Saturday 23 May 2009

The First Hundred Years (1938)

Director: Richard Thorpe
Stars: Robert Montgomery and Virginia Bruce

This 1938 comedy stars Robert Montgomery and Virginia Bruce, but I'm watching for the supporting cast, especially Warren William and Harry Davenport, who haven't let me down yet, even when the films they're in did. Davenport was always a supporting actor, one who had a knack of stealing scenes without trying, but William used to be a powerful lead in his own right and his loss of that status is really highlighted in this movie: what it is and what it isn't.

What it is is a story about marriage. Our leads play a happily married couple who run into trouble, not through the usual things but through duelling careers. The thing is that it's the woman of the house who has been running the show for quite some time. Lynn Conway is a professional woman who as the manager of a theatrical agency has been doing well enough to keep herself and her husband David both. Life is great but now David has found his feet and landed a lucrative career as a shipbuilder. The problem is that Lynn's career is in New York and David's is in somewhere called New Bedford, notable only because it isn't New York.

What it isn't is a precode. Five years earlier Warren William would have played David and he'd have been a blistering chauvinist who would have somehow kept our sympathy even while we raged in horror at him. He was always a master at playing both sides of that coin simultaneously, something that never seemed to make sense: how could we root for him while wanting to kill him? But this is 1938, so he's merely Harry Borden, owner of the agency Lynn works for and thus an interested party trying to help her out of her new found situation.

David is played by Robert Montgomery, who merely alternates between annoyingly chauvinistic and annoyingly sincere. I disliked him thoroughly but I didn't hate him and I couldn't root for him. I'd have done both for Warren William. Lynn, David's much better half, is played by Virginia Bruce, who is wholesome enough to keep our sympathies throughout, at least until the end of the film. That's where the whole movie cops out painfully but inevitably; the last twenty minutes could have been replaced by a single title card reading, 'This ain't 1933, folks. What do you think they're going to let us get away with in 1938?'

This really is perfect material for a precode. Beyond Warren William being perfect for a manipulative, chauvinistic and utterly beguiling version of David, the part of Lynn could easily have been jazzed up and dressed down in any combination of a hundred ways that weren't allowed after the code became enforced. Watching between the lines at a invisible precode version I saw cheating on both sides, hints at nudity, a fall into prostitution, abuse, tragic chains of circumstance and an unfair legal system, all wrapped up in a story that juggled social commentary, wild exploitation and comedic dialogue.

Yet what we get is an attempt at such a bowdlerised version that the fluff comes out serious and the seriousness comes out fluffy. There were plenty of films in the golden age of Hollywood that played utterly within the rules and became classics not because of their daring but because of their technique, their skilful writing and the iconic nature of stardom. They knew what not to try. Films like this always seem like wastes because it's obvious that the cast and crew knew from moment one that they couldn't even attempt to tell us what their stories were really about. Even trying is pointless: think of how a porn movie would end up if you weren't allowed to use any actual sex or nudity. This one, with almost no soundtrack whatsoever and only a few sets, comes across like a play that attempts to revisit the innocence of a past age while failing to realise that not only isn't the audience of the day interested in innocence but the past wasn't innocent anyway.

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