Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "The Vagabond Lover"

The 1929 film "The Vagabond Lover" stars Marie Dressler, Sally Blane and a statue named Rudy Vallee.

Filmed when Vallee was at the height of his fame as a bandleader (of the Connecticut Yankees) and as a crooner with a voice that sounds like his adenoids have adenoids, "The Vagabond Lover" is supposed to be a lightweight romantic comedy/musical. Instead it's about as graceful as one of Marie Dressler's frocks filled with wet cement.

There are a couple of problems, actually -- the script, by James Ashmore Creelman, who ended up committing suicide but not specifically because of this movie, is the kind of play that high school drama clubs would do in the 1930s or '40s. And the direction by Marshall "Mickey" Neilan is flaccid, if not downright placid. There are dead spaces between lines of dialogue long enough for a nap. The movie runs about 65 minutes, but if you took out all the pauses it would last about half an hour.

Finally, there's Vallee. By the time he started playing supporting roles in good movies in the 1940s, like "The Palm Beach Story" and "The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer," Vallee had been hosting a hit radio show for more than ten years and had a much more polished presence onscreen. True, a little bit of pompousness remained -- the reason Vallee can be so funny in some of those later films is that he never quite seems to be in on the joke.

But here, in his first major movie role, we get all of the pompousness and none of the polish. As the movie begins, Rudy and his band are a bunch of small timers. Practice is underway, but things don't really start to sparkle until the charismatic Rudy enters:

"If only that guy could play like he can sing," one of the band members says. Meh. Looking like a 12-year-old in a double-breasted suit, Vallee conveys anger, passion and humor with the same wan smile.

The story is based somewhat on Vallee's own experience -- born Hubert Prior Vallee, our hero appropriated the first name of his musical idol, saxophonist Rudy Wiedoeft. In the movie, Vallee's musical idol is saxophonist Ted Grant, a Paul Whiteman-esque figure played badly (and baldly) by Malcolm Waite.

Vallee and his band -- which seems to consist of 12 saxophones and a banjo -- go to Grant's Long Island mansion to serenade him with hopes of getting a job. But Grant is an egotistical jerk, and throws Vallee out. Then Grant and his manager leave for the city. Vallee and his group don't know that, and they enter the mansion to audition.

Once inside, Vallee and his band cut loose. He seems a little less stiff -- here are is his stage moves move:

And here's the entire number, "Nobody's Sweetheart":

Meanwhile, the next-door neighbors -- Mrs. Whitehall (Dressler) and her niece Jean (Blane) -- think the band is breaking and entering. They call the cops and rush right over:

Through complications that make me too tired to recount, Vallee is mistaken for Grant, and Mrs. Whitehall insists that the band plays at her big charity benefit.
So as you can see, "The Vagabond Lover" is a lot like that episode of "The Brady Bunch" where Marcia promises her classmates that she can get Davy Jones to play at her prom, even though in real life he'd probably be happy for the gig.

Blane, the younger sister of Loretta Young, is the romantic interest, and Dressler does her patented fuss and bother, doing doubletakes aplenty. And it all can't be over quickly enough for me.

Here is the full cast and credits. 

"Imitation of Life" and the Self-Fulfilling Pity Prophecy

When I was a kid in the 1960s, if the subject of a mixed-race relationship came up, my parents had a standard response:

"I feel sorry for the children."

Why? I would ask.

"Because they won't be accepted by whites or blacks."

Who says?


What is society?


People? People like us?


Then why can't we change that? I would wonder. But it didn't seem like something my parents wanted to go into. And truthfully, the conversation didn't come up very often. But I watch a movie like "Imitation of Life" today -- either the 1934 or 1959 version -- and I remember that frustratingly circular piece of ill-logic: Nothing can be done because nothing can be done.

Fannie Hurst wrote "Imitation of Life" after taking a trip or two with African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston, who briefly worked as Hurst's secretary, and one assumes that what Hurst saw on those trips, as well as their relationship, influenced her writing. Racism still exists in America to a frightening degree in 2013, so one can only imagine what it was like to travel as an educated African-American woman seventy years ago.

To audiences, "Imitation of Life" can be polarizing. Is the story a soapy, oversimplified look at race, played out by a cardboard Betty Crocker and Aunt Jemima? Or is it a heartbreaking story of mother love and misplaced pride?

The story still fascinates people. I've written a syndicated TV and movie newspaper column for decades, and for years the movie I got the most questions about was "Imitation of Life," mostly from women who saw the 1959 version as teenagers and who still had vivid memories of it.

