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Saturday, December 29, 2018

Derring-Do Of A Vanished Era


Rod La Rocque Shows How To Swash as The Fighting Eagle (1927)

Talking pics that mocked, or paid "affectionate" tribute, to the silent era, would often re-stage sword duels where under-cranked heroics roused both laughs and memory of long-past movie-going. Singin' In The Rain, Dreamboat, and more recent The Artist convinced us that here was voiceless action in a nutshell, but how close were simulations to the real thing long out of circulation? The Fighting Eagle and survivors like it might provide an answer. Rod La Rocque as cavalier lead seems ripe for later parody, as few romancers from the 20's date so floridly, the very name La Rocque seemingly contrived to dress a marquee, and yet that was the name he was born with. How often might providence gift someone with so splendid a label as "Rod La Rocque"? He'd thrive long as titles did talking for him. With sound, however, came ruination, for Rod's was a voice utterly lacking in expression, less like a film star than your neighbor selling brooms for the Rotary Club. Whatever glamour clung to La Rocque was stripped too by shifting taste in screen idols. He'd hang on, work from time to time, and stay lifelong wed to Vilma Banky, their ceremony an ultimate of Hollywood artifice that disguised true commitment beneath. La Rocque had keen insight into fame and fleeting nature of same, his interview in The Real Tinsel outstanding among many in that collection of celebrity chats.


The Fighting Eagle came toward a finish for silents, being produced by Cecil B. DeMille for the independent company he had established after leaving Paramount. DeMille had to watch pennies in his own shop, so farmed out direction for The Fighting Eagle (Donald Crisp gets the credit) and kept spending to minimum. We might speculate as to C.B.'s creative contribution, even as period-set action and costume flavor suggest guiding hand of the epic-maker. DeMille was distracted by business matters, his indie output vying for dates at better theatres (more detail in Scott Eyman's fine DeMille bio). As with Fairbanks vehicles and the last couple Valentino did, The Fighting Eagle was not to be taken too seriously. Critics noted with approval a light touch brought to bear on this yarn built around Napoleon-era intrigue, Rod La Rocque a young braggart who gets in hot water for claiming close alliance with the Emperor. The Fighting Eagle is fun sampling of programmers that satisfied fan-base in 1927, its berth shared at most venues by live vaudeville, plethora of short subjects, or music recital. In whatever mix, here was amusement typical of its day, aided by extras to fill an evening's time and money's worth. DVD's are available here and there, thanks to the film's PD status.

5 Comments:

Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers Rod La Rocque:


Rod La Rocque was a fairly prolific actor, but I recall seeing him in only one film, “One Romantic Night,” made in 1930, in which he partnered Lillian Gish in her talkie debut. Gish is very good in it, but the film itself is disappointing, mostly for the changes that were made to its source material, a play by Ferenc Molnar entitled “The Swan,” apparently to accommodate a more modern sensibility. In the play, a princess becomes infatuated with a tutor to her royal house, though he is a commoner — it is her first love -- but in the end she accepts her betrothal to the prince regent in order to fulfill her obligations to her family and her people. She will be like a swan, graceful when seen from a distance, floating serenely on still water, though awkward on land, like a goose, with but one song, which it shall sing only at the moment of death.

Some scenes in the movie remain true to the play, and these suggest how much better it could have been. Gish's approach is such that I can imagine Grace Kelly having watched her in it before she played the role in the 1956 remake, which was much truer to the play, as suggested by its title, “The Swan.” In this film, however, the prince regent becomes the epitome of a more self-indulgent time, and, as embodied by Rod La Rocque, is a sneering, sarcastic presence with little respect for the old traditions, save how they can be manipulated for his pleasure. By the end, the princess throws over the tutor, but not in sacrifice to honor and obligation. Rather, she runs away with the prince in his motorcar, when seemingly both of them will be abandoning the throne and its link to the people on earth and heaven above. I appreciate how stiff Conrad Nagel is as the tutor, but for the princess to forsake all, even the appearance of love, for such an obnoxious personality as played by La Rocque, renders the story utterly without meaning.

12:10 PM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

Saw "One Romantic Night" long ago on TCM. I saw the ending as the princess being tricked into doing her duty; the planned match is taking place but she's made to think she's choosing passion instead of just following orders.

Yes, it does play as the clumsy fake ending it is. But it's not a new twist by any means. A frequent romcom gimmick is the rich boy or girl pretending to be poor, or pretending to go broke, so the lover won't doubt his/her own motives. Likewise elders who fake disapproval knowing it'll do more than active encouragement.

