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Friday, February 10, 2017

A Forgotten Star Who Grew Up Close By

NC Boy Robert Williams Makes Good in Platinum Blonde (1931)

Went to college with the nephew of Robert Williams, who was male lead in Platinum Blonde, had a bright future in films, but died at 37 of a burst appendix. Williams was born in Morganton, NC (not "Morgantown," as indicated at imdb), close to where his relation and I were in school. "Hank" was a spitting image of Robert Williams. He knew the long-gone uncle was in some movies, but had seen none of them. Neither had I at the time. How could anyone in 1973 get ready access to Platinum Blonde, Williams' final role and by far best known? It certainly didn't play television within tenna-roter distance of me. There was finally a 16mm print at a Charlotte cowboy meet in the early-80's, for which the seller asked little, and it a brand-new original ("original" what we called distributor-generated copies). Platinum Blonde turns up now at TCM, streams in HD at I-Tunes, and is a show most will gravitate to because Jean Harlow co-stars and Frank Capra directed, but repeat joy may come of this one being shorter and with less determined populism than Capras after he hit big.

Far Less Exposure of Harlow in Platinum Blonde Than What We See Here. Are Circulating Prints Code-Cut?

Revisionist opinion says Robert Williams is a best thing about Platinum Blonde. In fact, he's a revelation to many who should know (actor Christopher Plummer gave praise in an interview, putting Williams above Cary Grant as farceur). I watch Williams, who had a stellar career on Broadway before movies, and think, this is a long way from Morganton. He underplayed and was funny about it, being not like other actors who tried harder. Williams would certainly have had a long career in films. I enjoy him and have watched Platinum Blonde more than most Capras not only for the local connection, but also for this being last of old-style Capra before fame and name above the title made all his must-see events. Newspaper setting and knock-the-rich presumably reflect background of the several scribes involved. What percentage of early talkie writing began in urban dailies? I'll bet most, if truth were told, though I wish someone would research that for the yea or nay. Is there any precode that doesn't eventually have a newshound horning in?

Cincinnati Throws a "Blonde Contest" For Prizes
I think there are code-cuts in Platinum Blonde, some dialogue and very likely a rubdown segment with Jean Harlow, of which publicity stills reveal much more than the film now does. Platinum Blonde had a 1950 reissue. I doubt it got away without trims, what survives being fruit of PCA labor. There still is Harlow, a society siren and miscast as that according to some. Mark Vieira, in his fine Harlow In Hollywood book, says that initially titled Gallagher (after Loretta Young's character) was switched to Platinum Blonde as nod to Harlow's burgeoned popularity, her hair style by release date a national craze. To how times and circumstance change, Young was dominant in billing and poster art for 1931 (or at least supposed to be --- note Harlow as big ad noise at left). For 1950 revival and after, it was Harlow who'd be object of curiosity and whatever interest Platinum Blonde generated. Latter-day sense of discovery derives largely from Robert Williams, however, that forgotten face and voice who, like Harlow, wouldn't finish, or in his case even begin, stardom's course.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer recalls Robert Williams and "Platinum Blonde":

Wake Forest University had a wonderful film program in the seventies, which more or less pulled me through law school there. "Platinum Blonde" was one of its showings, though I couldn't have understood then how really marvelous it was to see such a rarity. I like it then and like it now, and yes, Robert Williams is the best thing in it, even for one partial to Loretta Young. He reminds me rather of a brunette Lee Tracy, with his gift for syncopated patter, but he played the pauses, too, as though reflecting on the silliness around him. He was very droll in this film, but it was in the quieter moments that one senses an actor who could have done a lot of other things, even romantic leads, and been very good in them. It is for such "might-have-beens" that any death is untimely.

6:50 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I think Williams in phenomenal in "Platinum Blonde," so I was really looking forward t seeing him in something else. When I saw him in "Devotion," I was actually a little disappointed. Had he learned more about screen acting? Was it the match of part of actor? Was it a fluke? Guess we'll never know.

3:32 AM  
Blogger aldi said...

"When I saw him in "Devotion," I was actually a little disappointed."

After being knocked out by Williams in Platinum Blonde I sought out his other sound movies, Devotion, Rebound and The Common Law, all 1931. He was unmemorable in the latter two but I think in Devotion he did as well as he could with the relatively small time he got on screen.

In Platinum Blonde he gets a part he can sink his teeth into and boy does he use the opportunity! From the first moment he appears you recognize that this is someone to the manner born. He is witty, natural and completely in command of the screen, outshining Harlow and Young with ease. I remember thinking the first time I saw it just who is this guy?

It's sobering to think that if he hadn't made this film we wouldn't remember him at all now. I'm as sure as I can be that Robert Williams if he had lived would have been as huge a star as Grant, Gable, or Tracy. Tragic that his life was so cruelly cut short.

11:15 AM  
Blogger aldi said...

BTW just submitted a correction to IMDB to change the spelling to Morganton, should take about a week to get approved. The least they can do is to get the name of the town of his birth correct.

2:51 PM  

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