Sunday, November 22, 2015

On the Big Screen: THE GOLDEN BED (1925)

Cecil B. De Mille is identified with a certain kind of movie spectacle exemplified by his second version of The Ten Commandments (1925), now the oldest movie regularly shown on network television. Back when he made the first version, in 1923, he had a different reputation. In both phases of his long career he was widely perceived as a vulgarian, but while late De Mille, the director remembered today, is identified with historical or Biblical spectacle, and with reverence disguising sex, violence or overall sleaziness, early De Mille -- it's really middle De Mille, following a period where he was perceived as a pioneer cinematic artist -- goes straight to the sleaziness, but with style. In the early to mid 1920s a De Mille picture meant scandalous behavior among the opulent classes. Increasingly he covered his preoccupations with a veneer of archetypal ambition. His big gimmick was to interrupt his modern sex stories with interludes set in olden times to illustrate his themes more vividly. The 1923 Ten Commandments was different only insofar as the Moses material went into a long prologue, after which came a modern story in which the penalties for violating the commandments were illustrated with a winking earnestness. The Golden Bed comes at the end of this phase of De Mille's career -- it marked the end of his first stay at Paramount Pictures before he became an independent studio head -- and is perfunctory in its gimmickry. An intertitle equates the film's belle fatale with the legendary Lorelei and De Mille dutifully demonstrates by showing us a possibly-nude maiden urging a shipwrecked sailor to climb up out of a storm-tossed sea and onto her rock. The shot lasts less than a minute and then it's on with the show. There are plenty of characteristic De Mille moments yet to come, but Golden Bed strikes an overall tone that seems atypical of the great showman, and it's unclear whether audiences or reviewers -- one contemporary called it De Mille's worst film -- knew what to make of it. Since its release it's been largely forgotten and unseen. The organizers of the De Mille festival at the Madison Theater in Albany called their showing a world premiere of a George Eastman House restoration of the picture, and chief organizer Michael V. Butler put a distinctive stamp on it by compiling, with a collaborator, a new score that proved surprisingly effective given its dependence on Soviet composers, above all Khachaturian and in particular his Spartacus ballet music. But if it worked for Caligula it was certainly going to work for De Mille. It was still a strange juxtaposition since Golden Bed itself is very much a product of its own time and place, De Mille and his regular writer Jeanie MacPherson tapping into American literary influences above and beyond the Wallace Irwin source novel. Call it De Mille's Magnificent Ambersons and you may get the idea.

The Golden Bed is about the fall of an American family and how they nearly take a rising family with them. In Atlanta live the increasingly shabby yet ever genteel Peakes and the aspiring hardscrabble Holtzes. Papa Peake (Henry B. Walthall of Birth of a Nation fame) was bred to spend money but not to earn it, a title tells us. He's staked his family's future on his beautiful, spoiled, blonde daughter Flora Lee (Lillian Rich), while neglecting still-pretty but definitely second-best Margaret (Vera Reynolds). Flora has been bred to land a rich husband; early proof of her talent is the way young Admah Holtz, a candymaker's son (who grows up into Rod La Rocque) will give Flora free peppermints while making Margaret pay. As Papa patiently explains to a jealous Margaret, when Flora lands the right husband there'll be candy for everybody. Everything works out just in time; Flora lands a European aristocrat and Papa hosts the wedding the same day that the bank repossesses his furniture. As it is, Margaret still has to go out into the world and get a job. She goes to work for Admah, who has inherited the store and the name of "Candy" Holtz. Margaret hits the ground running with ideas for Admah to spruce up his slovenly shop, e.g., take the used flypaper off the candy shelves. Admah appreciates her entrepreneurial sense but is almost cruelly oblivious to the way Margaret plainly pines for him. He jokingly orders her to leave by the employees' back entrance after hiring her, not realizing how humiliating the moment is for her, though she pluckily jokes about noblesse oblige. Worse, he'd gone to Flora's wedding and hovered at the margins like a neglected puppy, except that Flora didn't neglect him. She saved him a flower from her bouquet and threw it to him while her new hubby wasn't looking. He still has a chance.