Personally, I think watching the 1959 version of "Imitation of Life" is like drowning in satin. Ross Hunter's production is ultra-plush, all Technicolor and CinemaScope and Lana Turner's wardrobe. The movie certainly has its fans, and if you are one of them you will want to check out "Born to Be Hurt" by Sam Staggs. It's a history of/meditation on "Imitation of Life" that features slightly fawning interviews with cast and crew of the 1959 film, including Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner. One critic calls it "gloriously digressive," and it is that, no doubt.  

Although neither film is totally faithful to Hurst's book, the 1934 film seems to come closer, and it's the one I prefer.

We open in the home of Bea Pullman (Claudette Colbert), a struggling widow who's juggling single motherhood with selling maple syrup door to door.

The paths of Bea and Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers) cross when Delilah and her daughter Peola come to the house by mistake. We first see Delilah through a barrier -- Bea's screen door.

But she and Bea connect, and Delilah is so desperate for a job that she talks Bea into to hiring her in exchange for only room and board for her and her daughter. Peola and Bea's daughter Jessie become friends and Bea's household worries are solved.

When the two girls start to school, Peola's life choice becomes heartbreakingly clear-cut -- pass as white by denying your mother and your heritage, or live a life as someone who is Lesser.

"Folks just don't want Peola," Delilah tells Bea. "Her pappy was a very, very light colored man."

The fortunes of Bea and Delilah change when Bea combines the syrup she sells with Delilah's unique pancake recipe. They open a restaurant on the boardwalk, and it's successful, but customer Elmer Smith (Ned Sparks! Yay!) gives Bea a million-dollar idea -- package the pancake mix and sell it in stores.

The same day, during a rainstorm, Delilah takes a raincoat and galoshes to Peola at school. The teacher looks at Delilah quizzically as she asks to see her daughter and Peola hides behind a book. Then a murmur goes through the classroom -- Peola is black! Delilah approaches the teacher and says a line filled with double meaning.

Delilah: Teacher, has she been passing?

Teacher: Passing? Yes.

Delilah runs home in tears, and tells her mother, "I don't want to be black! I don't want to be black!" But Delilah chooses to accept society's verdict even if Peola doesn't. And that shapes her vision of what kind of life Peola will have. For instance, when Bea and Delilah fantasize about making a fortune, each of them have very different dreams for their children:

Bea: I could send Jessie away to college.

Delilah: And Peola -- she wouldn't have to do housework for nobody.

Elmer becomes the company's business manager. Delilah is given a 20 percent share of the company, and she quickly becomes very well off. But she won't leave Bea and Jessie. When Delilah builds a Manhattan mansion, Delilah lives in very nice downstairs quarters -- but when there's a party upstairs, it's kind of an unspoken rule that she and Peola aren't invited. But hey! They can stand outside and listen to the music. ("That orchestra's pretty good for a bunch of white boys," Delilah says.)

Bea's daughter Jessie (played as a young adult by Rochelle Hudson) attends an exclusive school and lives a life of parties and rich beaus. How much must it kill Peola (played as an adult by Fredi Washington) to see Jessie, someone whose privileges she could also have except for the fact that her mother is black?

Around this time, there's a much less interesting plot element -- the romance between Bea and ichthyologist Stephen Archer (Warren William). There's a lot of labored humor about what an ichthyologist is -- including much laughter at Delilah as she struggles with the term. Then Jessie gets a crush on Stephen. Bea doesn't want to hurt the mother-daughter relationship, so she and Stephen part -- temporarily, at least. But compared to the story of Delilah and Peola it's pretty weak tea.

To please her mother, Peola attends an African-American college in Virginia, but when she drops out and runs away to work in a restaurant where she can pass as white, Bea and Delilah "rescue" her and bring her home.

Delilah: What's my baby want?

Peola: I want to be white, like I look.

Delilah: Peola!

Peola: Look at me. Am I not white? Isn't that a white girl?

Delilah tells her it's the Lord's work -- "He made you black, honey. Don't be tellin' him his business. Accept it. Do that for your mammy."

But Peola leaves for good, with instructions to her mother to ignore her if she sees her on the street. Delilah's health declines, and on her deathbed she asks to see a framed photo of her daughter. Then she says another nice line of dialogue bursting with double meaning:

Delilah (looking at photo): They never done her justice.

Then Delilah gets her only wish -- an elaborate, ornate funeral.
Delilah becomes a kind of Servant Emeritus to Bea, still talking dialect, calling her "Miss Bea" and offering to rub her feet after a hard day even though they're wealthy business partners. But through her devotion to and heartbreak over Peola, Delilah remains easily the most well-rounded role Louise Beavers ever played. Delilah still has her stereotyped side, but you can't help but remember the line attributed to African-American actress Hattie McDaniel: "I'd rather play a maid than be one."

