Out on DVD --- Devil and The Deep
I ventured back to Paramount’s early thirties factory this week. Pretty bleak place unless you’re shopping for silly melodramas or musicals that go thud. I know Lubitsch and Sternberg worked there, as did Fields and The Marx Brothers, but this was a mill churning out better than a feature per week, so exceptionally good product amounted to rare pearls among seas of dross. Still, I’m a chump for silly melodramas (It Begins as Romantically as "The Sheik," says the above ad) when they’re front-loaded with the likes of Gary Cooper, Tallulah Bankhead, Charles Laughton, and Cary Grant. Now there’s a cast for the precode ages. Did I mention it was ideally entitled Devil and The Deep? For years, you could barely see DATD short of a 16mm projector and purloined print. Now Universal is out with the 1932 release on DVD as one of three career starters Cary Grant had at Paramount. He’s the face on a box they’re selling, but Devil and the Deep is Cooper’s vehicle just as Fredric March takes most of center ring in The Eagle and The Hawk. Grant moves up to lead for The Last Outpost, even as he competes with miles of stock footage from desert skirmishes Paramount staged before talkies began. You just know CG had considerable talent to have withstood such onslaught of mediocrity. Disc sets like Universal's are an education for showing just what emerging personalities were up against during struggles upward, as well as revelation of how much was promised in those days and not delivered. Paramount like other majors sent out lavish product annuals to whet exhibitor appetites. Pages might as readily have been filled with soup cans and basted turkeys, difference being you had better chance taking delivery of those. Ever see Blood and Sand with Cary Grant and Tallulah Bankhead as forecast below? Or Fredric March and Claudette Colbert in A Farewell To Arms? Gary Cooper was artist-rendered with Sylvia Sidney for an upcoming Madame Butterfly, but it would be Grant assuming that role. In the end, few seemed to care a lick who played what in Paramount pictures, so long as talent spent no paid hours idle.
Devil and The Deep was for people who went to theatres without particular regard to what was playing. It more than fits the stereotype of dated old movies as modern viewers envision them. Paramount announced the film in April 1932 and had Devil and The Deep on screens by August. With so much merchandise to get out a year, they used/reused the same hammer and nails for all of what came off assembly lines. Mostly it was a matter of wedging stars into basic formulae. Here’s Devil and The Deep in shorthand … Insanely jealous husband on crippled submarine confronts wife and her lover … Simmer recipe for 78 minutes of running time, then release. Using toy subs and cardboard for characters, there was no better evidence to be had of heroic effort Golden Age luminaries put forth to make such absurdity credible. Paramount’s star system was built upon softest sand. You watch any of Clara Bow’s talkies and wish someone could airlift her out of there. Naming a Buddy Rogers vehicle is challenge enough, watching one all the more so. Warner’s talent raiding of William Powell and Kay Francis spoke volumes to commonplace vehicles they’d been given at Paramount and their anxiety to get away.
Devil and The Deep would be a 100% drag minus newcomer Charles Laughton pitted against perfect specimens Cooper and Grant. He suspects both of seducing unlikely spouse Tallulah Bankhead. She’s jaded and willing as to Cooper, which leads to an outlandish submarine showdown wherein Laughton tries scuttling the craft out of jealous pique. The British actor was here making stateside debut (The Old Dark House filmed first but was withheld so that Paramount could "introduce" Laughton) and cast in accord with general Hollywood reaction to his unconventional features and disposition. What to do with that face other than render it loathsome or pathetic? For Devil and The Deep, they chose the former. CL’s only minutes in before slapping Bankhead across the face and thereby forfeiting audience sympathies. He’s an obnoxious bore no woman could love. Recognizing our awareness of this, the film includes dialogue where Bankhead refers to having married in gratitude for kindnesses shown her father, a not unfamiliar motivation for precode brides submitting to otherwise repellent mates. Laughton’s appreciation of said lacking goes past his character’s torment and becomes the actor’s own. He speaks the piece for all men who find themselves ugly and hate an attractive world for it. Crueler still is having Gary Cooper, here at his masculine idol summit, as instrument of cuckoldry. Must be a happy thing to look as you do, says Laughton to his usurper, I suppose women love you. It must be a happy thing. We feel a kind of agony watching this actor express his. 30’s viewers unaccustomed to such naked confession of physical inadequacy must have found Laughton a new and startling departure from Hollywood type, though it wouldn’t be long before that unique persona was applied to costume villainy comfortably removed from modern setting.
Laughton received lots of 1932 press for his practical knowledge of psychology as reflected in disturbed figures he played. I like to shade my portrayals on the side of repression, the actor said, at least until the climactic moments of the play arrive. Stops were then pulled for Laughton breakdowns that became an expected highlight. I’ve always had a particular fear of overacting, he remarked, though at least for initial years, no one pointed fingers (that would come later). Devil and The Deep was notable for inspiring histrionic gestures beyond the call of duty. Gary Cooper performs in inverse proportion to Laughton for what amounts to a contest of styles, one that CL graciously conceded to screen-trained Cooper, the latter's naturalness being a quality Laughton frankly envied. As to Bankhead, she was a Dietrich model we weren’t buying that year, despite ability at least equal to Marlene’s. The Cheat on DVD and now Devil and the Deep confirm her effectiveness. Was it a remote quality and distancing from movie audiences that precluded their embrace of Bankhead as precode ID figure? My own memory of her is clouded by a harrowing sit through Die, Die, My Darling, one of 1965’s more unpleasant afternoons at the Liberty (I’m to this present day suppressing imagery of Tallulah chasing Stephanie Powers with long knives). Devil and The Deep was directed by one Marion Gering. Would it have been a better picture under Josef von Sternberg’s supervision? Certainly he’d have had more Paramount leeway and a higher budget. Consider the $851,000 spent on his Shanghai Express as opposed to $481,000 invested in Devil and The Deep (but then Shanghai earned $827,000 in domestic rentals to Devil’s $415,000). There was very much a director’s caste system in place at Paramount. Lubitsch and Sternberg got monies they needed to do shows right, while the Marion Gerings took short change to finish as best they could off the rack merchandise like Devil and The Deep.