Musing on old movies

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been streaming a lot of old B movies of late on Amazon Prime. The films range across several decades, but (for some reason) I have a special fondness for the ones from the 1930s – when talkies were new and nobody had yet figured out how to handle the technology. (A well-known example is the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts, in which all documents are visibly sopping wet. That was because they hadn’t worked out how to filter the sound of crackling paper.)

Today my theme is acting styles. My view of the old silent movies is that they’re really a form of interpretive dance. Actors had to use broad, unnatural gestures and exaggerated facial expressions to convey their messages to the audience. These were skills that transferred pretty well from stage acting, where you have to play to the cheap seats. This meant that nobody was ready for the subtleties that sound demands.

The first film I watched was One Rainy Afternoon, a 1936 effort starring Francis Lederer and Ida Lupino. Lederer was a Czech actor who plays a Frenchman here – because everybody knows Americans can’t distinguish foreign accents (and they’re right). Irving Thalberg had plans to make Lederer a big star, but died before he could get the ball rolling. Instead Lederer got rich in California real estate.

Here he plays a young actor who’s having an affair with a married woman (this is an English version of an earlier French film). They go to a movie together, but enter separately. In the dark, Lederer sits next to the wrong girl – a very young and pretty Ida Lupino. When he kisses her, thinking it’s his paramour, she reacts in a big way. Soon there’s a riot, the press is called in, and Lederer is pilloried in the newspapers as “the Monster.” Guardians of public morality call for his prosecution, and he’s sentenced to a few days in jail. Lupino, regretful about all the fuss, secretly bails him out. You can probably predict the rest of the story based on that.

What stuck in my mind about this movie was the portrayal of the proto-MeToo women’s group that calls for Lederer’s blood. When their leader makes her denunciations, she strikes attitudes appropriate for a speech to a large arena, and uses a voice appropriate for the same arena with no sound amplification. It’s entirely artificial and embarrassing to watch. But at the time, this was cinematic convention. Margaret Dumont, in the Marx Bros. films, actually toned it down a little.

Also present is an actor named Hugh Herbert, who is mostly familiar to my generation from the many times he was caricatured in old animated cartoons. His shtick was acting flustered, patting his fingertips together and making “Woo-woo” noises. His form of comedy is preferable to the feminist oratory, but only by a little.

Moving along, I saw another movie which is generally better, though it was made earlier. I’ve reviewed “Sapper” McNeile’s Bulldog Drummond on this blog. This is the film version from 1929, based on a stage play. Hugh “Bulldog” Drummond is described in the books as big and not very handsome. Here he’s played by Ronald Colman, who is not particularly big and quite good looking. The character would be played by several actors over the years, but all would follow this precedent.

Bulldog Drummond is a young World War I veteran in London who chafes at peacetime boredom. He longs for adventure, and apparently has no sense of fear at all (you might put it down to PTSD nowadays). He advertises in the Times for dangerous work, and gets a note from Miss Phyllis Benton (played by a very pretty, very young Joan Bennett). She is concerned that her father has gotten involved with sinister characters. She is correct in this, so Drummond plunges in in his customary senseless style, pulling irritating practical jokes on the plotters, until he finally escapes certain death and thwarts a major criminal conspiracy.

Notable in this movie is a different kind of bad acting. The villains talk… slow. They strike dramatic attitudes and enunciate every word carefully through curled lips. This may account for Drummond’s improbable success against long odds – these oafs give him lots of time to act while they’re just talking. Once again, this is (I think) a carryover from silent films. What actors and directors still hadn’t figured out was that the challenge now was not to communicate thoughts, but to replicate reality (or rather the illusion of reality).

Also notable in Bulldog Drummond is his sidekick Algy, played by Claud Allister. Think of Bertie Wooster, without the massive intellect. All nose and teeth, with a monocle and a tendency to stand with is mouth gaping open, Allister is the archetype of the upper class twit. I actually found it painful to look at him sometimes. It was like staring at a freak in a sideshow.

Nevertheless, Bulldog Drummond left me with a positive feeling, while One Rainy Afternoon just felt embarrassing. Things (and people) have to be judged according to their times and contexts, not compared to our own ideals – which will, no doubt, look stupid to our descendants someday.

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