumes. It soon seemed there would be a bit of amusing costume-work in every scene, from an apron that won’t stay on to a hat adorned with a pom-pom she’s just used as powder puff to apply her makeup, to a boa which she slings round her neck only to have it spontaneously unloop itself and slide down her back, affixing itself somehow to her skirt, to dangle like a skunk tail.

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This all seems like it’s going to climax with the scene where she drags up as the villain in a melodrama — twirling a moustache that comes off in her hand — but the film has a further comic set-piece up its sleeve, when she plays the vamp, and that one’s really good.

Lillie had a strange career — all the high points are decades apart. Her silent career went nowhere after this. She made a pre-code musical, ARE YOU THERE? which is now apparently lost save its soundtrack, and she starred in ON APPROVAL, forming a superb one-off double-act with an unexpectedly hilarious Clive Brook (who also directed). And then came THOROUGLY MODERN MILLIE.

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While Lillie loses something by not being able to use her precise vocals, her odd, sculptural appearance (midway between a novelty pepperpot and one of those figures who emerge from clockfaces to signal rain) and eloquent movements are all the equipment she needs to get laughs, and she may provoke a tear too. The material (story by Marc Connelly) is straightforward stuff and leading man Jack Pickford is a hair too rodent-like, but Samuel Taylor frames crisply and indulges in sweeping, formal camera moves, some of which bizarrely suggest Dario Argento in their precision. (I suppose I’m unduly influenced by an early tracking shot approaching a stage curtain and ending on a single eye peeping through a gap in the drapes.)

Taylor is mainly remembered for supposedly adding the credit “additional dialogue by Sam Taylor” to his film of Shakepeare’s TAMING OF THE SHREW. A shame, because he had strong comic and visual sense, even if he lacked the more common kind.

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EXIT SMILING is, happily, available to buy and would make a fine gift for the cinephile in your life: Exit Smiling The bittersweet ending is remarkable.

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14 Responses to “The Monday Intertitle: Barnstormers”

  1. Exit Smiling was rediscovered back in the 60’s when it played the New York Film Festival to great acclaim.

    As for Franklin Pangborn the intrepid Vito Russo (in his classic “The Celluloid Closet”) discovered that he had a quite visible “other half” in John M. Stahl’s Only Yesterday (1933) where he “plays perhaps the most explicitly homosexual character of his long career, the society decorator of a swank New York penthouse apartment where he is on his way to attend a part. On their way to the affair, he and his friend Thomas (Barry Norton) are window-shopping, engaged in arch conversation about decorating while the city around them reels in turmoil from the stock market crash.”

    I have yet to see it and long to. Pangborn was a comedy genius, with timing that takes one’s breath away. I love that scene in The Palm Beach Story where he’s showing the apartment to The Weenie King and walking down the hall they hear a woman screeching scales. At the very sound of her voice Pangborn says “She’s leaving tomorrow!”

  2. Hadn’t heard of this movie — an early version of Letter from an Unknown Woman? Poor John Stahl was doomed to have his best films remade, better, by other hands, wasn’t he? I must get this immediately!

  3. Pangborn trivia: In the Disney feature “Sleeping Beauty” there’s a song where two kings and a mute servant get drunk. The servant was played in live-action reference footage by Pangborn, and the animated character looks a bit like a caricature. Not sure if he ever did voice work; would be surprised if he didn’t.

  4. Not a great movie, but intriguing beyond Lillie’s spirited performance in a heavy-handed farce.

    Casting a conventional pretty actress as an ugly duckling always neuters this kind of story, even if she doesn’t take off the glasses and let down her hair for a fairy tale ending. Lillie, for all her clowning, is genuinely poignant. I kept hoping she actually would get the hero, as unimpressive as he was.

    In comedies, male gargoyles seemed to get the girl as often as they lost her, and loss was a tear-jerking moment. But non-pretty women were either comically horny or pointedly disinterested. You laughed when the hero escaped her on the dance floor or clamored out her window; any reaction from her was comic.

  5. Stahl’s VERY best is Leave Her To Heaven, and NO ONE has so much as TRIED to remake it.

  6. ONLY YESTERDAY is amazing and beautiful (even in my through-an-uncleaned-fishbowl copy). It has nothing in common with Zweig or Ophuls except the one-line pitch. View and write! View and write!

  7. “Pangborn plays the bitch leading man” ???

  8. “Butch” leading man. Vowel trouble. Corrected.

    Only Yesterday is now stashed and ready for viewing, maybe for a Forgotten.

    Was forgetting Leave Her to Heaven, a film I adore. Prime Shamroy oranges! And you couldn’t remake it without being guilty of supreme cinematic hubris. Maybe Cimino should try. Or Herzog? No.

    DBenson, I probably liked the film more than you overall — I bet it’d play great with a live audience — but you’re right about the emotion Bea gives it. I also think that ending is genuinely unusual in its bleakness and poignancy. Hollywood characters usually either get the romance or some compensating career goal…

  9. DBenson, you just reminded me of the dwarf in Scola’s PASSIONE D’AMORE: “If I had fallen in love with a beautiful woman it would have been tragic — but this …!”

  10. dcairns: YAAAAAAY!

  11. There’s a TV version of Leave Her to Heaven called “Too Good to Be True” starring Loni Anderson and Patrick Duffy, and Neil Patrick Harris in the Darryl Hickman part. It’s on YouTube in several parts, shot off a TV screen. Looks so shitty you’ll wake up tomorrow and wonder if you hallucinated the whole thing. Alas no.

  12. Good Lord. Finally, Stahl has the last word, and the remake drops into amnesia.

  13. Loni Anderson watching Neil Patrick Harris drown? YIKES!!!!

  14. […] showing are the enchanting EXIT SMILING with Beatrice Lillie, Pola Negri in MANIA (her perpetual state, some would say), Chinese classic […]

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