As I watch "Imitation of Life" 70 years after its initial release, it still has the power to infuriate me. I always try to write about movies as I find them, not as I think they should be, and for better or worse "Imitation of Life" reflects relations between the races as they were in the 1930s -- and the next few decades, for that matter.

Today, as much as some people would like to deny it, we live in a more diverse age. Our sex symbols, our athletes and our heroes -- even our president -- all reflect that diversity. Like many other families, ours includes mixed-race members -- loved ones who are accepted as equals without question. To my kids, they're simply cousins. And my children will never hear or see me or my wife, or anyone else in our family, distance ourselves from them through pity.

Here are complete credits for "Imitation of Life" and a trailer for segregated audiences:

"Hold Your Man," or Prison Frisson

Of the half dozen films that Clark Gable and Jean Harlow made together, the 1933 film "Hold Your Man" is the only one where you're going to see crying -- from Gable.

Gable's without his trademark mustache in this film, and that bare upper lip seems to somehow add to his vulnerability. But beyond that, his character is a well-rounded blend of swagger and sensitivity -- a player who's knocked silly by love.

For that we can thank Gable's performance and the film's warm, funny, well-constructed screenplay, co-written by Anita "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" Loos and based on her story. As Eddie and Ruby, two small-time hustlers who stumble upon each other, Gable and Harlow play real, flawed people with raw emotions; the kind of people who might end up being your grandparents -- or mine, at least.

"Hold Your Man" begins on the streets of New York City, where Eddie and his sidekick Slim (Garry Owen) are working a con straight out of "The Sting" that involves a "lost" wallet, a "diamond" ring and a greedy mark. Eddie's victim gets wise to him, and the cops give chase. He runs into an apartment building and dashes through the first unlocked door:

The apartment belongs to Ruby, a prototypical good-hearted Harlow dame. We learn right off the bat that she's been around -- she has photos of male admirers all over her apartment and a souvenir pennant from the Albany Night Boat, notorious for illicit assignations. And one of her neighbors comes in to borrow some gin that Ruby made herself.

Even though she's never met Eddie before, Ruby doesn't throw him out -- for one thing, he looks like Clark Gable, but more important is that by her nature she's even more hostile to the cops than she is to Eddie.

Eddie tries a few moves on her, but is ever-so-gently rebuffed -- Ruby threatens to hit him with a hot iron.

Eddie: You know all the answers, don't you?

Ruby: Sure -- to dumb questions.

Eddie thanks Ruby for her help and abruptly takes a powder. But he told her about his hangout, a local speakeasy, and she gets her boyfriend Al (Stuart Erwin being all Stuart Erwin-y) to take her there. She sees Eddie again, and he remembers her vividly, calling her "sweet meat." He tells her to ditch Al and come over to his place later. Then he bilks Al out of $10. Ruby comes over later -- to see Eddie and to take the money for herself.

Eddie: Wait'll you see how I grow on you.

Ruby: Yeah, like a carbuncle.

Their rendezvous is briefly interrupted by Slim and a couple of women, including Eddie's old flame Gypsy (Dorothy Burgess). She slaps Ruby, and ...

Exeunt Gypsy. 

The next morning we see breakfast for two, and Ruby's wearing the same dress. It's almost as though they're trying to tell us something.

Then Slim enters -- he has a job for Eddie involving the theft of a truck loaded with silks. Ruby warns Eddie not to get involved, but he says he's always been lucky.

Cut to the city jail:

By the time "Lucky" gets out of stir, it's close to Christmas. Ruby has fixed up Eddie's apartment to welcome him home, and she also goes out of her way to leave a letter lying around written by a male admirer. The idea is to make Eddie jealous, but his thoughts turn to blackmail because the guy gives the impression of being well off. Ruby goes along with the plan, but on the day of the caper Eddie's overcome by jealousy -- he bursts in, knocks out the mark, and takes Ruby to get a marriage license.

On their way back to Eddie's apartment, they learn that the mark has died. Eddie disappears and Ruby is sent up for the crime to a woman's prison that seems more like a convent. And one of her roommates is her old nemesis Gypsy. Ruby has no idea where Eddie is, but Gypsy taunts her daily about the letters and money he sends her. Ruby knows better.

The final sequence of "Hold Your Man" takes place on Easter Sunday, and without getting too theological let's just say it ends up being the day that Eddie and Ruby's relationship is resurrected.

