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Monday, November 27, 2017

Smart Talk Succeeds Silents

Ronald Colman Woos Fay Wray in The Unholy Garden (1931)

It was no longer enough for screens merely to talk. They had to talk smart. To that end, there came sharp wits from Broadway, men who thought Hollywood was haven for idiots, which compared with them, it largely was, at least where dialogue and overall literacy was object. Such assets seemed negligible where pantomime spun the yarns, but that was swept off now, and cleverest of East Coast pens got record rate for chat supplied to actors in large part imported from same environ. It was, in fact, as close to a legit takeover of movies as there had been since Famous Players/Lasky put famed stage faces in successes like Queen Elizabeth (Sarah Bernhardt,1912), a trend continuing till a public made known preference for homegrown stars, like Mary Pickford. Among writers to milk Hollywood, and do so for years, were Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, both known for speed, as much as skill, with talk. Recent triumphs for the team included Twentieth Century and The Front Page, laughing hits on Broadway, and bought by movies at high tariff. Hecht/MacArthur are credited for The Unholy Garden, though some claim they merely did a story, then passed dialogue chore elsewhere. Wherever truth lies, and however reviled the film was then (it lost money for producer Sam Goldwyn), The Unholy Garden has values plenty for early talkie mavens and Ronald Colman, plus radiant pre-Kong Fay Wray, fanbase.

Goldwyn used simple means for getting quality result, hiring the best and paying them accordingly. Talent would stay with Sam however disagreeable they found him personally. I've liked a number of Goldwyn productions, him bringing to mind another independent, Hal Wallis (closer tied to studios, but essentially free of interference after leaving Warners). Goldwyn enabled prestige projects with cash made off Eddie Cantor, and later Danny Kaye, just as Wallis would fuel awards/applause from work other than Martin/Lewis, then Elvis, that kept him in working capitol. Goldwyn's late 20/early 30's line in Ronald Colman vehicles were not unlike the comedies he'd later thrive with, each with wit, romance, and focus on the Colman personality, a largely inflexible mechanism protected as much by the actor as producers who hired him. No silent player was so enhanced by talk as Colman, his light bright for having the perfect voice to go with an established persona. Would that all leading men be so blessed --- there might have been far less disruption of the industry's star system.

No one sounded like Colman, unless they were mocking him, which cartoons often did. Of actors to have their name misspelled, he'd suffer most consistently, and in fact, still does (check film books that read "Ronald Coleman" on one page or another ... their numbers are legion). Reversing his initials will hand you the character he invariably played --- CR, as in Charming Rogue. Later-to-freelance Colman turned down wonderful parts for not wanting to tamper with his brand, so nix on Max De Winter for Selznick's Rebecca. To Colman, there was fine dividing line between roguish and murderous, and he felt aspects of Rebecca crossed it. Belated willingness to take a long chance, with A Double Life, fetched the Academy Award, good evidence of what an element of surprise could yield. But for absolute fidelity to the Colman brand, there is The Unholy Garden, enjoyable for being a star vehicle with no aspiration beyond.

What did actors aged in the wood of 19th century theatrical tradition think of upstarts more lately referred to as "movie stars"? Ancient mariner Tully Marshall spoke for a disgruntled lot, his remarks to publicize The Unholy Garden cutting close to bone that was latter-day colleagues. "Half-finished" and "slow seasoning" were Tully-applied to youngsters who "flare into popularity today and exhaust themselves when the public tires of seeing them in the same kind of role in picture after picture." Was sixty-seven year old Marshall referring to Ronald Colman here? Could be, except for Colman being himself forty when The Unholy Garden was made. Perhaps Tully Marshall, who had stage-acted with Edwin Booth, saw all 20th century arrivals to his profession outclassed: "Young players are prompted to stardom today for a precocity which, in the days of Booth and Barrett, would have brought them a spanking." Acting style of a newer generation disparaged by the old is nothing new (think of 50's hostility toward the Actor's Studio). I'd suppose it goes back far as the pyramids, or at least to when thesping got centuries-ago start.


Blogger DBenson said...

I was surprised to learn Colman had a silent career at all; like W.C. Fields, you think of the voice before anything else. Besides the Charming Rogue, he was often the Wistful Knight: Full of courage and honor, but showing a wry awareness that he was out of fashion. Even in the fairy tale "Prisoner of Zenda" he seemed to represent an already faded age of chivalry versus usurpers and rascals.

Late in life he and real-life wife Benita Hume did a radio sitcom, "The Halls of Ivy", a gentle comedy about the president of a small midwestern college. Colman's character was supposed to be American, while Hume was a glamorous actress he met and married on a British sabbatical. An odd touch is that on the dozen episodes I've heard, every one had Colman daydreaming back to a more or less pertinent moment in his courtship. Colman protecting the romantic brand by demanding love scenes to offset the amiable married banter?

4:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just an observation on the masthead ad for IT'S LOVE I'M AFTER (1937): Eric Blore looks like he's impersonating Syd Chaplin!

8:36 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Contrary to what most believe once the movies began to talk they lost their audience. Silent films could be seen by everyone. Sound films can only be seen by those who understand the language spoken on screen. I'm not decrying sound films. In the period between 1915 AND 1930 over 65% of the public went to the movies on a regular basis. Once the movies began to speak those numbers began to drop to where today that figure is less than 10%.

11:44 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That IS an uncanny resemblance, now that you mention it.

12:32 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Not sure how many people have seen A Double Life, and some must like it (doesn't Maltin give it 4 stars?) but to me it is an absolute stinker, a misfire from too many smart people. And the number one reason is that Colman is way miscast as a guy who thinks of murder-- when he really comes off as a guy wondering if there's any more of that crab salad left in the fridge.

Olivier was rightly cast in Rebecca because he had the physique and the darkness to be a romantic figure... who could break your arm if he had to. Whenever Colman had to do anything physical, you saw how slight he was-- I think If I Were King is charming, but any time he has to do a little Errol Flynn action, he can just barely do it without the wind knocking him over.

Don't get me wrong, I like what Ronald Colman was just fine, but he was smart to know how far he could take it and no further.

1:04 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Very good points, Michael, and yes, I agree that Colman was in trouble whenever action became necessity for one of his characters.

And I want to say how much I admired the terrific and insightful essay you wrote on THE BREAKING POINT at Nitrateville. You pointed up aspects of the film that had not occurred to me:

3:51 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Michael: While I don't necessarily think "A Double Life" a stinker, I've always thought that Colman's performance was overrated, as if Academy voters thought, "Hey, Colman's playing a nut, that's worth an Oscar!" He's far more convincing in light comedies and romantic dramas.

And as for silent movie actors enhanced by sound -- William Powell comes to mind as well. It's impossible to watch any of his silent without hearing his voice in the subtitles.

9:50 AM  
Blogger Rick said...

"Of actors to have their name misspelled, he'd suffer most consistently, and in fact, still does (check film books that read "Ronald Coleman" on one page or another ... their number is legion)."

For the misspelling of actors' LAST names, yes, that's probably so. But surely the victim of most FIRST name screw-ups would have to be Fredric March. Frederic, Frederick, Fredrick...anything but the right thing. I truly believe that I see his first name mangled more often than I see it as it was meant to be.

12:55 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I was just watching the trailer for Captain Blood and they left one of the C's out of Buccaneer.

9:25 PM  
Blogger marcus said...

I have just recently discovered this page and was reading the comments to your post on The Unholy Garden. I don't mean to sound upset - but I have to admit I am. I am referring to Michael's trashing of Colman's physicality in his films. And John's agreement with him.

Ronald Colman's lower leg was shattered in WWI. He had a long convalescence in a military hospital in Britain but it never fully healed. He had a limp all his life that he hid from the public. He forced himself to find a way to hide it for his theatrical and film career. It sometimes caused him pain. I have actually often been surprised at just how physical he was able to get in certain scenes in some of his films, such as in The Prisoner of Zenda. He was not able to move as freely in action sequences as he might have, so watching him in the fencing sequence with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. is quite interesting. Still, he was an avid tennis player and fisherman, so he was able to do quite a bit even with his limp.

As for A Double Life, Colman was known for deliberately underplaying his parts-that's why he became so well regarded in silents, because he did not overact, make exaggerated gestures or facial expressions. It's why his performance as Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities is so powerful. I suppose it might have been better for some if he had gone about the film screeching and hyperventilating as a mentally disturbed actor. I prefer a quieter, more subtle approach to such a character.

8:34 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

You make a very good point, Marcus. I should have taken Colman's wartime injury more into account.

3:56 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Other British stars wounded in the Great War:

Herbert Marshall had a wooden leg, skillfully concealed on film (even in his last scene in "Foreign Correspondent"). Depending on the role, cameras would favor Leslie Banks's handsome side or his slightly disfigured side. Claude Rains lost most of his sight in one eye; I thought his unique voice was also the result of a gas attack but the sites I just checked didn't mention it (he did, however, triumph over a speech impediment with sheer hard work).

An anomaly, or just a statistical result of the harrowing numbers of wounded across the board?

11:07 PM  
Blogger WAM said...

I'm listening to "The Halls of Ivy" myself. I came to Colman from hearing him and his wife Bettina Hume playing a version of themselves as Jack Benny's neighbors in recurring roles on Benny's radio show.

As DBenson notes, it is striking how often (at least in the early episodes of "The Halls of Ivy" he is daydreaming of the days of courting his wife.

I'll have to find some of his movies to watch sometime.

11:49 PM  

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