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Friday, May 04, 2018

Flapper Crawford Heads West

JC Joins John Mack's Pure Prarie League in Montana Moon (1930)

Metro carried forward into sound what formulas it could from silents. The Joan Crawford image was still carved from Our Dancing Daughters and follow-ups, and though just previous Paid would change all that, for now it stayed a flapper mold for Crawford pics done three or four per year. What time was there to vary from pattern? Montana Moon has Dancing Daughter energy slowed to crawl by talk and plentiful pause between that. It was leaden pace that cursed these for later generations, even as '30 patronage sat for mere joy of hearing idols speak, a concession that lasted only until chat for its own sake lost novelty and movies (including Crawford ones) had to upgrade for continued sellings' sake. It's been said that Montana Moon was a first of "singing cowboy" mindset. That's true to extent of song and cowboys being wedded, but innovation ends there, as these tunes could have interchanged with any genre, nothing in Montana Moon to suggest future for western warblers.

Another constant to MGM merchandise of the time was placement of comics across board of whatever came off studio assembly. Virtually everything but the Garbos bore brunt of Cliff Edwards, Polly Moran, Ted Healy, and/or others off revolving door of lowbrow humor. Even comedians were front-loaded by other comedians, thus top-heavy Buster Keaton "vehicles" that were really as much showcase for others who'd clown. It tickled someone at Metro (who? Thalberg?) to impose incongruity of a Benny Rubin upon western milieu. Was this to assert that there was no setting too distant for Broadway patter's reach? I hope one day to see an early 30's MGM that doesn't feature Cliff Edwards and his scat-sung ukulele, but such time has not yet come (in fairness, however, I'd confess a certain affection for Cliff and his shtick).

Of those pushed aside, there is tragic Karl Dane, a meaningful silent name who'd led bills just a year before, now shorn of words and most presence thanks to Swedish accent thought incoherent. Could an industry more secure in its application of dialogue have salvaged Karl Dane? Certainly Metro would make but tepid effort. Footage with Dane smacks of charity, but that's a story better told HERE. As to lead man John Mack Brown, there was obvious positioning of him as a next big thing, but he'd not register beyond affable blandness. 1929-30 was a period for much trial/error,  personalities tried, then culled. That Crawford held out was not guaranteed, her own future very much in the balance of initial talkies that were, as a group, fairly miserable. Was it her voice, or force of personality, that overcome them? Star careers at early talking MGM seem at times to be not about survival of the fittest, but of the luckiest, Crawford representing the latter, with Keaton, Ramon Novarro, William Haines, most notably John Gilbert, answering roll call of the luckless.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

For my money the biggest problem at MGM was Irving Thalberg. From the start at Universal with Stroheim he showed no real respect for talent. While much credited with saving The Marx Brothers their MGM films pale beside those done at Paramount. Sound did not harm Keaton. His wife, her family and a studio that completely did not appreciate his gifts did that.

6:46 AM  
Blogger Marc J. Hampton said...

Why was an MGM film playing at a first-run Fox theater? Was that typical?

3:37 PM  
Blogger Stinky Fitzwizzle said...

Reg, Stinky is no fan of Thalberg, but diluted Marx Brothers is better than no Marx Brothers at all. And that studio was run by Mayer, who hated Keaton. Stinky blames Mayer for most everything, because he does not like him.

3:49 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Thalberg imposed the studio style on Keaton who was employed as an actor only. He was not there to write nor to direct. Mayer was a lot of things but I doubt he would have treated Von Stroheim so abysmally without "genius boy wonder" Thalberg to back him up. The problem, for Buster, was that those MGM films made money. That was largely due to better distribution. Yes, diluted Marx Brothers are better than no Marx Brothers but, oh, to have had them at full strength!

Thalberg told Lillian Gish she needed a scandal to get the public re-interested in her. Gish replied, "If I need a scandal to stay in the movies it is time I left them."

She did. Nice to get your feedback.

4:51 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

A Night at the Opera is great and while I'm not a fan of juvenile romantic subplots, in many ways A Night at the Opera is similar to The Coconuts and Animal Crackers and that's plenty okay by me. Thalberg had the sense to hire George S. Kaufman, the man most responsible for the Marx's Broadway success to write the screenplay for A Night at the Opera and in many ways it is like a blueprint for a successful Marx Brothers picture. Why MGM didn't continue to follow that blueprint is beyond me.
The last three Paramount Marx Brothers movies are in some ways, the freaks. They're glorious and unquestionably the peak of the Marx Brothers, but it's hard to imagine such unconventional movies being made over an extended period at any studio, especially post code.
One gets a clear picture of Mayer's work in the post Thalberg MGM Marx Brothers movies. The biggest mistake is in neutering Harpo's character. A Night in Casablanca is considerably better than the last three MGM pictures, if only it didn't have the romantic subplot!

5:27 PM  
Blogger Stinky Fitzwizzle said...

Stinky pretends to be no expert, since MGM is Stinky's least favorite of the major studios, but the overall output of MGM seems more to reflect Mayer than Thalberg, so leave us give Mayer the lion's share of the credit (or blame).

Keaton seems to blame Mayer more for his MGM woes, does he not, what with the poker parties and the parking of his land-yacht on MGM property, in direct defiance of Mayer?

Several things in defense of Thalberg: for decades, Thalberg was fondly remembered by Groucho, and anyone okay in Groucho's book is okay by Stinky. And where Thalberg became a respected and mythic figure after his death, no one seemed to regret the demise of Mayer.

And what else could Thalberg do with the commercial monstrosity that Von Stroheim handed him? And why would Mayer need Thalberg's approval to treat Von Stroheim abysmally? Before or since, Mayer never needed anyone's help in that regard.

9:29 AM  

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