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TREASURES FROM THE WARNER ARCHIVE: Going Hollywood (1933)

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Readers, it has been an unusually busy month! I apologize profusely for my lack of posts over the past 2 weeks, but between various film-related projects and trying to work to fund them, I have been lax with my blogging. But I am back, and ready to dive back in with another installment of Treasures From the Warner Archive!

This week’s selection is one of Marion Davies’ (and Bing Crosby’s, for that matter) more bizarre films. With a subtly creepy plot and a completely haywire and inexplicable dream sequence in the middle of the film, Going Hollywood is a movie that confuses, amuses, and drives the audience to want to watch it again and again.

Marion Davies plays Sylvia Bruce, a French teacher who, fed up with the teaching life, decides to follow her singing idol (Bing Crosby) across the country in an attempt to get him to notice her. The problem is, he is involved with a rather frenetic French actress named Lily Yvonne (Fifi d’Orsay), who is jealous of Sylvia and feels threatened by her. Much of the movie revolves around Sylvia and Lily going at each other, and Bing Crosby plays the oblivious and helpless man in the middle.

The dream sequence of the movie is one of the strangest things I have ever seen on film, and I am so happy that it’s on YouTube. I find myself watching it constantly, because it is so delightfully nutty that I can’t get enough. Here are some things to watch for:

  • The scary dancing scarecrows
  • The words PINK PILLS written on the roof of the barn
  • The gigantic daisies moving in unison

Without further ado, I give you “We’ll Make Hay While the Sun Shines.”

Off the set, Marion Davies was known for her spot-on impersonations of Hollywood types. Her boss and companion, William Randolph Hearst, would often ask her to do these impersonations at parties to entertain guests and Marion would gladly oblige. This gift for mimicry became her signature around town, and was often worked into her movies both before and after sound came in. In Going Hollywood, she does a devilish impression of Fifi d’Orsay that is a real testament to her talent. I am sad to say that it is not online, but this is another reason to see the movie. It is brilliant.

Marion and Bing Crosby got along well, and often clowned together and pulled good-natured pranks on the set. A problem, though, was the fact that they were both predisposed to alcoholism and this took a toll on both of them during production. There is a moment during “We’ll Make Hay While the Sun Shines” (the “Farmer Doakes” bit) where I suspected for a time that they had been drinking. However, a few months ago, I was lucky enough to hear some outtakes from “We’ll Make Hay While the Sun Shines,” in which Marion flubs a line and reacts alertly, professionally, and soberly. She repeats the scene and nails the line, adding jokingly at the end “Can I go home now?” 100% Marion. I am now of the opinion that that scene was done without the influence of alcohol.

If there is one reason that this movie should be seen, it is for Bing Crosby’s beautiful, emotional, and heartfelt rendition of “Temptation.” Sung in a bar to Fifi d’Orsay, Bing gives this song meaning that I have never heard before. If you are a Bing Crosby fan, this is a must-see, and it shows without a doubt why Bing Crosby was as wildly popular as he was. The man could sing like no one else, and extract subtle meaning from the most obtuse lyrics. See this movie for this scene. You won’t regret it.

If you would like to order Going Hollywood, please do so here. Despite (or perhaps because of!) its bizarreness, it is great fun to watch.

See you next time!

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TREASURES FROM THE WARNER ARCHIVE: Lady of the Night (1925)

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The next film in Treasures From the Warner Archive is one to which I’ve been looking forward for some time. Perhaps the most highly respected film of Norma Shearer’s silent career and featuring the screen debut of a future Hollywood legend (more on that later!), it is a hallmark of the early MGM period and a shining example of the beautiful and complex character-driven narratives that came out of the silent era. The film is Lady of the Night, and it’s a real crowd pleaser.

A father is sentenced to 20 years in prison by a judge who has a daughter around the same age. Leaving the courthouse, he sees the judge cuddling with his daughter. “Pretty soft for your kid, but what about mine?” he cries, as he is carted off to jail.

