Saturday, November 24, 2012

Pre-Code Parade: DAYBREAK (1931)

Ramon Novarro is an actor identified with silent film who may be thought not to have survived the transition to sound. But like many of his peers his decline was slow and not initially perceived as a decline. He remained a top-rank star at M-G-M until 1934 but faded soon after leaving the studio. Of his talkies, the one most likely to have been seen by modern audiences is the Greta Garbo vehicle Mata Hari, which doesn't really show Novarro to advantage. Garbo was arguably too much woman for the boyish Mexican, despite his billing as a great Latin lover. If Jacques Feyder's film of an Arthur Schnitzler story -- the same author provided source material for Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut -- proves anything, it's that Novarro works better, seems more plausible, when paired with more winsome, even mousier leading ladies. His partner here is Helen Chandler, the leading lady of Tod Browning's Dracula, and there's some pathos for the knowledgeable in watching these two, both doomed to gruesome futures -- Chandler disfigured by fire, Novarro tortured to death by hustlers -- as a charming couple in this bonbon of a picture. Chandler is a humble piano teacher who catches the eye of Novarro's irresponsible young officer in the waning days of the dear old Habsburg Empire. Novarro makes a conquest of her, as if to prove something to himself, and makes the calamitous blunder of leaving money for her the morning after. The shame hardens Chandler, who soon hooks up with the wealthier but profoundly less attractive Jean Hersholt. When Novarro has a run of luck at the gambling table at Hersholt's expense, Chandler changes loyalties again. When luck turns against Novarro, and he goes deep into debt to keep playing, he faces the gentleman's dilemma. In Franz Josef's army, a gentleman is expected to pay his gambling debts at daybreak the following morning. We've seen an example of what's to be done if you can't pay; a brother officer has killed himself earlier in the picture. Novarro's rich uncle (C. Aubrey Smith) is willing to put up the money, but demands that the boy clean up his act and make a respectable marriage to a woman who repels him. Novarro decides he would rather die, but will he?...

Feyder, an acclaimed French director playing out his M-G-M contract before returning home, does nothing special here. There are hints from publicity that Novarro had considerable creative control over this project. Whether that's true, there's definitely a sense, absent from Mata Hari, that Novarro is in his element. While Ben-Hur is by far his best known silent success, a more characteristic triumph was Ernst Lubitsch's Student Prince in Old Heidelberg. Though not a European, Novarro somehow seems a natural as a military man in times and places where armies seemed more like college fraternities and duty required little more than looking good in uniform. As Smith reminds him in Daybreak, Novarro has no training for any other work and would probably be hopeless in business. In uniform, he's a strutting charmer, and one suspects that the actor's own enjoyment of uniforms shines through in his costume pictures -- though he was also popular nearly naked as various kinds of "pagan." In this talkie, at least, you can understand some of Novarro's peak popularity. He's masterful in a scene when he climbs a table to hustle money from his brother officers to cover the hospital expenses of one's clandestinely pregnant girl. With Garbo he couldn't be the aggressor, but in one of his own star vehicles he has a cocky vitality that plays well against the initially meek Chandler. There's something adorable about her embittered attempt to play a kind of vamp (was she typed?) after her humiliation; you know she doesn't really have it in her. She and Novarro have good chemistry, particularly in Feyder's best-shot scene: a sequence of tracking shots as Novarro first rides a coach down a street, pursuing a huffily walking Chandler, then trades places to walk as she rides, only to run stumblingly to keep up as Chandler orders the coachman to drive faster until she finally relents and lets him ride with her.

This is the sort of material that was assumed obsolete with the Depression, but Daybreak proves that it still had life in it. There's even a whiff of genuine Pre-Code -- though it may come straight from Schnitzler for all I know -- in a barracks bath scene where Novarro, soaking in a tub, notices that his orderly, who's been helping scrub him, is wearing a pair of Novarro's underwear over his own trousers. They'd shrunk in the washing, the lackey explains, and he was only trying to stretch them back out. Do you like them? Novarro asks. "They're wonderful," the minion confesses before Novarro throws a wet towel at him. Given Novarro's own reported homosexuality, modern viewers may involuntarily activate their "gaydar" when watching his movies, but a scene like this throws any gaydar on another character, and regardless of what you know or otherwise suspect about the actor an openminded viewer should find his romance with Chandler easy to accept. The man could act. Daybreak is feather-lite fare despite its tease of suicide, but it could well knock over a skeptic's resistance to Ramon Novarro's starry charm.

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