Now that Margaret has civilized the place and Admah isn't pulling taffy in the shop window anymore, the Candy Holtz business picks up. With Margaret as his conscience Admah rejects schemes to adulterate his produce by using sugar substitutes. As they condemn Atlanta to Type 2 diabetes, Flora is abruptly widowed during an Alpine vacation when her hubby and a rival with whom she'd started an affair fight their way off a cliff. I guess you can call that a De Mille touch, down to a primitive version of the Saboteur effect as the two men take the plunge. Now that Flora's free again, not to mention left out of hubby's will "for some reason," Margaret doesn't have a chance with Admah. Flora becomes Flora Holtz virtually by fait accompli and Margaret practically vanishes from the picture for an hour. Candy Holtz has achieved his dream, but he's also cut his own throat. Like father, like daughter; Flora lives to spend and is determined to rule Atlanta society, even if Admah can't really afford it. When she loses her bid to be hostess of the Peachtree Ball, she browbeats Admah into hosting a rival ball, playing on his class insecurity by blaming his working-class background for her defeat. Admah has been warned by his banker, whose wife won the right to host the ball, that he'll get no more credit if he continues his extravagance, but he blows practically all of his latest $40,000 loan on staging an insane candy-themed ball. This is the true De Millean showstopper, a nutty (and chocolatey!) masterpiece of demented set design (topic for future discussion; De Mille's true heir in our time is Tim Burton) garnished with hostesses in costumes made of candy -- that is to say, edible costumes. C.B. doesn't mean that in a purely theoretical sense, either. Censors reportedly went nuts over scenes of men nibbling near sensitive areas on those outfits. So which ball would you go to? Most of Atlanta society agreed with you, but Admah and Flora's moment of triumph is about to turn to ashes like many Cinderella stories. You see, after all that party planning Admah is running on fumes and Flora's dressmaker won't let her have her party gown until she pays her back bills. In a Dreiserian moment of decision (read Sister Carrie, or read about it if you're in a hurry), Admah takes the day's sales receipts out of a safe to pay the dressmaker, and that, children, is what we call embezzlement. Oh, and Flora is practically cheating under his nose with social butterfly Bunny (a young Warner Baxter). With Flora walking out on him and the police closing in, Admah may think the world has turned against him but this is really a moment of self-destruction, perfectly illustrated by De Mille in what should be this film's signature shot. In a self-parody of Samson and Delilah a quarter-century in advance, an enraged, self-pitying Admah brings a full-sized candy gazebo crashing down behind him by pushing the pillars apart. Next on his schedule: five years in prison.

It would be too brutal if the film ended here, so we get a final act in which Flora is punished and Admah is reformed through labor, while Margaret reopens the original Candy Holtz store and proves herself a successful businesswoman in her own right. This sets up a sad, almost chilling emotional climax that anticipates not only Orson Welles's Maginificent Ambersons but the mad pathos of southern gothic literature. In short, Bunny kicks Flora to the curb at the first opportunity, and with her youth gone and her looks going its only downhill for her. On the day Admah is released from prison a threadbare, moribund Flora makes her way to the old Peake mansion, which is now a boarding house. She has a poignant reunion with her old pet monkey, now working for an organ grinder -- I could write a whole post on the monkey as her totem animal going back to a childhood doll, the way its mischief at the Candy Holtz store embodies Flora's destructive rivalry with Margaret, and whether the monkey's name, Louella, is a dig at Parsons the gossip columnist -- before the new mistress of the house reluctantly lets her tour the place. How far Flora has fallen is hard to say; she may be homeless, but there's no hint of prostitution, and I might have found her comeuppance excessive except that I know that Hollywood actresses actually did fall that far if not further. Anyway, Flora's old Golden Bed is still in its old place -- I should explain that Admah had bought the house for her, and presumably refurnished it, as a wedding present -- but its crowning swan's head is broken and tied to the bed, upside-down, with wire. Meanwhile, as I mentioned, Admah is getting out of prison, and Margaret has put together a nice dinner to welcome him back. But he -- can't -- let -- go! Some morbid instinct draws him, too, to the boarding house, where he finds you-know-who in the Golden Bed. She recognizes him, but seems to have forgotten, in her decrepitude, that she and the "Candy Man" had been married. You'd like to think that her calling out for Bunny in her last moments would be the ultimate deal-breaker, but I think she actually has to die before Admah will finally quit her. Of course, Margaret has no clue about this nearby deathwatch and sadly falls asleep at an untouched dinner table. But the film does us the kindness of closing on a things-could-yet-be-worse note. After all, neither Admah nor Margaret commits suicide. Instead, he finally shows up about twelve hours late, and "your sister died in my arms" proves a satisfactory excuse. The Golden Bed actually closes on a note of bittersweet perseverance as the two survivors watch a construction crew reporting for work across the street and realize that the only thing to do is start over.

I feel justified in giving a detailed synopsis because most of you are never going to see this film. I hope the synopsis conveys that you're missing out on something because Golden Bed packs a wallop that's probably unexpected in a Cecil B. De Mille movie. It's as anti-romantic a movie as C.B. ever made while retaining considerable emotional power. In fact, it's an all-out attack on a certain romanticism, in movies and the wider culture, that Walthall, D. W. Griffith's Little Colonel, may have purposefully symbolized. Golden Bed is a vindication of bourgeois virtues, as forgotten by Admah but learned under pressure by Margaret, against an aristocratic romanticism of leisure and conspicuous consumption that Flora Peake was shaped to embody and Admah Holtz could not help idolizing. Knowing that Flora was consciously shaped by her father into the creature she becomes justifies the pathos of her wretched end if we realize that by spoiling her, her father victimized her while guaranteeing the victimization of others. Amid the often outlandish set design there's surprising seriousness of purpose, or else an on-the-nose satiric impulse. But whatever message you take from it, artistically Golden Bed demonstrates how good a visual storyteller De Mille was in the silent era. We'll have a chance shortly to discuss his struggles in early talkies, but when he didn't have to worry about staging dialogue the director was, on this evidence, quite good at getting emotions on screen and finding the right images to keep the story moving and its meaning plain. His three lead actors deserve a lot of the credit. Earlier this year Rod La Rocque impressed me as the heroic idiot in The Log of the Jasper B., and now I'm more impressed by his range. Neither Lillian Rich nor Vera Reynolds had much of a career, so maybe C.B. does deserve more credit with them, but Reynolds especially is very good and seems to have deserved better than she got. So does this film; I consider myself lucky to have seen it.

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