Thursday, May 29, 2014

DVR Diary: WELCOME DANGER (1929)

Harold Lloyd had finished shooting his latest silent film before he started taking talking pictures seriously. The way he told it afterward, he realized that talkies were here to stay when he dropped in on a theater and found the audience enthralled by the sound of bacon frying in a pan. That doesn't quite sound right, since the only movie I know of with such a scene is King Vidor's Billy the Kid, made a year after Welcome Danger was released as a 100% talking picture. The point stands, however, that Lloyd abruptly determined that the film he'd just made was obsolete. Since he was his own producer, releasing his films through Paramount, he went back into production, shooting new talking scenes while post-syncing as much of the original silent footage as he could get away with. The film reached theaters in the fall of 1929, making Lloyd the first of the major silent clowns to make his all-talking feature-length debut.  It was a big hit, but soon gained a bad reputation, not just for the poor quality of the synchronization but also for its excessive length (113 minutes was outlandish for a comedy at the time) and its political incorrectness. Inevitably, Clyde Bruckman's film is a mixed bag, including some good gags, some jokes on the new talkie audience, and some or the worst stuff Lloyd ever did.

The first act establishes Harold as an amateur botanist traveling to San Francisco. Switching trains at a station, he stops in a photo booth to get his picture printed on a paper medallion. He gets a double-exposure, since the paper disc had gotten stuck when the previous customer, Billie Lee (Barbara Kent) had her picture taken. Getting a two-shot for the price of one, Harold is smitten, convinced that the girl in the picture is his destined love. He then proceeds to meet cute with Billie, though it plays out as the opposite of cute. Having missed his train, Harold finds Billie and her lame kid brother in their car; they're driving to Frisco and camping out nights. Billie is in grease-monkey clothes to work under the car, and when she appears Harold takes her for a dirty boy. Mishaps ensue along the way, the joke being Harold's increasing contempt for the "boy" who's actually his dream girl. He gets pretty insulting as Billie's difficulties with the car increase. The thing is, Billie seems to be just as stupid as Harold takes her to be. Asked whether there's a problem with the spark plugs, she answers that they're certainly clean because she washed them with soap and water the night before. They later run out of gas because she forgot to fill the tank. Thinking something else may be wrong, she removed the carburetor and then leaves it on the running board of a good samaritan's car after borrowing gas from him. Forced to camp on the spot overnight, Harold and Billie are equally incompetent as tent-pitchers. Finally Billie retreats into the tent and femmes herself up so Harold will recognize her as the girl whose picture he's been mooning over all along. When it finally sinks in he's so crestfallen that he runs off into the woods. Destiny finally asserts itself when Billie is frightened by a stray cow. Her rush into his arms inspires Harold to keep on frightening cows. This sequence retains much of the original silent footage, badly dubbed, but the clearest sound you hear is Harold Lloyd digging his own grave. Harold is often brash to the point of obnoxiousness in his silent films, but with sound he's almost irredeemably so. His put-downs and his high, smug voice are really repellent. Slowed by sound-film speed, he seems (at age 36) suddenly too old for his archetypal role as the earnest, aspiring young man. He acts like an utter jerk with Billie, but she comes across as so stupid that she hardly deserves better. And after half an hour we still don't really know what this film will be about.

