Sunday, July 24, 2016

Pre-Code Parade: UNTAMED (1929)

Joan Crawford's first talking feature, directed by Jack Conway, doesn't live up to its title, and it definitely doesn't live up to its cable-guide synopsis, which led me to expect Crawford as something closer to a female Tarzan. She's no jungle girl, alas, but from the perspective of Hollywood South America may as well have been Darkest Africa, and that's where we find "Bingo," the daughter of a down-on-his-luck oil prospector raised among the common people, whom she entertains with the untamed sounds of Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown's The Chant of the Jungle. Jungle music it isn't, just as The Pagan Love Song wasn't very pagan. I suppose Bingo (nee Alice) is untamed insofar as she's been raised on the streets and has a certain rough manner. When some slob tries to grope her during a dance she yells out, "Somebody give me a knife!" The same slob later kills her dad, just as his old pal Murchison (Ernest Torrence) was going to tell him that one of his mines has finally paid off, making him (but now Bingo) a millionaire.

You can see where this is going, and the idea of the looming, lunkish Torrence, who made his name as a psycho hillbilly in Tol'able David and was rendered still more exotic by sound's exposure of his Scots burr -- acting as Bingo's Henry Higgins to make her fit for society has some potential. Unfortunately, Untamed doesn't go there. Instead, her social education is presented as a fait accompli so the picture can take up a new subject. On the boat back to America Bingo had met cute with Andy McAllister (Robert Montgomery), who unfortunately already has a date for the voyage. That doesn't stop Bingo, who after bopping her rival on the nose on the ship hooks up with Andy again in New York, where practically the last untamed thing Bingo does is goad Andy and a rival suitor into a boxing match in the middle of a swanky party at her mansion. From this point, Untamed really becomes Andy's story, driven by a male-pride melodrama. The young man has been bred for society but has no immediate prospects. This means that, should he marry Bingo, he won't be able to give her the lifestyle to which she has but recently become accustomed. For Bingo this isn't a problem, as she doesn't see why they couldn't live off her money, as managed by Murchison. This is where male pride comes in; it would be shameful for Andy to live off his wife, especially when Murchison suspects him of being a gigolo -- even though the straitlaced old man can't bring himself to utter the word. Recognizing that psychology at work in Andy, Murchison tries to manipulate him out of Bingo's life by appearing to consent to a wedding while offering Andy a "wedding gift" of $30,000. He sweet-talks Andy, assuring him that it won't be like living off Bingo's money because this will be his by virtue of the gift, but he depends on Andy pridefully rejecting the offer and walking out on Bingo once and for all. What he doesn't depend on is Andy grabbing the check with a threat to flaunt it (and a former girlfriend) at the party where Bingo plans to announce their engagement and call it a bribe to make him quit her. What Andy doesn't expect is that Bingo will respond to this scene by shooting him. Fortunately the bullet only grazes his collarbone; it's the kind of wound that makes shooter and victim realize how much they still love each other. But if that wasn't a fatal blow to the audience, now Murchison decides that if Andy wants to work and earn the means to support Bingo, there's a mine-engineering job available, for which Andy just happens to have the college qualifications. That's one head-slapping way to close a movie, since you can only ask why Murchison didn't offer Andy that job in the first place.

There's no guaranteeing that Untamed would have been any good if it had continued along the lines of its first half-hour, but the way it did continue guaranteed that critics would declare it brain-dead. A Pittsburgh reviewer called it "the most amazing burlesque ever to come from the sometimes deluded wanderings of a scenario writer," and I don't think I can top that.

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