Early Talkers On The Ropes
There’s a feeling one gets in the company of a truly ancient talkie. You feel as though you’re the only person left on the face of the earth watching such a relic. One Romantic Night was that kind of experience for me. With seemingly everything coming out on DVD, why choose this (other than its availability HERE)? More to the point, just what is it that makes Lillian Gish’s talking debut so compelling? According to United Artists ledgers, the May 1930 release lost money. A negative cost of $608,000 was pretty big money at the time. Getting that back with just $399,000 in domestic rental was unlikely. I checked the feature films sourcebook for television and it doesn’t look as though anyone bothered with distribution there. Could it be ownership issues? MGM remade One Romantic Night under the original title of Frederic Molnar's play from which it was adapted --- The Swan. That featured Grace Kelly, Alec Guiness, and Louis Jourdon. These 1956 players stood in for the original’s Lillian Gish, Rod La Rocque, and Conrad Nagel. You know you’re plowing transition from silents ground with this trio. Every awkward device of primitive sound production is here --- and then some. Orchestra music threatens to drown out dialogue. Fabric rustles as it would when Lina Lamont and Don Lockwood played love scenes years later in Singin’ In The Rain. The authenticity of all this --- we’re witnessing the real struggle between silence and incoming sound --- is what I liked best about One Romantic Night. Lillian Gish recalled being talked into the project by consort George Jean Nathan. She knew there was trouble when an untried director showed up representing himself as schooled in the ways of dialogue. They’d record miles of that. Gish knew it was a slow and dull picture before they were finished. What a trial to continue along a filmmaking path you realize leads nowhere --- smelling disaster at the beginning and knowing there’s little you can do to extricate yourself from it. By all means, check out One Romantic Night and feel the ghosts of 1930 patrons abandoning the auditorium en masse.
Had I been around that year, I’d not have been surprised to read of Lillian Gish giving up movies and entering a nunnery. One Romantic Night demonstrates the unliklihood of a future for her in talking leads. The title itself is an oxymoron with Gish’s name preceding it. Great though she was, this was not a woman disposed toward on-screen lovemaking. There was a story of how she’d persuaded director King Vidor to omit kissing scenes when they shot La Boheme a few years earlier --- and her co-star was John Gilbert! Pairing Gilbert with a touch-me-not leading lady was like putting a muzzle on Rin-Tin-Tin. It seemed with Gish that passionate gestures were at the least a breach of decorum. Unlike Sleeping Beauty, a kiss would be more likely to put Gish into the comatose state rather than bringing her out of it. Millions are Waiting To Hear Lillian Gish in Her First Talking Picture, says the poster, but were they? Talking or no, by 1930 audiences may have had their fill. Gish’s last five had been for Metro. The first two of these were hits --- La Boheme scored $377,000 in profits and The Scarlet Letter $296,000. After that came the fall. Annie Laurie lost $264,000 and The Enemy posted minimal profits of $96,000 (about what better Tim McCoy MGM historicals were getting). The Wind broke the back of her Metro contract with $87,000 gone. Gish said she left there after Irving Thalberg suggested a manufactured off-screen scandal to feature her, the idea being to chip away a little of that patrician veneer. Not a bad idea when you think about it. Who knows but what it might have led to new career opportunities. Lillian Gish as The Divorcee? --- pre-code liaisons with Adolphe Menjou, Ricardo Cortez, or even Warren William? Thalberg’s idea got no further than the exit gate at Metro. One can only imagine Gish’s indignant reply when he floated it.
Quick flashcard. Who had a longer career in motion pictures than Lillian Gish? Anyone? I can’t think of a runner up, though there is Mickey Rooney. He’s passed her with eighty years performing on screen, but that, of course, has been since she died. I think Gish held the record during her lifetime with seventy-five years active in movies, and consider this --- she played a lead in her final (1987) feature, The Whales Of August. Co-stars in One Romantic Night endured less well. Variety was harsh in its assessment of Conrad Nagel and Rod La Rocque. Recitational, voice-conscious, always-studied read the trade paper’s dismissal of Nagel, an actor so overused in early talkies as to become a one-man epidemic (and this was Nagel’s own assessment). He’d become a running joke among industry wags. I even recall Johnny Carson making a Conrad Nagel joke in the late eighties, years after the man had died. Stolid, stuffy, forever losing the girl or sacrificing her to the arms of another, Nagel still gets a raw deal in screen history books. Interviewed for a wonderful collection entitled The Real Tinsel (published in 1970 --- used copies at $1.29!), the actor lamented the fact he’d made thirty-one talking pictures within the space of two transitional years between the silent and talking eras. One night he and his wife drove all over LA in a vain effort to find one theatre not showing a Conrad Nagel movie. They finally gave the whole thing up as a bad job. Sometimes he’d work thirty-six hours straight without a break, taking time out for a necessary shave before moving to the next set-up. Juggling four pictures at once became a commonplace. It’s remarkable he was so (consistently) good amidst this undoubted state of confusion. Both Nagel and Rod La Rocque spent years in stock companies before and (in La Rocque’s case) during careers in silent film. Neither would maintain success in talkies. Once other screen voices caught up to Nagel, he’d go back to the stage and supporting parts. La Rocque’s romantic idol status gained in DeMille silents was cut short when microphones picked up a nasal drawl he couldn’t rid himself of, despite intense voice training. I couldn’t carry all that corned beef and cabbage, said the long retired star on the topic of stardom’s grind. One Romantic Night would thus come to represent everything a newly articulate cinema wanted to rid itself of.
The worst shellacking from a flop like this would be borne by exhibitors. Despite the low cost of paper (and here’s the order form for One Romantic Night), depression-era showmen had to be very careful how much they spent on advertising. Going overboard with posters and accessories could wipe out what little profit you might realize for the week. Pressbooks encouraged heavy promotion. Cover every window and billboard in town, they’d say, but pay us on delivery. Note the staggering choice of materials for One Romantic Night. Metropolitan and circuit houses could routinely buy this stuff and canvas the town with it. For a small-town independent, heavy promotion for a single attraction meant gambling the mortgage, but since pictures in pre-TV saturation days were largely advertised at the local level, you had to generate eye appeal for pedestrians on your street. Warnings from neighboring towns as to dogs on the loose saved many an exhibitor from beatings he’d otherwise get on pictures like One Romantic Night, but in the end, you had to rely on instinct. Patrons looked to a showman’s word as to whether a picture was any good. You’d not stay in business long betraying that trust. Exhibitors writing in to trade magazines complained loudly and often of how they’d been snookered on a promised "special’ by distributor salesmen. Seasoned theatre men ignored much of what was suggested and/or promised in pressbooks and product annuals. Art such as that shown here of an exhibitor beaming as throngs enter his venue to see One Romantic Night provoked knowing laughter from showmen in the business long enough to know better. Never-ending shell games played by producers and distributors would lead to anti-trust complaints and the end of studio oligopolies. Such actions and changes they brought would begin with small and independent exhibitors.