Friday, April 28, 2017

Pre-Code Parade: BLONDIE OF THE FOLLIES (1932)

There were many backstage melodramas, musical or otherwise, made in the pre-code era, but if one of those pictures could be called the Showgirls of its time it would be this M-G-M Marion Davies Production directed by Edmund Goulding -- not because it's any more sexualized than its contemporaries, since it actually skips the opportunity to give us an overly erotic or salacious musical number, but because of its undercurrent of violence and its focus on the love-hate relationship between two ambitious women. Two women, Anita Loos and Frances Marion, collaborated on the script, and perhaps for that reason Blondie seems freer in portraying the extremes of female fremnity. It's basically the story of two girls trying to get out of their dead-end slum neighborhood by becoming showgirls. Lottie (Billie Dove) makes it first, inspiring Blondie (Davies), increasingly suffocated in her crowded household, to make her own try. These girls are trash, culturally if not morally. They're best friends but fight each other like sailors, oscillating between mutual admiration and violent jealousy. Their brawl in a tenement hallway, broken up when ZaSu Pitts, playing Blondie's older sister, clobbers both of them with her handbag, is only a warmup. Later, they'll throw each other off a yacht, and in the climactic "ballet" number, in which the cast of their show runs frantically in circles to one of Borodin's Polovtsian dances, Lottie will fling Blondie into the orchestra pit. The object of their rivalry is Robert Montgomery, who seems a rather unworthy idol, but in the end the girls make up (but don't kiss) and Blondie gets the boy.

Goulding seems to have thrived on the contrast in subject matter, having just finished Grand Hotel, which he subjects to parody with a guest-starring Jimmy Durante (apparently playing himself, but what else is new?) in the Barrymore part and Davies aping Garbo for a crowd of partygoers. The slum scenes and the scenes with Blondie's family (led by a gentle yet inflexible James Gleason) are the highlights apart from the Davies-Dove slugfests. They have a convincing cacophonous quality, from the crowded noises of the street to the know-it-all nattering of Blondie's unemployed brother-in-law (Sidney Toler). I now recognize Toler as one of Pre-Code's underrated character actors. His character here is really utterly harmless as well as useless and yet there's something aggressively pathetic about this loser that you wish ZaSu Pitts would brain him with a frying pan any time he opens his mouth. As for her, one of the weird things about this movie is that, amid all the grotesquerie she, skipping most of her usual shtick and apparently finding in George Barnes a very sympathetic cameraman, looks as nearly pretty as I've ever seen her. Nevertheless the picture belongs to those battling tops, Davies and Dove. Blondie belongs on the short list of performances you might use to refute the slanderous legend that Marion Davies was nothing more than the model for Susan Alexander Kane in all that character's absence of talent. Sadly, post-production interference by William Randolph Hearst, the model for Charles Foster Kane, reportedly so disgusted Dove, who he feared would steal the picture from his beloved, that she quit movies altogether. Even with much of her work on the cutting-room floor, posterity, if it's fair, will judge Blondie as a team picture rather than a star vehicle. It also leaves me convinced that, despite their advanced ages, Davies and Dove could take Blondell and Farrell in a fight.

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