Sunday, October 14, 2018

Pre-Code Parade: FAST LIFE (1932)

William Haines had his career killed by scandal, but my impression is that he was one of the big silent stars whose personae simply didn't translate well into either the cadences of sound cinema or the sensibilities of Depression cinema. Haines was the archetypal brash young man who comes on too strong and pushes too hard, alienating and injuring people before learning the excess of his ways and disciplining himself into a responsible hero. Like Harold Lloyd, his was a Twenties type that seemed to become almost offensively obsolete in very short order. Accordingly, before Haines got into legal trouble, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer tried, as they did with John Gilbert, to remake Haines for a changed audience. One result was Harry Pollard's Fast Life, which sometimes feels more like a slapstick comedy, as if it might at one point have been intended for yet another of Metro's troubled male stars, Buster Keaton. As Keaton was chained to Jimmy Durante in his later M-G-M pictures, so Haines here was teamed with an erstwhile Keaton sidekick, Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards, though Edwards comes across as less of a sidekick than a stooge to Haines's Ted Healy. They're common sailors turned starving civilians after Haines tinkers clandestinely with the carburetor of an admiral's motorboat, convinced that his innovations can give boats prizewinning speed. After a near disaster the two sailors have to live by their (really Haines') wits, and our hero tries to exploit an accidental encounter with an heiress (Madge Evans) into opportunity, but can't help bragging about how he tricked her. Thrown out of her resort, she demands the return of even his swimming trunks, and in an implicitly Pre-Code moment we see the trunks fly back at her as Haines presumably flaunts his defiant nudity. Thinking fast back on land, he promptly hijacks some excursion boats by selling tickets to an impromptu race. With the inexorable logic of farce, one of his excited passengers is the heiress's father, the head of a speedboat manufacturing company (Arthur Byron) who's impressed  by our hero's brashness.

One touch I like about this picture is that this character never loses faith in the hero, even after the first test run of a new boat with Haines's souped-up carburetor ends in another near-disaster. This earns Haines fresh hate from the heiress and her stuck-up boyfriend (Conrad Nagel), but the old man, a veteran entrepreneur, understands that trial and error are part of progress and doesn't hold his injury against our hero. Ultimately, Haines redeems himself, not just by boatmanship but by exposing Nagel, who's trying to take over the company, as the ally of bootleggers. Through much of this Edwards seems utterly superfluous, included mainly for those in the audience who fail to find Haines amusing. For all that, contemporary reviews, especially from exhibitors, indicate that Edwards practically stole the picture from its star. He does have one nice gag where he meets a girl at an amusement pier. With no apparent provocation, she slaps him in the face. Then we see her stalk off until she reaches her destination, the tent where she works as a mind reader.It's not much, but it's more amusement than Jimmy Durante provides in many of his efforts at that time. As a sound actor, Haines has a more distinctive, brassy voice than Gilbert did, but his personality unfortunately comes across as more obnoxious than was probably intended, particularly in his treatment of his presumed buddy, Edwards. Now, a certain aggressiveness characterized the new stars of the day, but Haines doesn't come across as the sort of "caveman" Depression women apparently found desirable. Whether his stardom was salvageable before Haines himself gave it up, supposedly by rejecting a "lavender" marriage to hide his sexuality, is hard to say. Speaking for myself, his obnoxious ruthlessness here is taken to such a comic extent that  Fast Life ended up one of the more entertaining Haines films I've seen. And at the very least, unlike some of his peers, he does not seem alien to the Pre-Code era.

No comments: