Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: THE GREAT LOVER (1931)

The coming of sound ended the careers, or at least the stardom, of many silent actors. Some simply didn't have voices of star quality, whether due to foreign or regional accents or simple lack of character. I've seen enough of John Gilbert's talkies, for instance, to decide that, whatever else M-G-M may have been up to with him, his voice lacked star quality. Other stars could talk but found that their star personae had become obsolete, either due to the Depression or changing story styles inspired by sound. Harold Lloyd is a good example of this sort, though he fought on grimly against obsolescence for most of the 1930s. William Haines arguably suffered a triple whammy, having not just an obsolete persona and a weak voice but studio hostility (due to scandal) to deal with. The times were risky for nearly everyone who had been big in silent film. We lose track of that risk when we see that a silent star survived and thrived well into the sound era. We might miss that that survival required an overhaul of a star's screen persona if it threatened to become obsolete, especially if the star's silent star vehicles go largely unseen. All of this leads up to a story about Adolphe Menjou. He was a silent star who turned into a great character actor in the sound era, his career arguably climaxing with his turn as the cynical general in Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory in 1957. His silent stardom is largely a footnote to his character-actor career, most of us knowing little about it apart maybe from Chaplin making him a star in A Woman of Paris. Menjou is one of the stars who survived by changing his persona. You can see the change in one triumphant film: Lewis Milestone's The Front Page, in which Menjou proved once and for all that he not only had a voice, but that he had a voice for the new era of movies as the fast-talking, hard-boiled newspaper editor Walter Burns. The Front Page was released in April 1931. Harry Beaumont's The Great Lover appeared in July, which meant that with all his new momentum, his survival (and more than that) seemingly assured, Menjou promptly tripped over himself.

The Great Lover was a troubled production. According to one report, German-American director Arthur Robison, whose best know work is the silent Warning Shadows, quit the picture on the same day that actor Ralph Graves was fired for taking a swing at an assistant director after reporting late to the set. The real problem was that Lover was an old-fashioned Menjou lovable-cad vehicle that plowed on unawares after Front Page had proven that Menjou wouldn't need to do this sort of thing anymore. Pittsburgh-born Menjou puts on a nondescript Euro accent to play opera star Jean Paurel, bearer of the "Great Lover" nickname. The movie surrounds Menjou with a lot of comic relief that ends up making him look like the straight man of his own comedy. Cliff Edwards plays his high-pressure press agent who hardly lets our hero get a word in during his photo ops. Roscoe Ates does his annoying stuttering act as a photographer; he seems to have been thrown in for kiddie appeal. Strangest of all, and speaking of talking-picture turnarounds, Ernest Torrence, typed as a hulking heavy or husky he-man -- and best known today as Steamboat Bill to Buster Keaton's Junior -- plays Menjou's butler. Sound revealed Torrence's mellifluous voice, not to mention an operatic background relevant not only here but in Ramon Novarro's foolhardy musical vehicle Call of the Flesh, expanded his range in the last few years of his life. Here he's a doting servant who tends to speak of Menjou's attributes and activities with a proprietary (or wishful) "we" and indulges in all the superstitions of the theater. Surrounded by eccentrics. Menjou is expected to be "himself" -- his old type -- and not much more thought was taken about his role.

Basically, it's almost a Star Is Born situation except that Jean Paurel is no drunk. His latest conquest is an ambitious singer, Diana Page (unlike Menjou, it sounds like Irene Dunne does her own singing), while Paurel's only ambition is to make it with her. This makes another recent girlfriend, the diva Savarova (Olga Baclanova is billed, Karloff-like, by her last name only), wickedly jealous, while supporting singer Carlo (Neil Hamilton replaced the pugnacious Graves) longs for Diana and resents Paurel. Diana really loves Carlo but depends on Paurel for career advancement and feels emotionally obliged to him. The payoff comes on the opening night of Paurel and Page's first engagement as an engaged couple, when Savarova denounces Diana as a cheater to Paurel between acts, driving him into a rage of denial that cracks his once-mighty voice and forces Carlo to take over the lead role. This sets up the great moment of renunciation in which Paurel releases Diana from her obligation so she can go off with her true love, while our hero, gently prodded by his faithful butler, gradually warms to the idea or pursuing another passing acquaintance the same way the Little Tramp kicks his heels up before marching down that road.

I can't sum up the failings of The Great Lover any better than this Milwaukee movie reviewer:


I can add that the film earns some Pre-Code Points for its rude treatment of a fat female singer -- Torrence enters a room and flees upon spying her prominent rear end -- and for a sexy shot of Menjou finding Dunne in mid-undress. But it should be obvious that Great Lover isn't Pre-Code enough. It's too much an attempt to recreate silent archetypes in sound, sort of like John Gilbert babbling "I love you, I love you, I love you," etc. as if reading a title card. Menjou's blithely amoral silent persona should have been a perfect fit for Pre-Code, but it needed a different kind of vehicle, either rougher or more streamlined but anything but the self-conscious suavity of this film, which is itself constantly undermined by broad, boorish comedy. Even if Lover were better it probably would have flopped because its moment of movie history was already gone. Hindsight is easy, of course, and it probably wasn't as obvious to Menjou in the spring of 1931, with one film in theaters and another in production, that Front Page rather than Great Lover pointed the way to his future -- that he could be a verbal fighter, at least, as well as a lover. He figured it out eventually, but still did the suave Euro type occasionally for awhile. Menjou's stature may have diminished somewhat but he still counts as a successful survivor of the transition from silence to sound. The Great Lover is an object lesson in how treacherous that transition could be, even for those who succeeded.

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