Saturday, April 18, 2015

On the Big Screen: THE WILD PARTY (1929)

Imagine, if you're a film buff, The Blue Angel if Marlene Dietrich was a student in Emil Jannings' class, and Jannings was more of a hunk than a hulk, and you get an idea of what The Wild Party might have been. It was, above all, the talking debut of Clara Bow, the superstar "It Girl" of silent cinema. Bow is one of those silent stars whose trouble with talkies became legend. There's nothing wrong with her voice this first time -- if anything, she sounds less trumpet-like here than she would a few years later in Call Her Savage -- but we can safely assume that she didn't sound the way fans expected Clara Bow to sound. Maybe they expected something higher or cuter, boopier or doopier. The ultimately damaging thing, perhaps, was that, like John Gilbert, there was nothing special about her voice, but that seems appropriate for the mostly brainless character, a college student, she plays in Dorothy Arzner's film.

Like most of her schoolmates, Clara's character seems to be in college because she can -- that is, she can afford it. The only girl who worries about expenses is the studious, mousy but pretty wallflower (Shirley O'Hara)who has to hit the books hard and often to stay in the running for the academic scholarship that alone keeps her in school. Clara is a special friend to this character and that's her redeeming quality, whether you see subtext in it or not by virtue of Arzner's sexuality. Our heroine seems to recognize that her friend really deserves a college education, not to mention a break or more, and ultimately Clara will sacrifice her own academic ambitions, such as they were, to keep this good girl in school.

The main event of The Wild Party -- the title event is a mere episode -- is Clara's war of wills with her new anthropology professor. The first act of the picture climaxes, after Clara recounts to her suitemates her tryst with a stranger on a train, with the revelation that the new teacher (Frederic March in his second credited screen role) is that same stranger. The mutual recognition makes classes uncomfortable for both people, though most of the discomfort is theoretical on March's part. He doesn't want her to think that he's showing her any favoritism, so he goes to the opposite extreme and singles her out for embarrassing criticism. He drives her from the classroom in tears after he accuses her of plagiarism in an admittedly hastily thrown-together essay. But circumstances keep throwing them together. Both, we realize, are restless spirits. While Clara just likes to go out in search of fun, especially when the authorities at school and in the dorms frown on it -- she and three friends head for a rough roadhouse after getting thrown out of a "stag" party for wearing identical skimpy showgirl costumes -- March likes to go out nights for walks on dark roads. That gets him into trouble when he rescues Clara from roadhouse mashers and later gets shot by one of them. The reluctant lovers seem to be in a race toward self-destruction that accelerates when Clara decides to take the fall when the class tattletale discovers letters that could get Helen, the wallflower, expelled for dating a man. The letter is unsigned, enabling Clara to say it's hers, even if the context -- Helen writes of the importance of that academic award -- makes Clara an unlikely author. The authorities buy her confession, nevertheless, but her departure has an unintended consequence. March resigns his professorship, eliminating the hierarchical complications that had compromised his relationship with Clara. Ironically, he promises her a future of intellectual adventure; they'll be doing fieldwork in Malaya for their honeymoon.

For those who aren't movie buffs, Clara Bow was the "It Girl" because she was said by the novelist Elinor Glyn to be one of the very few people in Hollywood to have "It," an otherwise indescribable magnetism. "It" seems to have been relative or chronologically specific, like Elinor Glyn's own fame, rather than a timeless quality. Bow is attractive but to me, at least, she's far from the most magnetic female of silent cinema, much less talkies. Her vapid character in Wild Party and the chaotic shrubbery she sports on her head in parts of the picture further diminish her vaunted magnetism, more of which is on display in her more assured (or more manic) turn in Call Her Savage. She's also sabotaged by the primitive nature of early talkies. While Arzner is credited with innovating a "fishpole" microphone to accommodate the restless Bow Wild Party isn't much less stodgy than the immobile pictures parodied in Singin' In The Rain. With Wild Party Arzner and Bow caught up with film technology but their frivolous film remains something that very soon would be very much a thing of the past. The Thirties required a different kind of wild that Bow eventually proved herself capable of but unwilling to sustain. By the end of the Pre-Code era she had retired from cinema to become a relic of the Roaring Twenties. In that sense, despite the uncomfortable novelty of sound Wild Party is a representative work, though the silent, stylized Bow is probably the best one to see.

1 comment:

Larry Bird said...

I found this on dvd here