Sunday 9 December 2007

The Smart Set (1928) Jack Conway

There can't be a lot of movies out there that focus on the sport of polo, which is surprising because the largest playing field in all of sports ought to work cinematically. Here, we're watching Mr J Thomas Van Buren of the society Van Burens, who must live up to his family traditions by winning a place on the US national polo team. He is apparently a decent player, but he's an egotistical young squirt who spends most of his time getting drunk as a skunk at the Red Lantern Inn, and his outrageous antics naturally lead him into no end of trouble.

Outrageous is something that William Haines did very well, as he was a much better ham than an actor any day. One of my favourite late silent comedies is his Show People, made the same year as this film, and he proves here that that was hardly a fluke. No wonder he was such a huge box office draw in his day and no wonder Louis B Mayer was so upset with him. Haines was openly gay, something that isn't particularly difficult to work out from his screen appearances. In fact it seems that the scriptwriters deliberately wrote scenes in to play up to the fact, such as an early one here where Tommy wrestles with his butler during a massage.

It's never overt though, as Haines was supposed to be a romantic hero. Tommy meets a young lady named Polly in traffic early on in this film and pursues her no end in some bizarre driving scenes. Naturally she turns out to be the daughter of the man he's replacing in the polo team and the girlfriend of his captain. The captain is the ever dependable Jack Holt, who I've come to respect from his work in early Frank Capra movies and other precodes and he's just as dependable here.

Anyway, Holt is a great straight man (no pun intended) to play opposite Haines. He's decent, respectable and with his granite jaw looks the part too. Opposite him Haines can ham it up as much as he likes and get away with it. Because these films work to formula though, we know that as much of an obnoxious brat Tommy gets to be, he'll get his comeuppance at some point late in the film, see the light, find his redemption, win the girl, and all will be well with the world.

The discovery for me is the actress playing Polly, Alice Day. She started out as a Mack Sennett bathing beauty, but progressed up to leading roles. Her career never took off though, and the last of her 68 films came in 1932. She's great fun here, alternately loving Tommy's attentions and annoyingly rejecting them. Her innocent face on the dancefloor while she's grinding her high heels into Tommy's feet is a picture.

Overall this is great fun, though there's the final polo match is probably too long, there's some unfortunate racial humour towards the end (British as well as black American). Marcus Sjowall's new soundtrack is excellent.

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