It's visiting day, but Ruby isn't expecting any visitors. So when one of her friends acts out and has her visitation jeopardized, Ruby takes the rap to allow her friend to see her sister.

Then Ruby learns that she has a visitor after all -- it's Eddie. And because he's a wanted man, he pretends to be a brother to one of the other inmates. In a wonderful scene filled with tension, Ruby and Eddie edge ever closer to each other in a room crowded with family members visiting their inmates, but Ruby gets placed in solitary just seconds before she and Eddie can reunite.

What happens next is what, to me, makes "Hold Your Man" so unique. Ruby's friends, working behind the back of the prison matrons, work together to reunite Ruby and Eddie. They're like the animals who help Cinderella in the Disney film. One of the other inmates, an African-American woman, is visiting with her father, a minister. And an emotional Eddie approaches him to ask a favor.

Eddie: I know it ain't according to Hoyle -- but you'll be giving two people -- no, three -- a break.

Eddie then breaks down.

So we have an African-American minister marrying a white couple -- oh, and the woman is pregnant. I personally don't know how to say "pre-code" any louder. The wedding commences as we hear the police approaching. And this scene kills me:

Gable and Harlow made the great "Red Dust" together, but to me "Hold Your Man" is a much more resonant and ambitious movie. It could have been made yesterday. It's not one of those old movies that you watch from a safe emotional distance -- you engage and identify with the characters. You feel you're watching something special take place between two people, and the climax gives you a shudder of emotion -- a frisson.

Here are complete credits for "Hold Your Man."

"Zero Hour!" or Halibut Not for Me

A great film tells its story solely through visuals.

And I guess the 1957 movie "Zero Hour!" does, too.

Herewith we present the film in a unique pictorial form utilizing pictures of a visual nature designed to tell the story through images in a visual, pictorial manner that includes the use of pictorial images that are visual.

Our story begins on a beautiful day during World War II.

Dana Andrews plays Ted Stryker, a World War II squadron leader who
caused all of his men to crash. A lot. Now he is haunted and stuff.

Stryker's wife (Linda Darnell) is tired of having a haunted husband,
so she has taken son Bobby and left Stryker. Little does she know that the plane
 they have boarded is on a flight to disaster, with 
a quick connection at Kansas City. 

In pursuit of his wife and son, Stryker boards the same plane and ends
up sitting next to Rob Petrie's neighbor, Dr. Jerry Helper.

Bobby visits the cockpit, where co-pilot Clutch Cargo gives him a toy plane.

Jerry Helper has a neurotic condition where he can talk only through his
puppet, Dr. Yarnfinger. When asked whether he wants halibut or lamb chops
for dinner, Dr. Yarnfinger 
chooses lamb chops. Well played, Dr. Yarnfinger.

The special effects could be better.

Turns out most of the passengers and both of the pilots have eaten
bad halibut and have food poisoning. To save his family,
Ted Styker must fly a plane again!

Unfortunately, it's been so long since Stryker flew that he's forgotten
where his ears are -- and that, for best results, a pilot's eyes must be open.

And yet Stryker's wife bravely supports him every step of the way.
Stryker gets off to a rough start, and knows that only one man can help him ...

... Gen. Jack D. Ripper. He knows Stryker's history, and even gave him an affectionate
nickname -- "cowardly pilot-killing incompetent sissy who crashes a lot." He is the ideal man
to instill confidence in Stryker.

A doctor on board tries to distract the passengers with a singalong:
"Who knows 'The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald'?"

The passengers seem calm ...

"Dr. Yarnfinger ate halibut off of someone's plate and he
has food poisoning, too. He's doing weird things down my sleeve." 

Ripper tells Stryker that thanks to the potency of his bodily fluids,
he's doing a great job, and pay no attention to the hundreds of emergency
vehicles lining the runway. They're just curious because they've never seen
a disastrous crash before. 
Finally the plane makes a smooth, relaxed landing.
And who knew this was one of those experimental planes
that used fire instead of landing gear?
Somebody's gettin' a little somepin-somepin tonight, oh yeah.

"Wait till Dr. Yarnfinger tells Millie about this!"

The Purnell Pratt Film Festival: "Road to Paradise" and "Paid"

Purnell Pratt, Pickle Puss
Of all the actors and actresses who appeared in 1930s films, Purnell Pratt (It sounds like dancing!) was certainly one of them.

Pratt (1885-1941) began on Broadway around the turn of the century, and appeared in two George M. Cohan plays -- "Seven Keys to Baldpate" and "Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford" -- before going west in the late 1920s.

