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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

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? 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. 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 would  acknowledge the slow and dull picture this was. 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, her co-star the hot flame 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 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 the 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 some of that patrician veneer. Who knows but what this 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 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 gets a raw deal in screen history books. Interviewed for a collection entitled The Real Tinsel (published in 1970), the actor lamented his thirty-one talking pictures done in 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 that he was so consistently good amidst such 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 achieved 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.

Worst shellacking from a flop like this was 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 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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember Robert Klein had a standup routine in the early '70s where he spoofed fast-talking TV sales pitches: "My name is Conrad Nagel and I've been dead for three years, but this offer is so amazing I just had to come back and tell you about it..." The rumor was that Nagel's family got so upset that Klein apologized profusely and changed the name in the routine to Conrad Jarvis. Don't know if that's true or not, but I heard him do it both ways.

12:36 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Your knack for writing about obscure movies -- some, like this, not even very good -- and making them fascinating never ceases to amaze. Or, more likely, it's your skill that's fascinating and endless entertaining. And where do you dig up the financial stats?

12:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After waiting nearly thirty years, I finally got my chance to see "One Romantic Night" securing a copy at Cinevent '07. Tough sledding to say the least, it's shocking to think that Gish signed on for this clunker especially when you think "The Wind" was made a couple years earlier and plays so well to modern audiences. As for promotional material on "One Romantic Night" I doubt that much was ordered. Surviving paper on this title remains elusive. I have only found a single lobby card from this title in all my years of looking, not surprising, it looks to be "mint unused"

9:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One leading lady has had a longer career than most: Danielle Darrieux, arguably the greatest french film star ever, began her career at 13 in 1931 in Wilhelm Thiele's "Le Bal", and this year performed in two films, including a voice work in Marjane Satrapi's "Persépolis". In the US, she starred in "The Rage of Paris "(Universal, 1938), "Rich Young and Pretty" (MGM 1951), and a true masterpiece, Mankiewicz's "Five Fingers" (Fox, 1952). All of Which doesn't in any way lessen Lilian Gish's greatness, of course.

3:29 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Rod LaRocque's pretty good and has a nice hardbitten quality in the Leni Riefenstahl Arctic movie SOS ICEBERG. Unfortunately he doesn't get much to do because he's only in the English-language version, so he's not seen in the outdoor footage borrowed from the German version; he's weak and bedridden in an igloo for much of it. But it makes you wish somebody had seen the potential there and used it.

9:14 PM  
Blogger Vidor said...

Not sure why we should feel bad for Conrad Nagel, whose acting career lasted for forty years after talkies came in. He worked! Working is good!

Random trivia: Conrad Nagel appeared in the very last silent film made by any Hollywood studio, namely, "The Kiss" with Greta Garbo. MGM stalled on going to talkies and stalled longer with Garbo because of her accent.

This film sure is terrible. Lillian Gish is horribly miscast, just way too damn old to play a princess getting married off. And she is horribly, horribly stiff. She'd obviously fully mastered the art of acting in talking pictures by the time she was in "Night of the Hunter" but holy cow she is terrible in this. And besides Gish, the film is just awful and exactly the wrong kind of vehicle for Gish at this point in her career, when she was trying to manage the transition to talkies. Irving Thalberg had the right idea.

Apparently Gish got one last shot at playing leads with "His Double Life" in 1933 before she was permanently stuck in supporting work and stage roles. No idea if that one's any good.

4:24 PM  

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