Eighteen years pass, and both daughters are graduating from school–Florence, the judge’s daughter (Norma Shearer) from a select school for young women, and the convict’s daughter Molly (also Norma Shearer) from a reform school. The stark contrast between the lives of the two girls is seen right away–Florence’s world is photographed in a red tint, and her school is surrounded by flowers and trees, her friends smiling and skipping down the path following their graduation. Molly’s world, on the other hand, is photographed in stark black and white, and her school is nothing but a block of cement. She is dressed in a drab black dress, with a simple hat and no makeup. Molly’s world is a grim one, and with nowhere to go and nothing to do, she turns to taxi dancing to earn a living. At the club where she works, Molly is assaulted by a stranger and resists with all her might–kicking, hitting, and biting him. A man by the name of David Page helps wrench the man off of Molly, and to thank him for his kindness, Molly accepts a dance with him much to the chagrin of her boyfriend, Chunky (George K. Arthur). Soon, Molly begins to fall in love with David but David doesn’t see her as a romantic partner, only a good friend. David, an inventor, has invented a device that can crack safes, and Molly advises him not to give his invention to crooks, despite the high price they might pay. “Don’t go crooked, it don’t pay,” she says, drawing on her own experience growing up fatherless. She tells him to sell his idea to a bank, who will use it to keep thieves out.

Molly.

The next day, David goes to the board of a bank to pitch his idea. The meeting was held at board member Judge Banning’s house, and on his way, he bumps into Florence. The two lock eyes, and Florence also begins to fall in love with Dave. This time, it is mutual and they begin dating. One day David takes Florence to his studio when Molly walks in, unaware that he wasn’t alone. She and Florence meet, and after Molly walks out, she says to David “She loves you, David, I can see it in her eyes.” She follows shortly after Molly and finds her sitting in Florence’s carriage. Molly implores Florence to marry David and make him happy. Florence expresses concern for Molly, and when Molly says she can be happy with her own boyfriend, Chunky, the two hug. All ends well with a tinge of bittersweetness at what could have been–with Florence marrying David and Molly marrying Chunky.

It is in the carriage scene that we see the very, very brief screen debut of an actress who would become an immortal Hollywood star. A young actress by the name of Lucille LeSueur had recently come to Hollywood and was being tested out in bit parts. In this role, she plays Norma Shearer’s double for the hugging shot. Within 2 years she would hit it big, and under the name of Joan Crawford, she would become perhaps one of the most important and influential stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Norma Shearer, on the left, with Joan Crawford acting as Molly’s double on the right.

The significance of Joan Crawford’s screen debut against Norma Shearer is lost on very few fans who are familiar with the backstory of classic Hollywood. Joan Crawford’s career skyrocketed very quickly, and by the early 1930s she was one of the reigning queens of the MGM lot. Norma Shearer, always a huge star in her own right, married MGM production chief Irving Thalberg in 1927, becoming not only one of MGM’s biggest assets financially but also gaining an influence and control within the studio that was hard to shake. Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer became bitter rivals at MGM in the 1930s, with both asserting their power to its full extent. Because of her political influence within the studio, however, Norma usually won out, prompting Joan to quip “How can I compete with Norma when she’s sleeping with the boss?” They later appeared in 1939’s The Women playing competitors for a man’s affections–not far from their real life situation.

At its core, the story of Lady of the Night has a complexity that is quite thought-provoking. Much of it, in my analysis, has to do with the fact that Norma Shearer plays the dual role of a judge’s daughter and a convict’s daughter. This prompts the audience to rethink any prejudices they may have had coming in regarding “the girl from the wrong side of the tracks,” and instead judge the characters by their internal qualities. In addition, this dual role shows us the remarkable range of Norma Shearer’s acting abilities. Shearer was one of the rare performers in Hollywood who successfully made the transition from silent film to sound, and 5 years before her Oscar-winning turn in the sound film The Divorcee, Shearer was proving that she had the versatility of the best in the business. As Molly, she is hardened and rough but with a heart of gold–and as Florence, she is soft and demure. The ability to be able to switch from character to character with such aplomb and so quickly is a gift rare indeed.

If you would like to watch Lady of the Night, click here. It is worth watching for the tremendous performance of Norma Shearer, and for the place it has in the silent film pantheon.

See you next time!

TREASURES FROM THE WARNER ARCHIVE: The Patsy (1928)

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Hello readers! I am happy to report that following a 2-week delay in delivery, the USPS has finally succeeded in delivering my next two Warner Archive titles, and they are great ones. I will start with one of my favorite silent comedies, a great treat from director King Vidor and one of Marion Davies’ masterpieces–The Patsy (1928).

You may notice that I am going very heavy on the Marion Davies titles lately. We are lucky in that the Warner Archive has several Marion Davies films available, and I would like to review all of them for the blog.

