May 9, 2016

On DVD: Billie Dove in The Man and the Moment (1929)

One of the most remarkable stories of film preservation is the recovery of a lost film. What a miracle it is that a piece of celluloid long thought lost is suddenly found, restored and made available to anyone who wishes to see it. That is the story of The Man and the Moment (1929), a Billie Dove and Rod La Roque silent with Vitaphone sound effects, music and talking sequences. Found in an archive in Italy, this nicely-restored film is now available on DVD from Warner Archive.

It's a nice print, clean and essentially undamaged. The soundtrack is also in good condition, clear and sharp. An oddity of the restoration is that the print discovered was meant to be distributed as a silent film, but the sound comes from Vitaphone discs; so while there are dialogue sequences, the actors are often not seen speaking. Instead, you can hear them while reading the same words on title cards. While odd, this doesn't make it difficult to enjoy the film.

Man of the Moment could easily have been a screwball were it a full talkie. The intertitles are full of sharp wisecracks; as you read them, you can almost hear a pre-code Joan Blondell speaking out of the corner of her mouth. While there are plenty of sweeping melodramatic touches, the sharp-witted titles keep it light.

This racy tale stars Rod La Rocque as Michel Towne, a millionaire who is being chased by Viola (Gwen Lee) a sneaky flapper-type who has decided to discard her husband for Towne's riches. The pair once had a flirtation, and as an insurance policy, she keeps one of his love letters in her stocking. Billie Dove is Joan Winslow, a free-spirited socialite who feels imprisoned by her guardian.

The pair meet cute in a perilous way, when her little plane crashes into his motorboat. He is instantly smitten; she is wary. Eventually though, they realize a marriage of convenience will solve their various problems. Is this the first screen pair to tie the knot in order to gain themselves freedom?

Michel is determined to have Joan though.He weakens her with champagne and they consummate their union on his yacht, causing her great distress. Escaping the next morning through a porthole in her lingerie, the infuriated Joan embraces the wild life to punish Michel. They spend the rest of the movie simmering in sexual tension.

The Man and the Moment has all the best traits of early pre-codes: free-spirited flappers, beautiful clothes, a playful manner and characters with lose moral codes. Its wealthy inhabitants are living in an eternal party, including one in which a tank full of ladies swimming around like mermaids serves as a backdrop and then a dramatic prop.

Dove makes the transition to talkies well, her voice is smooth and natural, and takes some of the sappiness of her constant trapped animal fearfulness. La Rocque is less charming. Though he is handsome, he tends to be more oily than romantic and never really seems worthy of Joan's trust. The screen lothario is also less successful in his talking scenes, where he works so hard to enunciate clearly that the nuances of his character are lost.

While Dove and La Roque lack significant chemistry, they sizzle enough to keep the story interesting. I've never liked Dove better, it has plenty of fascinating Roaring Twenties zest, and there are a few shots that are almost poetic in their beauty. This is a great find.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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