Wednesday 3 September 2008

The Locked Door (1929)

We begin on a boat, a boat with a very long bar because it's a 'drinking boat'. Stanwyck is Ann Carter, the secretary of the father of her would be seducer, Frank Devereaux, played by Rod La Rocque who reminds very much of the wolf in the old Red Hot Riding Hood cartoon. He begins by wining and dining her, which she's initially quite happy about but gradually resists more and more. Luckily for her the drinking boat, carefully moored outside of applicable coastal limits, has its moorings cut and the police raid it in time to keep her decency intact, or at least as intact as it can be being caught up in a police raid.

18 months later she's married and celebrating her first wedding anniversary, but not to Frank Devereaux. Her husband is Larry Reagan, who seems to be quite a catch, if notably older than Ann. He's William Boyd and his younger sister Helen is Betty Bronson, and its Helen who brings Devereaux back into the story in person, though he's being brought back in anyway as the cause of a Reagan family friend's misfortune. I'm sure you can guess how. And out of this setup comes a murder mystery.

The Locked Door is of primary importance through being Barbara Stanwyck's sound debut (her second film overall), but it proves to have other interesting features. The story is overblown and overly emotional, with a disappointing but inevitable ending, but it's surprisingly solid for 1929. Like most early sound films, it's based on a play, this time by Channing Pollock, but it rattles along neatly enough to avoid the staginess of most such efforts. The sound is also surprisingly good, unlike most of its competitors. Maybe part of both surprises comes through the involvement of future legend William Cameron Menzies as what would later come to be called the production designer.

Stanwyck is assured from moment one, which is hardly surprising, and Rod La Rocque was always a great romantic villain. William Boyd is too old for the part and while he's supposed to be playing a pillar of the community he's far too staid and boring to be believable. The remaining name on the title screen belongs to the tiny Betty Bronson, only five feet tall but one of a number of silent legends in this film. She's perhaps best known today as Mary in the original Ben-Hur, which put her higher in the credits than what seemed like everyone in Hollywood. Back in the silent era though she was best known for playing the title role in 1924's Peter Pan, which she landed over such names as Mary Pickford and Gloria Swanson. Bronson didn't make many sound films.

Backing up the stars from further down the credits are other great silent names like Mack Swain, Zasu Pitts and George Bunny. Swain was an old Keystone institution playing not just cops, but supporting roles in films starring Mabel Normand or Charlie Chaplin. He later established his own character called Ambrose, which he played in dozens of comic shorts. I first encountered Zasu Pitts as a silent actress, playing the leading lady in Erich von Stroheim's Greed. However she transitioned well into the sound era, playing ditzy old maids with a delightful touch. You can see the beginnings of those characters here, in her portrayal of a switchboard operator who is eager to see her first murder. Bunny was the brother of John Bunny, perhaps American's first major comedian, playing opposite Flora Finch in hundreds of shorts in the early teens. George was a long way into his brother's shadow but he lived a lot longer and kept working though until the early fifties.

The film would be a forgettable one if it wasn't for its year of release. Any other time, this would be an average everyday murder mystery feature, that doesn't really register much. It's not good but it's not bad, it's just there, almost the definition of OK. However being that it was released in 1929, it's pretty impressive. Because of the speed at which Hollywood tried to refit itself for sound, and because it took a while to get it right, 1929 is probably the worst year for American movies since the very early days. After so many great silent films throughout the twenties, 1929 is a huge hole into which all the quality vanished. While this one really isn't great, it's a darn sight better than most of its fellow films from that year.


Pacze Moj said...

You've gotten my attention with the tidbit about Stanwyck...

Is this film out on DVD or VHS?

Hal C. F. Astell said...

I'm not aware of one. Certainly there are threads on the IMDb page where people ask if anyone has a copy in the absence of an official release. I caught it on TCM where it will be rebroadcast on 18 Nov.