Marion Davies is one of the most severely underrated actresses on the screen. She had extraordinary natural abilities for mimicry, physical comedy, and timing, and at times she gives off an almost uncanny Carole Lombard vibe. Indeed, in Captured on Film: The Story of Marion Davies, Kevin Brownlow states that Marion Davies could be called the first screwball comedienne, before the term was coined for Carole Lombard. Critics saw that Marion had a certain charm and a unique ability to portray zany and cunning characters, but they couldn’t attribute her style to any specific type of comedy that had come before. That style, Brownlow argues, was a sort of proto-screwball comedy.

Nowhere in Marion Davies’ filmography is this more present than in The Patsy. Marion had dabbled in comedy since the early 1920s, and always successfully, despite the misgivings of her boss and live-in romantic partner, William Randolph Hearst. Hearst wanted to see Marion in costume dramas, in roles that would put her in an elegant and dignified light, and not in what he considered to be the lowbrow world of slapstick comedy. Though many of her early Hearst costume dramas are not inherently great films, Marion had great dramatic skill and makes them work to the full extent that the material will allow her. Marion did Hearst’s bidding in terms of what he wanted for her pictures, but comedy was always her preference–and where she felt she was at her best. Hearst finally allowed her to test her comedic waters to great acclaim in The Red Mill in 1927, and finally got her wish granted in full when The Patsy came along in 1928.

Centering on the story of a young woman who is picked on by her family and tries to seduce a beau of her sister’s, The Patsy may be Marion Davies’ best film (perhaps a photo finish with Show People from the same year). She gets ample time to show off her delightful comedic skill (at one point doing wicked impressions of Mae Murray, Lillian Gish, and Pola Negri–so accurate are these impressions that one would think the three actresses were actually in the movie), and deliver some of the most unbelievable lines during a scene when she is pretending to be insane (to get what she wants from her domineering mother). One of my favorite title cards in the movie is “A caterpillar is nothing but an upholstered worm.” It is a comedy that leaves the audience laughing out loud at nearly every line.

Marion’s impersonations of Murray, Gish, and Negri were a familiar sight to Marion’s frequent party guests at Hearst Castle. Hearst, who delighted in Marion’s incredible knack for mimicry, often asked her to perform impersonations to entertain the guests at parties they gave together. Marion Davies was extremely well-liked in Hollywood, and given the fondness that the Hollywood community had for her, nearly all the stars she impersonated were beloved friends. No one was safe from Marion’s wickedly accurate impressions, and everyone seemed to delight in them as much as she did.

The Patsy was also a significant movie for Marie Dressler, who played the matriarch of the family. After 10 years of not working, Dressler returned to the screen in 1927 for several small-scale flops. It seemed as though she would remain in a career slump, until The Patsy. This was the film that singlehandedly revived Marie Dressler’s career, and after The Patsy she skyrocketed into the 1930s, becoming one of the biggest box office draws of the early sound era.

If you would like to order The Patsy, click here. In fact, if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to order The Patsy. It is one of the most hilarious movies of the 1920s, and you will not regret it. This movie is also a great introduction to Marion Davies, for people who are not familiar with her work, and I always recommend this and Show People as the masterpieces in Marion Davies’ filmography.

See you next time!

TREASURES FROM THE WARNER ARCHIVE: Polly of the Circus (1932)

Upon my return from Los Angeles early this morning, I was thrilled to find my Warner Archive titles waiting for me in the mail, thus allowing me to begin my new collaboration with the Warner Archive sooner than I had anticipated. I had initially projected that “Treasures From the Warner Archive” would begin in June, but I don’t see any reason for waiting any longer than necessary. So without further ado, this is the first installment in this series. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you a delightful pre-Code, featuring a young Clark Gable and Marion Davies in one of her best roles–it’s a balancing act of love, passion and virtue in Polly of the Circus.

The film begins with a debate about a circus billboard in a small, conservative town as Polly (Marion Davies), the featured act in the circus, is pictured on a billboard wearing only her leotard. This offends the local townspeople and the police insist on her legs being covered, which leads to elaborate drapings over her legs on every billboard in town. Polly objects to this, and takes up her objections with the minister (Clark Gable), who ignores her and the drapings remain. At the opening night of the circus, Polly is heckled by an audience member about the billboards, which causes her to lose her focus and fall 50 feet from the trapeze.

