Sunday, October 13, 2019
DVR Diary: THE VALIANT (1929)
Future Oscar-winner Paul Muni made his movie debut in William K. Howard's Fox Film production, adapting a Broadway play. Watching it at the time, you might not have predicted an award in Muni's future. It's not that he's bad in the lead role, but that everyone speaks their lines in that stilted early-talking fashion exemplified by the legendary "take him ... for ... a ride" from The Lights of New York. No one, it seems, can speak a full sentence without at least one pause, pregnant or otherwise. The artificial cadences are bad enough, but the implausible situation makes things worse. The Valiant is an exercise in the pathos of renunciation that thrilled Twenties audiences. The idea here is that our protagonist, a confessed and convicted murderer who's kept his real identity secret since turning himself in, will not identify himself to his sister when she visits Death Row, their aged, ailing mother suspecting from photos that "James Dyke" (he took his pseudonym from a commercial calendar at the precinct station) is the son she hasn't seen since before the Great War. He's stuck with the Dyke name despite the cops immediately recognizing the fakery in order to avoid disgracing his family, and thinks that his people will be better off believing he'd died long ago rather than say a real goodbye to a murderer. The title tells you what the filmmakers think of this. All of this sets up the centerpiece scene when the sister (Marguerite Churchill) interrogates the prisoner, hoping that he'll betray some memory of their shared youth. Instead, Dyke contrives a story of witnessing her brother's heroic death in the war as a comrade-in-arms. Believing that her boy died a decade ago supposedly will make the old lady feel better than knowing that her daughter got to see and talk to him. That's the psychology at work here, in a time when popular fiction was committed to concepts of honor that seem alien from the almost a century's distance. Muni can't do much with the material and was clearly still learning how to act for the screen; a few years would pass before he fully figured it out. The film itself is dull and stagebound except for the opening sequence. After the Muni character kills his man offscreen, he staggers onto the street, already remorseful. He looks for a cop to arrest him, wandering through several slices of city life with adults and children going about their business or play with Brueghelian indifference to the protagonist's torment. Ironically, it's in these essentially silent bits that Muni shows promise as a film actor and Howard shows some skill as a director. The rest of the picture has that obsolete quality that doomed so many early talkies to actual oblivion.