"The Swan" has a pretty nervy ending for a big romantic epic. The Princess doesn't get a happy ending OR a nobly tearful one. Alec Guinness as the prince is pleasant and affably compliant; he basically tells her a life without passion can be perfectly agreeable, so where's the tragedy?

4:06 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Warner Archives offers ONE ROMANTIC NIGHT on a nice quality DVD. Greenbriar visited the film in 2007:

http://greenbriarpictureshows.blogspot.com/2007/09/early-talkers-on-ropes-theres-feeling.html

Also THE SWAN in 2010:

http://greenbriarpictureshows.blogspot.com/2010/11/mgms-remake-rally-of-1956-1956-was-year.html

7:55 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer responds to Donald Benson:


I’m afraid that I’ll have to disagree with Mr. Benson. In the new ending provided for “One Romantic Night.” the princess has not willingly chosen honor and obligation over what she imagined was love, but has instead chosen a facsimile of that love. While she may yet find that she has entered into the very life she had rejected, it will not be by choice or for the reasons given her in the play. Thus, all the poignancy of the original has been lost for a cheap substitute. Indeed, her preference for such a conniving prince as portrayed by Rod La Rocque, with his teeth bared in a wolfish grin throughout, only emphasizes the emptiness of the choice she makes.

As for “The Swan,” it was audacious for a film of its time and prestige, in that it preserved the theme and ending of Molnar’s play, which itself hearkened back to the mores and manners of a time already passing. The prince, though affable and charming, is unwilling to give himself over to love or passion. He is content with the routine of royal life and the petty evasions he takes from it. Marrying the princess would have been, for him, just one more royal duty performed. It is the Professor’s ardor for the princess that awakens his own love for her. The coda of the film, with its image of the swan, gliding majestically upon the water, yet remote and distant, with but one song, and that sung only at the moment of death, is spoken of by the prince to the princess. Knowing her now, he also knows that the life she was born to cannot help but be one of sacrifice, especially when she has come to understand what romantic love can be like. Even so, she takes his hand as they walk into this life together

There is the poignance of the story, for there is the tragedy which underlies it.

5:56 AM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

Replying to Mr. Mercer:

You're seeing "One Romantic Night" with modern, more thoughtful eyes. I'm pretty sure the studio INTENDED their clumsy rewrite to play as a happy, upbeat ending. Lots of movies, especially old romantic comedies, turn grim on even cursory examination. Audiences weren't demanding depth, and rarely got it. Even now, we tend to turn a blind eye to shaky fadeouts unless the film really presses it, as in the closing shots of "College" and "The Graduate".

We know how the Civil War will end, yet we accept Keaton's moment of glory at the end of "The General" unironically. The brilliant tag on "Some Like It Hot" ignores that Curtis seduced Monroe under a fake millionaire identity; there's no real reason to think he won't just be the next broke musician to abandon her. Comic heroes especially tend to carry the day by some outrageous fluke or even deviousness; you're not supposed to ask how this is going to translate into a future.

Comics and romcom heroes (and, very occasionally, heroines) often win True Love for no other reason than they want it so much; Langdon's fixation with Joan Crawford in "Tramp Tramp Tramp" is creepy on reflection; what does she possibly see in him on first meeting? In "The Gold Rush", Charlie's feelings for the dance hall girl are not reciprocated; what she feels is pity and some guilt when she sees the party he prepared for her -- but we buy that it somehow becomes love. Heroines (and, very occasionally, heroes) frequently fall for whoever *deserves* them as determined by the script, no matter how unsuited or irrational (this goes back to fairy tales, where princes and princesses exist to be earned by strangers). Sometimes it happens before the movie gets going: the pretty ingenue who inexplicably stands by the hapless clown until he blunders into a victory. "The Cameraman" actually persuades us that this girl is attracted to Keaton -- here a plausible boyfriend for a secretary -- in an awkward, natural romance complicated by an existing boyfriend. But when she thinks the other guy saved her life, she accepts that he won her -- that's How It Works in movies, even though "The Cameraman" gently implies she didn't arbitrarily transfer all her feelings to her false hero.

Resistant objects of pursuit are encouraged to have sudden and convenient changes of heart; once in a while a pursuer will be abruptly and implausibly improved by love -- playboys are especially susceptible when confronted by a Nice Girl. The prince in "One Romantic Night" turning "American" was meant to be seen as a positive transformation. It wasn't that much worse than a hundred other "happy endings" served up in earnest, and maybe better than a few.

This is what happens when writer's block deflects me from what I *should* be writing.

1:28 AM  

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