Sunday 10 February 2008

The Squall (1929)

Josef and Maria Lajos have a farm in Hungary that's been 'crowned with prosperity and content'. Life certainly appears to be joyous in a picture postcard way, with everyone doing their bit to bring in the harvest. They all have smiles on their faces, from the young to the old, and given that it's the the Lajos's anniversary, they'll all be treated to a free night at the local inn. Nobody has a Hungarian accent, of course, but they do have voices because this is a 'First National Vitaphone Picture' and it's 1929 when that was a big deal. It certainly didn't start that way because we have title cards just as if this was to be a silent picture.

I can't remember the last time I saw a film from 1929 that was shot outside, because of the sheer difficulty of recording the sound, but soon we're indoors and it isn't difficult to work out that the sound outside was recorded inside. The cast is a good one, especially given the time, but some of the stars weren't really stars yet. Zasu Pitts had a serious background in the silents, not least in Greed and The Wedding March for Erich von Stroheim, and leading lady Alice Joyce almost had two hundred screen credits to her name.

Yet Loretta Young was only sixteen and in her second year of credited roles and Myrna Loy was finding her way from bit parts in silents to her exotic period. It would be a few years before The Thin Man helped her to become a serious actress. She's a wild gypsy girl called Nubi and she steals the show from the real leads, Alice Joyce and Richard Tucker, as Josef and Maria Lajos, though both are fine. She's hugely dynamic, amazing for Loy who always acted far more with her face and voice than with her body, and looks stunning, like a cross between Nina Hagen and Bonnie Tyler. No wonder it takes no time flat for her to stir up the passions of every male in the household.

There's the son of the household, Paul, played by Carroll Nye, who a decade later would play Scarlett O'Hara's second husband. He's in love with and engaged to Loretta Young's character Irma, but he's also in lust with Nubi. He's also the weak acting link in the chain, coming across very wooden and amateur. There's Harry Cording as Peter, the stableman who's saving to marry Lena the cook, Zasu Pitts's character. There's even Josef Lajos himself.

This is surprisingly good for a 1929 film, though the limitations inherent in the output of that year are still apparent. This was obviously meant to be a silent but switched to sound as the tide turned towards it. The voices, accents excepted, are all fine for the sound era, but everyone speaks slowly and deliberately so as to ensure that their words remain clear. It's also stagy, but again understandably so.
The melodrama is over the top, but again it fits the time. And that's the key thing at the end of the day: if you can forgive the problems inherent with pretty much every 1929 movie, you might enjoy it, especially for Myrna Loy.

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