Feb 11, 2016

On DVD: A Trio of 1931 Pre-Codes, Including W.C. Fields' First Sound Feature

While many silent film stars struggled, or chose to retire at the dawn of the talkies, a stream of stage stars descended on Hollywood to pick up the slack. These performers had to tone down their act and stop projecting to the back row, but they were  for the most part confident speaking, and singing, for the microphone. 

Though names like Winnie Lightner, Marilyn Miller, and the comedy team Olsen and Johnson are not well remembered today, these Broadway and vaudeville artists made their mark by embracing sound and giving those early talkies a shot of energy. In a trio of new releases from Warner Archive, these stars, and W.C. Fields in his first speaking film role, romp through a pre-code playground of wealth.

Already by the early thirties talkies were experiencing a change. Musicals had been the biggest success of the first sound films, but the studios had overdone it. Now that audiences were tired of the genre, the scramble was on to change musicals in production to comedies. Gold Dust Gertie and Fifty Million Frenchmen (both 1931), both featuring the vaudevillian comedy team Olsen and Johnson, are two such productions.

There isn't a hint of musical left to Gold Dust Gertie, which instead plays like a string of vaudeville bits, or maybe as a prototypical screwball comedy. Winnie Lightner stars as gold digging, serial monogamist Gertie Dale. In the opening scenes she marries Olsen and Johnson on different dates. By the time we are brought up to date, she has divorced them both, and is determined to collect on unpaid alimony. When she sees how poor they are at business, Gertie earns the money for them by designing sexy, and best-selling swimsuits for the company where they are employed.

Though I'd heard their names before, I didn't know much about Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson before watching this film. While the vaudeville, Broadway and radio stars have had a great influence on comedy (you can especially see it in Jerry Lewis' style), I didn't find them interesting here. In fact, Johnson's high-pitched laugh, which seems to be a running gag, got on my nerves pretty fast. That said, I could see how they appealed to audiences, I just don't think they had freedom to cut loose as they needed in this film. Perhaps it would be more appealing to established fans of the duo.

I had more fun watching Lightner perform her expert manipulations of the men in her life, putting them to work for her. It's a shame that the temporary demise of musical comedy movies also meant the end of her career. It would have been interesting to see what she could have done in the screwball era.

The movie bounces along pleasantly enough for most of its 65 minute running time, but a goofy final boat chase scene takes things up a notch. I even started to warm to Olsen and Johnson during a particularly funny bit featuring an clingy eel.

Like Gold Dust Gertie, Olsen and Johnson's Fifty Million Frenchmen was also originally meant to be a musical. That it was converted to a comedy is a great loss to film history, because the stage production featured the songs of Cole Porter. A few snippets of You've Got That Thing and You Do Something to Me bounce around the soundtrack, teasing what might have been.

While I didn't find Olsen and Johnson much more amusing here, I thought this was a charming film. Set in Paris, it centers on a love story between an American (William Gaxton) and the girl he wishes to wed (Claudia Dell), but it is at its best when it lets the supporting cast run wild. It's racier than Gertie, with lots of clever double entendres and adventurous characters like Helen Broderick as a tourist who comes to Paris eager to be "shocked" and "insulted". Her putdown battle with a trio of snooty ladies is one of the best exchanges in the movie.

Keep an eye out for Bela Lugosi in a brief part as a thwarted magician. He would make a much bigger impact that year in his breakout role as Dracula.

Olson and Johnson would make films into the forties, their most popular effort being 1941's Hellzapoppin'.

While Marilyn Miller was a Broadway legend, famous for headlining the Ziegfeld Follies, she would only make a trio of films in Hollywood. The first two, Sally (1929) and Sunny (1930), were adaptations of previous stage successes. In her final screen role, Her Majesty Love (1931), she is charming, if a bit low-key, as a barmaid who wins the heart of a wealthy playboy (Ben Lyon).

Miller's appeal didn't completely translate to the screen, and here she is upstaged by the swoon-worthy camerawork of director William Dieterle and fellow Ziegfeld star W.C. Fields as her former circus performer father.

Fields had made several silent films before he finally shared his distinctive drawl with the world in Her Majesty Love. It's interesting though, because he isn't quite the W.C. Fields here. He's much softer and friendlier, though just as apt to cause a disruption as he would be in future roles. Though it's possible he wouldn't have gone as far with a persona this tender, its fun to see him steal the movie with a jolly grin as he juggles plates and expertly flings eclairs to the plate of a stunned gentleman at a fancy luncheon.

The movie's appeal isn't all Fields though; it's got a lot of fascinating details. In a particularly intriguing boardroom scene, the chatter is punctuated by eccentric bits of business: an elderly lady knitting, a man noisily cracking walnuts and another gentleman dropping his specs in a cup of milky tea. Tidbits like these kept the humor simmering in a vibrant, lively scene.

Miller would go back to the stage briefly after her Hollywood years. Perhaps she would have returned in later years, but it was not to be. The actress struggled with alcoholism and eventually died in 1936 from the effects of a recurring sinus infection.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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