CLFP: “High Voltage” (1929)

carole lombard

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

For fans of the sophisticated screwballs that defined the majority of Carole Lombard’s career, it is often difficult to fathom that Carole started off as a dramatic actress. From the late silent era until 1934 when Twentieth Century changed her career, Carole Lombard (or, as she was often billed in her early films, “Carol Lombard”) was cast as in roles that highlighted her striking, angelic and ethereal beauty instead of capturing her bubbly and sociable offscreen personality. High Voltage is one of the movies that introduced Carole to the dramatic speaking roles of the early 1930s–her first full-length “talkie,” after a few significant roles in silent films notably as one of Mack Sennett’s “Bathing Beauties.” High Voltage is a rather straightforward film, nothing particularly interesting to speak of, but it is a wonderful look into early sound production that was still imperfect.

A busload of passengers is stranded in a snowstorm, and upon encountering an abandoned church, huddles together there until their rescue. Two of the passengers begin to fall in love, but there is a complication–regarding the man’s status with the law.

The plot of the movie is very basic, but is filled with lots of ornate dialogue that is oddly anachronistic. The movie is a bit difficult to understand, but this is more due to the scratchy print than anything else–it would greatly benefit from a restoration that would perhaps make the movie slightly more interesting to watch.

I might also add that this movie was made in 1929, the year sound film began to come into widespread use. Filmmakers were still experimenting with how to use dialogue, how to direct speaking actors, and how to seamlessly morph a highly successful silent medium into a speaking one without losing the character. It is fascinating to watch Carole in this film, because she is still very much a silent actress in her movements and expressions. During a scene where the group hears a rescue plane, Carole gets up dramatically and runs to the window, flailing and pointing energetically outside. It looks exactly like a scene that should occur in a silent movie, so much so that I instinctively half expected intertitles to show up on the screen. Her makeup is also reminiscent of traditional silent film–specifically the eyeliner she wears under her eyes, used to accentuate features and aid physical expressionism.

Despite its status as Carole’s first talkie, this is a rather minor Lombard film, one that doesn’t showcase her talent particularly well, but the filming is a prime example of cinematic technique in early sound films and this may be of interest to film historians.

See you next time!

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