Saturday 8 August 2009

Blondie of the Follies (1932)

Director: Edmund Goulding
Stars: Marion Davies, Robert Montgomery, Billie Dove, Jimmy Durante

The same year that Marion Davies made Polly of the Circus she made Blondie of the Follies, and it's a lot more satisfying for a whole slew of reasons, not least the fact that the screenplay was by Frances Marion with dialogue by Anita Loos. These are hardly minor names in the industry and while the editing lets their material down on occasion it chugs along at a rapid and enthusiastic pace. There's also so much supporting talent thrown at this film that there's often half a dozen things happening on screen at once, making the old 1.37:1 aspect ratio more than a little crowded. Cinematographer George Barnes had his work cut out for him.

And before I start telling you what Blondie of the Follies is all about, I have to throw in a fact that simply can't be ignored: this film was mangled on the orders of William Randolph Hearst. Hearst and Davies were a legendary though unconventional couple and his interests were very limited. He didn't care about the films she was in, he just cared that she was in them and that she was featured as prominently as possible. Given that he could generally dictate how prominently that was, it meant that he had films trimmed to highlight her presence, often to the detriment of the rest of the cast and even to the detriment of the films themselves.

Apparently this film was extensively recut on Hearst's orders, but in this instance it would seem to have been a utterly pointless thing to do. Everyone shines here, including Marion Davies and whatever mangling was done couldn't fail to hide that she gives an outstanding and characterful performance. In short she holds her own in powerful company and there was no need to meddle. After all, to stop someone like Zasu Pitts stealing our attention, for instance, you'd have to cut her out of the film entirely. There simply isn't any other way to do it.

And so to the film. Blondie and Lottie are two friends who live in the slums of New York, one floor apart on a tenement block. Blondie is Marion Davies, needless to say, and she's one of the McClunes, who are as poor as you'd expect but now even poorer because Pa McClune has lost his job. This is an amazingly cast family: only Sarah Padden as Ma McClune isn't a recognisable name and even she's a recognisable face. There's James Gleason as Pa, along with Zasu Pitts and Sidney Toler who somehow looks wrong outside of yellowface. I don't remember ever seeing him play within his own race before, even when he's not playing Charlie Chan.

Lottie is Billie Dove, a silent star appearing on film for the last time, except for a single bit part in 1963's Diamond Head. She has a gift of a part, a common as muck slum girl called Lottie Callahan putting on airs to flounce around in high society as Lurlene Cavanaugh; and then, once she's enticed Blondie into her world, she has to compete with her for the affections of playboy Larry Belmont. Dove does an amazing job that gets better as the film runs on. She and Davies have great charisma together and they make a great tempestuous couple, fighting constantly but always making up and remaining best of friends regardless of anything and everything else.

As I read it, Dove's part is a lot less on film than it was originally supposed to be, Hearst stripping her of a dramatic finale to her performance and making it a heavier role. Bizarrely the latter may have played in her favour though as it adds to the character, but the experience left her fed up with the industry and she left it for good, even turning down an enticing return to the screen in Gone with the Wind. Given that at this point in time she was romantically entangled with Howard Hughes, what Hearst was doing could hardly be surprising to her, and it's a shame because cinema lost a great talent when she retired.

There are a number of subplots here but they generally get a little confused, probably due to Hearst's changes. Yet every actor in the film is joyous to watch in his or her part of it. Jimmy Durante gets his name on the title card even though he's only in the film for a scene stealing three minutes to spoof Grand Hotel at a party, with Davies impersonating Garbo. Note: Grand Hotel, like this film, was directed by Edmund Goulding. James Gleason is amazing as Blondie's old time pa who has a serious adjustment to make in dealing with her future. Douglass Dumbrille is a sleazy and very dirty old man, an oil millionaire who likes blondes. Montgomery is even more full of life than usual, perhaps due to the charisma that Davies seems to exude here.

When reading film reviews, I see the words 'flawed masterpiece' quite a lot and this is precisely what I'm going to think of when I read the phrase next. It's no Citizen Kane and it never would have been, though given that it's a Marion Davies film, that comparison is a little unfortunate. However it's a joy to watch even in an apparently mangled form and it could only have been better still as it was originally intended. It wears its flaws on its sleeves and attempts with guts to succeed despite them, but they inevitably lessen it, leaving it a film that's tantalisingly unreachable.

This is a film that I don't just want to watch again, I want to read about it too. I want to know what it was, what it became and why. I want to read the gossip, to hear what the people in it thought about it and how it changed. It's one of those films that I'd want to see in the director's cut edition, and if, as would be rather likely here, that isn't remotely possible, I'd watch the reconstruction instead. It's fascinating stuff.

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