It turns out to be a police comedy. We learn that Harold Beldsoe is the son of a famous Frisco cop, and that one police captain in the big city believes that blood will tell. He's summoned Harold with the thought that young Bledsoe will have a hereditary talent for dealing with the crime wave in Chinatown. The opium trade there is controlled by a masked mystery man called The Dragon, while the eminent orthopedic surgeon Dr. Gow (James Wang) aids the forces of law and order. Lloyd gets to have it both ways in Chinatown, indulging in nearly every stereotype of sinister, secretive Chinese crime while portraying Dr. Gow as such an advanced specialist in his field that Billie Lee has brought her brother to San Francisco to be treated by him. In addition, Bruckman establishes early that the Dragon is a white man, and none other than the moral crusader John Thorne (Charles "Ming the Merciless" Middleton). This is established early so we'll note the irony when a desk sergeant (Edgar Kennedy), annoyed at Harold's new obsession with fingerprints, gets a sample from Thorne and as a practical joke tells Harold that it's the Dragon's fingerprint, lifted from "the neck of a strangled Chinaman." The storylines converge when Harold meets Billie again while Dr. Gow is examining her brother. Harold has brought a potted plant that he stole from a Chinatown florist when the proprietor refused to sell it to him. When Gow accidentally smashes the pot, they find that the Dragon is using the potted plants to smuggle opium. Gow is promptly kidnapped by the Dragon's spies, who had chased Harold all the way from their shop, and Harold makes a crusade of rescuing the doctor so he can operate on Billie's brother. His sole helper is Clancy (Noah Young), a breathtakingly stupid Chinatown beat cop --frustrated at a Chinese corpse who doesn't savvy English, Clancy asks him, "Sprechen sie Deutsch?"-- who proves more of a handicap as Harold has to fight his way out of the secret basement passages beneath the flower shop and save Dr. Gow from a human sacrifice to the Dragon. After all that, Harold must overcome the skepticism of the regular cops as he confronts Thorn with proof of his criminal double life.

The flower-shop sequence drags on almost interminably, punctuated by repetitive bits of slapstick from Lloyd and Young and literal blackouts as rooms go dark for one reason or another. There's something brazen in Lloyd's decision to give the audience sound and nothing else for long moments in these bits, but his audacity is more admirable than laughable. Funnier is a slow-motion sight gag involving a turtle with a candle on its back first burning Young's butt -- he leaps about thinking himself shot as Lloyd scoffs while the turtle inexorably brings the flame to Harold's own rear. Better still is a multi-part gag involving changes of clothes. Clancy is KO'd by a gang member who takes his police uniform and puts him in Chinese clothes, gags him and trusses him up. Later, Harold is fighting off a small horde while yelling for Clancy. Clancy manages to stumble into view, his costume making him look like a hopping vampire, but Harold mistakes him for a Chinese and clobbers him. He does this several times over, all the while yelling for Clancy. Later, Harold dons Chinese clothes to get out of a tight spot by mingling with his pursuers. By that time Clancy has freed himself and, taking Harold for another Chinese, clobbers him back. Too much of this sequence is simply sprawling knockabout violence, while the climactic showdown with Thorne and his whip-wielding black servant (Blue Washington) is more brutal than funny. Writing of Lloyd's next talkie, Feet First (a quasi-remake of Safety Last!), Walter Kerr noted that the comedian undercut the mute grace and humor of his exertions with constant grunting and yelling. You can see that already in Welcome Danger's cacophonous violence, while Lloyd's reedy voice coarsens his persona nearly as much as Buster Keaton's croak did his. Once the novelty of a talking Lloyd wore off, his audience must have noticed that some of his magic was gone; Kerr notes that each subsequent Lloyd talkie made less money than the last one. Sound didn't bankrupt Lloyd creatively; he'd have a strong run of films in the Thirties, including one, The Cat's Paw, that refines many of the Chinatown tropes of Welcome Danger by making Lloyd himself a Sinicized American and a fish out of water in the Depression U.S.A. While Welcome Danger itself looks like a failure in retrospect, making it a talkie may have been a can't-lose proposition for Lloyd. It could very well have been a total dud as a silent, but the assured box-office success of his talkie debut, regardless of its quality, gave him breathing room to experiment further until he got sound comedy right.

2 comments:

james1511 said...

Lloyd was probably referring to In Old Arizona, which came out at the very start of 1929 and does indeed feature a scene of bacon frying that seemed to catch the attention of quite a few of that film's early viewers.

Also, if you think Welcome Danger is a slog at nearly two hours, imagine how it would've been at nearly three hours, which was apparently the original length of the thing. As problematic as it is, though, it's still nowhere near as bad as his next film, Feet First...

Samuel Wilson said...

james, I've seen Old Arizona but didn't recall a bacon scene. I thought of Billy the Kid because I'd seen it more recently and the bacon frying was more important to the story. I do recall, though, that Feet First is pretty lousy.