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Thursday, August 07, 2014

Metro Struggle To Sell Sailor

Part Two On Way For A Sailor (1930)

Optimism was high re Way For A Sailor, as this was John Gilbert back in rough-and-rumble mode after "sentimental twaddle" blamed for his poor previous two. He'd sport dungarees and love 'em/leave 'em like the Jack of (Breaking) Hearts he'd earlier played. Trouble might have been his doing so sans signature mustache, an accessory Gilbert truly needed to balance facial features that skewed to ordinary without it. Watching him bare-lipped in Way For A Sailor puts JG at distance from the romantic idol of yore, and maybe that's what he needed to move from silent emoting to a precode street level. There was much rooting for Gilbert to succeed with Way For A Sailor. MGM foreswore in trade ads to "raves on the coast" preceding release, and spotters for fan mags who got advance glimpse described Jack's triumph as complete.

He got help too from unexpected quarters. A faddish "tramp" writer named Jim Tully, whose hobo exploits had been screen-adapted as Beggars Of Life, was brought onto Way For A Sailor as support player and incidental gagman, latter duty shared with vaudeville writer Al Boasberg. Regarded as silent creative partner behind Burns and Allen, The Marx Brothers, Block and Sulley, and many others, Boasberg was on call at Metro to salt features with funny business, a joke or bit dropped here/there to liven shows in need of a hypo. Tully recalled Boasberg as among best-paid of Metro back-of-camera folk that came to rescue of shows lacking a laugh. It was a job not unlike what Buster Keaton would fill when he came back to Metro in the mid-thirties as roving gag supplier, only Boasberg got serious $ for his input. Tully and Boasberg whispered funny ideas in director Sam Wood's ear as Way For A Sailor commenced over several months, further indication that Sailor was neither a mere programmer nor quickly made.

Leading Lady Leila Hyams Is Flanked By Director Sam Wood and Gilbert

Tully had been in a nightclub dust-up with Gilbert; in fact, the shorter man, trained in boxcars to protect himself, gave Jack a pasting. The story went 20's-viral, and was part of why Tully was hired for Way For A Sailor. He and JG would publically bury hatchets, but reconciliation went further, Tully becoming a virtual press rep for Gilbert by way of sympathetic essays he'd write for a fan press. All of who read the dime mags knew that MGM was "iron-bound" by the "million dollar contract" they had perhaps unwisely entered into with Gilbert, among which perks was his quitting at five each afternoon, schedules be damned, a provision most stars but dreamed of working up to (and few would, one being Jack's successor at Metro, Clark Gable, but it took him years getting there). Way For A Sailor spent money where it counted on a ship-at-sea wreck, filmed on the backlot with expensive hydraulics. Sailor's negative cost was $889K, much of that attributable to Jack's exorbitant weekly take, but the outlay bespoke MGM's hope, if not confidence, that Way For A Sailor would get Gilbert back on main deck as a star attraction.

The beating Way For A Sailor took ($606K lost) had to have been disillusioning for Metro and Gilbert. This picture was not customized to fail, whatever the conviction of Mayer-haters. Crocodile tears were press-shed to effect that Jack was a broken man well before release, with scant hope of Sailor rescue. His "apathy" had robbed Gilbert of "fire and flare" that distinguished prior performances, raves/standing applause at Sailor previews forgotten now that his vehicle was certified a failure. Picture Play took imagining a step further with fictionalized account of a despondent Jack despairing of his "mistakes" to neighbor Raquel Torres as they shared a beach sunset. Gilbert's own decline had become font of high drama his pictures were lacking. But MGM wouldn't quit yet. Sure, they wanted out of the now ruinous contract, but JG wouldn't settle. For at least the forthcoming A Gentleman's Fate, released in spring 1931, they'd float to trades the assurance that Jack Was Back to reclaim his boxoffice throne, but hopes weren't fulfilled. A Gentleman's Fate and future Gilberts from Metro, with exception of Queen Christina in which he  played distinct support to Garbo, lost money.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

As I wrote yesterday, WAY FOR A SAILOR was shown in a silent version in almost all the world. Gilbert's next, A GENTLEMAN'S FATE, has been considered as his very first talkie if you read anything from outside the United States.

10:30 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

"A Gentleman's Fate" would be a good title for a Gilbert bio, although the some might question the word "gentleman." "Way for a Sailor" might be a bit wobbly in spots, but so were most early talkies, especially from Metro. "Gentleman's Fate" is a better, albeit far sadder, movie. Gilbert's a better actor than the myth he's remembered for, if at all.

3:43 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer weighs in on "Way For A Sailor":

Many years ago--or should I say, "many, many years ago"--the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia, WCAU, Channel 10, acquired a package of early M-G-M talkies for its early morning showings. It was the "heroic age" of being a film buff, so I would get up well before dawn to watch Garbo in "Romance," Norma Shearer in "Let Us be Gay" and "The Last of Mrs. Cheyney," and Joan Crawford in "Untamed" and "Montana Moon." I was fascinated by them, by the personalities and settings, and by the suggestion of a culture that seemed to have more to do with what I felt than the one I lived in, but not so much so that I didn't realize their very real shortcomings. They were like recordings with a limited range of frequency, and though within that range, they were fairly good, the nuances and sounds of drama or life itself seemed beyond them.

There were also a couple of films starring John Gilbert: "Downstairs" and "Way for a Sailor." I was very much aware of the Gilbert legend and turned to them eagerly, hoping to find some quality which substantiated how unfairly he had been treated, or how it could have been otherwise, had that quality found better expression. Gilbert had been mocked and turned aside, but I would have eyes to see and, as it were, ears to hear.

"Downstairs," of course, is the film most offered as demonstrating what a fine actor Gilbert could be in talkies, and with reason. He is alive to the possibilities of an unsympathetic role and fearless in playing it. "Way for a Sailor," however, was the one I saw first, and it was a disappointment. The script meandered, the story was banal and uninvolving, and Gilbert seemed no more prominent than the others in the trio of sailors played by him, Wallace Beery, and Jim Tully. What puzzled me, however, was that there was nothing obviously pointing to indifference on the part of the studio. The production values were good, there was a convincing storm at sea sequence, and the cast seemed to have been chosen from the better contract players of the studio, with the exception of a stolid Jim Tully. Leila Hyams was, as ever, pretty and appealing--her appearance in "Red Headed Woman" as the deserted wife fatally undercut for me the possibility that Chester Morris could have been attracted by anyone else, let alone a sluttish Jean Harlow--and Beery is Beery, though at the time I associated his appearance with the later successes he scored in lead roles.

On reflection, I realize that "Way for a Sailor" was adrift without a decent script. Everything else about it could have made for a much better film and a proper showcase for a different Gilbert than audiences were used to, a new, even more terrific John Gilbert, as Dick Powell was ballyhooed for "Murder, My Sweet." Certainly the advertisements and posters you've accompanying your article suggest that that was the way the publicity department of the studio wanted to play it. "Gilbert answers his critics...and how!" In this film, unfortunately, he was given very little to say. There are two moments which still stand out, however: a shot of Gilbert at the wheel of ship at night, slender and glamorous, and the end, in sparkling sunshine, carrying Miss Hyams through a crowd as he shouts exuberantly, "Way for a sailor!" But they belong to another film, never made, one well outside the range of this one.

9:59 AM  

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