She is gravely injured, and the minister, Mr. Hartley, takes her in to heal her. During her convalescence, Polly and Mr. Hartley fall deeply in love and eventually marry. His uncle, also a minister, objects to her marrying a circus girl, as does the church, and Mr. Hartley is stuck between the woman he loves and the ministry he has spent his whole life training for. He is left with limited options, as divorcing Polly would be a sure way to be excommunicated from the church. Polly, seeing his pain, does the only thing she thinks she can–she leaves him and rejoins the circus. Severely depressed, facing the stunt that left her injured before, she says to her friend “If I’m supposed to make it, I’ll make it.” Just then, Mr. Hartley appears below her, calling to her excitedly. He has chosen to live openly with her. She smiles broadly. “I’ll make it!” she cries, as she pulls off the stunt with perfection. She joins Mr. Hartley at the bottom of the trapeze, as the movie ends.

Looking up at Polly from the base of the trapeze.

Looking up at Polly from the base of the trapeze.

I have seen a great many Marion Davies movies, and Polly of the Circus stands as one of my personal favorites. Not only is it a close examination on the timeless issue of it means to be torn between two serious life choices, but it is also a deft and clever pre-Code, with delightfully suggestive dialogue and witty double-entendres. One of my favorite lines of the movie is one in which Mr. Hartley and Polly are getting to know each other, discussing what it means for Mr. Hartley to be a minister. Polly says “Well I suppose even a minister has his moments. But of course your wife would have to sleep in the woodshed…during Lent.”

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Mr. Hartley laughs heartily at this, showing the audience that we all know exactly what she means. It is a movie that doesn’t overpower the audience, but one that leaves a rich aftertaste when the movie is finished.

Polly of the Circus is the first of two movies that Marion Davies did with Clark Gable, and this one is considered the better of the two. In 1934, Cosmopolitan Pictures (the production company with which Marion was affiliated) moved from MGM to Warner Bros., and Marion made 4 movies there before she retired in 1937. Her second-to-last film at Warner Bros. was one entitled Cain and Mabel, one for which Cosmopolitan boss William Randolph Hearst had high hopes. It was a multi-million dollar production, and again teamed Marion Davies and Clark Gable (on loan from MGM), two stars that were almost guaranteed to bring the studio a profit. However, Hearst overestimated the potential of the production, and Cain and Mabel failed to make a profit. It was a terrible blow to the studio, and its failure at the box office is tragic because, in retrospect, it is indeed a fun movie to watch. The Warner Archive has also made Cain and Mabel available on demand, and that is one that I will be reviewing in the future. Stay tuned!

But as much as I love Cain and Mabel, it is Polly of the Circus that is closer to my heart. A beautiful love story set against the backdrop of a circus is a winning combination, and the movie delivers. I am so glad that the Warner Archive has made it available, and that I could talk about it here.

If you would like to order Polly of the Circus, here is the link to its page on the Warner Archive. Thank you for reading, and stay tuned for the next installment in this series, when I will talk about Barbara Stanwyck in The Woman in Red.

See you next time!

New Feature Coming to Backlots!

Backlots will be watching and reviewing titles from the Warner Archive Collection as part of a regular feature on the site.

Readers, I am proud to announce some good news regarding the site. Beginning next month, I will  be adding a new and exciting feature to Backlots, one that I hope will prove informative, entertaining, and that will keep Backlots firmly rooted on the pulse of what is new and exciting in classic cinema.

As part of a new collaboration with the Warner Archive, I will be watching and reviewing several titles from the collection each month for a feature entitled “Treasures From the Warner Archive.” I will provide backstories on the films, explore trivia bits, and perhaps host a few quizzes, polls, and competitions related to the Warner Archive titles over at the Backlot Commissary. I do hope that you, the reader, will participate in discussions in the comments section or at the Commissary, because I would love to hear from you! I will also be taking requests as to which films my readers would like to see reviewed, so please be sure to stay in touch if you have a specific Warner Archive title you would like to see reviewed.

The first two films are on their way, and I am pleased to announce that the first entry in this feature will be analysis of Polly of the Circus (1932), starring Marion Davies and Clark Gable, followed shortly thereafter by a post on The Woman in Red (1935), an oft-cited but rarely seen Barbara Stanwyck film.

Polly of the Circus.

The trailer for The Woman in Red.

The Warner Archive Collection is a real treasure for classic film fans. Established in 2009, it aims to manufacture classic titles on demand for consumers, focusing on films that have never before had a DVD release. Its library has been growing exponentially as it acquires the rights to release films from other collections, and its Netflix-type streaming system, Warner Archive Instant, is bringing classic films to a demographic that is accustomed to watching movies on the computer. It is a true honor to collaborate with such an innovative and forward-thinking company.

Keep your eyes peeled for the first installment of Treasures From the Warner Archive!