Edward Brophy – yes or no?

Prime Brophy

Edward Brophy — young! svelte! with hair! That’s the main attraction of YES AND NO? (1920), screened for unknown reasons at Le Giornate de Cinema Muto — Pordenone Festival of Silent Film. The story of Brophy’s rise — a rag’s-to-better-rags tale of being discovered as production manager on THE CAMERAMAN and given as small part as the irate swimpool customer Buster Keaton shares a changing room with — needs revising. Brophy’s early career as AD and location manager ran in parallel with his acting career, with the tubby supporting player changing hats and going where the work was.

In THE CAMERAMAN he’s fully himself, the scowling schlub familiar to us from THE THIN MAN, YOU CAN’T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN, the voice of Timothy Q. Mouse in DUMBO. Here, he’s momentarily unrecognizable. What we see is, at first, a reasonable facsimile of a human, until we notice the tiny ears, mere pasta shells, and the huge mouth. Edward Brophy’s mouth, somehow crammed into a vaguely normal, plus-sized head, and apparently trying to chew its way to freedom.

Even without words, Brophy’s sour aggressive manner comes seeping from the celluloid (or streaming pixels). Lowell Sherman, also appearing, seems to lose everything without his dulcet tones, though I’ve seen him in other silents where his suavity carried the day. The problem is, this Norma Talmadge vehicle (personally signed by the actor) is completely uninteresting on a dramatic level.

Norma plays two women, one rich, one poor. Both have hardworking husbands who neglect them. The rich wife says “yes” to an affair, and her life is destroyed. The poor wife says “no” to an affair (really, more like a rape attempt) and her husband invents the washing machine and they go to live in the Long Island suburbs. That’s it — the first movie based not on a scenario but a diagram. Of course, with any tale, what matters is the telling. The movie tells this tale at far greater length than I’ve just done.

Of the cast, only Brophy’s obnoxious brother-in-law and Natalie Talmadge (soon to marry Buster Keaton) as an acerbic, pre-code type sister, have any character. Nat is much cuter and spikier than in OUR HOSPITALITY, though the intertitles are doing a lot of the work for her. Beautiful titles, I wish I could framegrab them.

All the story’s discoveries and implications are predecided on obtuse moral lines, and intercutting two versions of the same story just makes everything take twice as long to happen. The variations are uninteresting (only Keaton’s extreme inventiveness and the greater variety of the settings allows him to pull off a comparable stunt in THE THREE AGES). There are some nice, if strange, gowns. At one point wealthy Talmadge wears paniers.

I kept thinking I knew Rockliffe Fellowes, the name and the face. He plays the inventor of the washing machine. And – of course! – the “good” bootlegger in the Marx Bros. MONKEY BUSINESS, where he’s pretty dreadful. And I saw him in last year’s Pordenone offering, PENROD AND SAM, where he was OK.

Tempting to blame Norma for this one. Certainly, someone who doesn’t know anything about stories was sold a pup — a high-concept, low-yield pictograph masquerading as a screenplay. “And you get to play two roles!”

As in THE GREAT DICTATOR, nobody notices that the unrelated Talmadges resemble one another. Nat, sister to one, maid to the other, is supposed to be smart, but she’s notably unobservant.

The director is Roy William Neill, who we like here at Shadowplay. The Sherlock Holmes series, BLACK ANGEL, etc. I’ve seen an earlier one of his, VIVE LA FRANCE! (1918), in which I felt his punchy compositional style was evident. This one looks just like any well-made Hollywood product of the period. I can’t blame him for feeling uninspired by the material, though.

As part of a Talmadge season, this would be somewhat useful, I suppose. Plucked from that context and fired at unsuspecting subscribers, it’s rather a waste of time, a narrative dead-end that wouldn’t be uselessly explored again until Fox made CRACK IN THE MIRROR in 1960. That Hollywood trap, the False Good Idea.

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6 Responses to “Edward Brophy – yes or no?”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    There’s another silent whose title escapes me — it ran on TCM — with a similar conceit. The same actress plays a sweet, pure, rich girl and a deep-down-good streetwalker. They both fall for the same handsome fellow, who’s worshipful to the former and gallantly kind to the latter.

    In a modern film you’d be rooting for the sympathetic streetwalker while waiting for the rich girl to prove herself awful. But no — the rich girl is merely sheltered at worst, and the correct prize for a rising hero. At least the streetwalker isn’t sacrificed for for sin or romantic presumption. She heads west with her fallback, a dumpy but sincere comic relief, for what bodes to be a semi-middle class but respectable life.

    It was a good deal lighter than this one sounds. The scene I remember cut between the rich girl, dreaming of the hero in her DeMille-scaled virginal bed, while the streetwalker invades and reverently explores the hero’s modest but civilized apartment in his absence. She sits on his bed and daydreams — absently consuming a box of soda crackers she found.

    After she slips out the hero returns. Retiring in nice pajamas, he discover his bed is full of inexplicable crumbs.

  2. That sounds pretty decent!

  3. Calling dibs on “Inexplicable Crumbs,” please.

  4. Would be a good character name for Brophy.

  5. Simon Kane Says:

    Yes. Ploughing through Universal’s Frankenstein sequels, the quality of Neil’s compositions in Meets The Wolfman was a really lovely blow to the head.

  6. Yes, he’s admirable. He kept improving, over four decades, and if he’d lived longer it’d have been great to see him tackle ‘Scope.

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