The Sunday Intertitle: Backchat
Tay Garnett, based on his terrific autobiography, Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights, could either be said to have led a charmed life — a long and frequently successful career, narrow escapes from death — or an unlucky one — a long and just as frequently UNsuccessful career, narrow escapes from death that left him with serious injuries. The big missed opportunity for me seems to come in the early thirties when, with HER MAN and PRESTIGE, Garnett showed himself to be visually just about the best director in town. The former film is also a very good movie, seemingly inventing a lot of the roughhouse comedy John Ford would come to specialise in.
For whatever reason, Garnett soon tamped down his photographic flamboyance, and made his best-known movies in a more anonymous style. A shame.
But all this made me very curious to see even earlier TG films. The only silent I could source was THE SPIELER, which came heavily recommended by The Chiseler’s Danny Riccuito, who praised its slangy intertitles. Here’s a fairly late silent movie whose title and concept are predicated upon speech, that of a carnival barker, played with characteristic and wearisome ebullience by Alan Hale (above). “You sure print a mean waffle,” he tells Renee Adoree. But it’s the scenes with bad-guy crook Fred Kohler (of UNDERWORLD) that get all the best slang.
“Listen, Red — the twist caught me pinchin’ a pigskin. She aired me.”
It’s forgotten today, but this movie caused a Hollywood-wide apostrophe shortage, so informal were its intertitles.
Maybe my expectations were too high, but sadly THE SPIELER does not supply the wheeling, whooshing and arching camera moves of the Garnett pre-codes. There are a few snazzy bits, but they’re parceled out cautiously in key moments. The good crooks versus bad crooks in a crooked world approach does seem to anticipate the Warners worldview of later years, but I find all that more compelling with actual audible gab. Still, there’s a quaint thrill to be had from a prolonged closeup of Hale moving his lips rapidly, displaying the kind of verbal dexterity a movie of this era simply has to leave to the audience’s imagination.