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. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for an interesting post. I so love all of those (admittedly sometime awful) early musicals.