He was a character actor, a fellow with thinning hair, a tight mouth, a tiny mustache, a sharp voice and a no-nonsense manner, which meant he played a lot of (corrupt and otherwise) authority figures -- attorneys, judges, politicians, cops, physicians. He played James Cagney's father in "The Public Enemy" and the newspaper publisher who urges action against gangsters in "Scarface." He played District Attorney Markham in several Philo Vance movies, and in his best-known role, he ... well, OK, so he didn't have a best-known role.

In the 1931 film "The Public Defender" he is John Kirk, a corrupt bigshot who has framed a hapless bank treasurer. Unluckily for him, the bank treasurer's daughter (song title: "She Was Only the Treasurer's Daughter, But She Had Impressive Assets") is the main squeeze of Pike Winslow, aka the Public Defender, aka Richard Dix, aka Ernst Carlton Brimmer! The movie's big confrontation comes when Winslow and the cops visit Kirk's home, and everything explodes in Kirk's face:

In the 1930 film "Road to Paradise," Pratt is a cop, Inspector Updike by name, who has been called to a New York City mansion after a robbery attempt. A woman lies wounded -- she is nice rich girl Margaret Waring, played by Loretta Young. Another woman sits anxiously at her bedside -- she is nice poor girl Mary Brennan, also played by Young.

So "Road to Paradise" is like a blending of "To Catch a Thief" and "The Parent Trap." Margaret and Mary are long-separated sisters, and their backgrounds are very different. Margaret adores a minuet, the Ballet Russe and Crepes Suzette, while Mary loves to rock and roll, a hot dog makes her lose control, what a wild duet!

Mary has only just found out about her lookalike -- it happened at a Chinese restaurant, through the miracle of rear projection.

When two of Mary's shady friends learn of the resemblance, they decide to rob the Waring mansion, with Mary as a reluctant participant.

Mary enters the mansion first, and gets caught by the butler, who assumes that Mary is Margaret:

Mary is a bit unsteady, but through some quick thinking she is able to fool the butler, a suspicious cop on the beat, Margaret's French-speaking maid and Margaret's beau, George (Jack Mulhall), who nonetheless is convinced that there's something about Mary.

George leaves, and the real Margaret enters, catching the gang in the act. She is shot (only a flesh wound) and Mary is too guilt-stricken to leave. So she stays, continuing to pose as Margaret while the real Margaret lies unconscious.

Enter Pratt, as Inspector Updike. He's sure that the resemblance of the two women is more than just a coincidence:

Updike tries to back Mary into a corner, psychologically speaking, but she manages to keep wiggling out. Oh, and there's one other wrinkle to the story -- Mary can read minds by holding the subject's hand and holding onto a medallion she's had her whole life that reads, "Each to each/is spirit mate/when in danger/trust to fate." Mary uses this skill to read her sister's mind and find the answers to Updike's probing questions. But that doesn't stop Updike:

"Road to Paradise" ends with the sisters reconciled, with the real crooks captured, and with Margaret willingly giving George to Mary, because she really never loved him anyway.

In "Paid," also released in 1930, Pratt is a much meaner character. He's arrogant department store owner Edward Gilder, who is in court as former clerk Mary Turner (Joan Crawford) is sentenced for theft. Mary is innocent -- the stuff was planted on her -- and she gives a very dramatic Joan Crawford-ish statement in court, but Gilder gives not a hoot:

Mary is sent to the big house, where she lives in squalor and even has to take showers with negroes. After three years she returns to honest society, but honest society doesn't seem all that happy to see her, so she teams up with old cellmate Aggie (Marie Prevost) and her gang, including Joe (Robert Armstrong).

Mary has spent her time in stir boning up on the law, so she and her gang start a racket that raises money through (technically) legal means. One of their plans includes the quaint old phrase "heart balm," a relic from the days when rich men wrote letters of love to poor women, who used them in court to get restitution for their broken hearts. In one of the movie's best scenes, Aggie gets involved, with Mary's guidance, in a heart balm case:

But as successful as she is, Mary has bigger fish to fry -- she sets her sights on Bob Gilder (Kent Douglass), the son of the department store owner who sent her to prison.

So we get to see Pratt again, as he re-encounters Mary:

"Paid" starts to bog down a little when Joe is talked into a robbery at Gilder's house, which is really a trap to catch Mary and her gang. There's a murder, and nobody knows who did it, but Joe takes the fall, even though it means life imprisonment, to ensure Mary's happiness. This allows Crawford to act all over the place (what I like to think of as The MGM Effect), and she and young Gilder live happily ever after.

As for Pratt, he would go on griping at people in the movies until "Pot of Gold," released in 1941.