Silent Comedian, Talking Picture

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So: Chaplin resisted talking, and even as late as THE GREAT DICTATOR (1939) was carving out sections of his films which could work as pantomime. (But people don’t acknowledge the extent to which Chaplin embraced and experimented with sound — just not dialogue). Keaton lost control of his career when sound came in, due to the tyranny of the screenplay, Louis B. Mayer, and the bottle. Harold Lloyd was the happiest case, remaining fairly productive until 1937, making some good talkies, maintaining the visual gags he was known for an augmenting them with verbals. The only thing lost is the ability to undercrank, which robs the action of that lighter-than-air, faster-than-a-speeding-bullet quality it can have in silents.

I really like Leo McCarey’s THE MILKY WAY, especially the scene where Harold has to transport a small horse (as I recall) in a taxi cab without the cabbie realising. Harold alibis the occasional whinnying sounds by grinning maniacally, doing his best to look like the kind of man who WOULD whinny in the back of a taxi.

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We ran MOVIE CRAZY (1932) after a hot tip that if we enjoyed Constance Cummings in SEVEN SINNERS, which we did, we should see this one. And how!

Half of the plot is a straight reprise of MERTON OF THE MOVIES, filmed by the same studio the same year under the title MAKE ME A STAR. Deja vu must’ve been a common sensation in those days. Both version suffer from the same problem, the hero being a delusional hopeful who wants to be a movie star. Rooting for his aspirations when he clearly has no talent is tough, and in both cases the filmmakers try to enlist our sympathy by pouring troubles on the hero’s head — Harold’s character even acquires the nickname “Trouble.” Harold wasn’t inherently a lachrymose type, and most of his stories are American success stories about conquering adversity — not too much time for pathos. His best protagonists gain sympathy while keeping busy. So that aspect of the film isn’t too great.

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The other half of the film, loosely connected to it, is the romantic triangle between Harold, Constance Cummings, and Constance Cummings. Harold meets CC twice, once in black wig and costume as a vampish senorita, once in civvies. He doesn’t realise it’s the same dame. Confused by a cunningly contrived chain of circumstance, he comes to believe the dusky damsel fancies him, whereas he does actually stand a chance with the blonde version — but keeps ruining his chances by flirting with her alter ego, thinking she’ll never know.

Cummings is just awfully good here. First she has to make us believe she’s taken a shine to Harold’s no-hoper. Suspending our disbelief requires Herculean efforts: in the end, we can say that she plays it magnificently, but the task is not really a possible one. It’s a bit like a CGI special effect, immaculately rendered with photorealist care, but inherently unbelievable, like all those bits in modern action movies where heroes survive colossal death plunges. Nobody could possibly do it better than Cummings, and the commitment is impressive, but it doesn’t quite result in a success. Harold is penniless, accident prone, talentless, and his self-belief comes across not as admirable but as unjustified arrogance tinged with insanity. But everything else Cummings is given to do, she does with equal commitment, and that stuff works great.

Apart from some very nice gags, scattered a little too far apart, the movie also maintains interest with an elaborate, spectacular shooting style. There are graceful, sweeping crane shots, particularly one which explores a movie set representing a ship at sea, where the camera swings from one position to another, guiding us through the geography of the scene about to unfold and building a fine anticipation. Occasionally, the visual ambition gets a bit carried away with itself, as in one of those “Santa POV” shots, filmed from inside the fireplace, but most of the elaborate moves and angles are more tasteful and effective, as well as being striking.

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“Oh no, Dad’s on fire!”

That ship scene leads to an impressive knock-down fight between Harold and his nasty romantic rival. It’s quite funny, visually grand, and mainly it’s a tremendous release of energy as Harold stops being pathetic and takes care of business. I don’t really like the idea that our hero has to beat the living crap out of someone else to prove he’s a man, but if ever a plot needed a violent drubbing to shake it from the doldrums, this one did.

Come for Harold, stay for Constance, and then fall in love with Harold again, eventually.

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12 Responses to “Silent Comedian, Talking Picture”

  1. Mark Sullivan Says:

    Always thought Constance was one of the best, most naturalistic actresses in American films of the thirties. You might also enjoy her in “The Mind Reader”, playing opposite Warren William. -Now there’s an odd couple for you!

  2. I loved that movie — top Warner pre-code amorality! But I mainly remember WW and Allen Jenkins: “Too bad you’re going away, boss, just when beer’s comin’ back.” Need to see it again.

  3. And don’t forget Harold’s magnificence in The Sin of Harold Diddlebock for which Sturges wrote not only a great script (with great direction to boot) but a magnificent monologue in which Harold speaks of falling in love with all the daughters of a particular family — and losing each one.

  4. I love everything just about Movie Crazy, and I recently picked up TCM’s Karloff: Criminal Kind box set (mainly because it had The Criminal Code in it) and was thrilled to learn that all three films in the set also feature Constance Cummings.

  5. I think Criminal Code is the only really good film in that set, but it’s still a great set. Huston, Karloff, Holmes and Cimmings! And as fine a display of yammering as you’ll ever witness.

    I love Diddlebock — flawed it may be — that monologue effectively ruins the concept of romance for the whole movie — but even its flaws are magnificent conceits.

  6. revelator60 Says:

    I agree with David E. on that “magnificent monologue.” It’s one of the best things Sturges ever wrote, a perfect blend of humor and pathos. As for the film, the first half is superb, but I’m less crazy about the second. Sturges’s recreation of Lloyd’s style of physical comedy pales next to the original (he should have let Lloyd have his way in those scenes) and the business with the circus and the lion drags on.

    Constance Cummings fans should know that she stars alongside Olivier in the 1973 TV version of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. The production is out on DVD, and while it’s nothing to speak of visually, the cast is obviously worth watching. I confess to preferring Katharine Hepburn as Mary Tyrone, but Cummings has a harder edge.

  7. W.C. Fields is the comedian who really benefitted from speech – how far that was because he needed to talk and how far because he was still learning to make films, rather than film vaudeville acts, in the silent films, I don’t know.

  8. La Faustin Says:

    More Constance Cummings love for NIGHT AFTER NIGHT (in which a series of variously magnificent actresses successively swipe poor George Raft’s first lead role out of his hands).

  9. Cummings rubbed shoulders with a few great comedians during her relatively brief Hollywood heyday.

    Bruckman too — he’s credited as director of The Fatal Glass of Beer but I seem to recall he only lensed the flashback section inserted against Fields’ wishes.

    The two films Fields made with Gregory La Cava, are pretty good, and they’re proper films, not filmed acts. But you miss a lot with Fields when you don’t have the great voice and the incredible, just incredible, delivery.

  10. Judy Garland hated Katherine Hepburn’s performance in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. “She just doesn’t get it,” she told my late, great, much-missed friend and fellow-film- critic Vito Russo. What Kate “didn’t get” according to Judy, was drug addiction — which of course Judy knew ALL about.

  11. There’s some good stuff from Sidney Lumet in Making Movies about the battle of wills he had (and won) with Kate on that picture.

  12. Fiona W Says:

    Did someone mention Phillips Holmes? *swoon*

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