Monday 3 August 2009

Not So Dumb (1930)

Director: King Vidor
Stars: Marion Davies, Elliott Nugent and Raymond Hackett

It's hard to realise that there's anything other than Marion Davies in this film, as she plays Dulcinea Parker less as a character and more as a force of nature. She's more like an earthquake or a volcano than an actress here, though she's really just Dulcy, the title character of the source play by Marc Connelly and George S Kaufman that had been filmed before as a silent, with Constance Talmadge in 1923. Based on this material I'm stunned that it could have been made once, let alone twice. It's an endurance test. The sound is excellent for a 1930 film but that unfortunately means I could hear everything that was said. It only made it worse.

Everything in this film, including every other character we see, is nothing but a prop for Dulcy to play with in some harebrained scheme or another and the film itself is nothing but a prop for her to set up as many as she likes. Quite why her screen fiance, Gordon Smith, would allow her anywhere near his potential new business partner, the very important Mr C Roger Forbes, I have no idea, but he does and that enables her to organise a hellish weekend for him and everyone else involved, including us watching.

Forbes is a high powered jeweller that Smith plans to enter into business with, and he's conveniently heading out to California with his family for the weekend. Apparently it's just to rest, but Dulcy has other ideas. She invites him to stay with them at their conveniently large house. To make the weekend memorable she hires an ex-con as a butler and invites a couple of other lunatics too, all because it seemed like a good idea at the time and so that she could orchestrate all sorts of grand schemes.

I'm sure you will be shocked beyond all recognition to discover that everything that could possibly go wrong does go wrong. Instead Forbes's daughter elopes with a motion picture scenario writer, the ex-con steals this daughter's pearls and Dulcy's fiance's business deal is off with extreme prejudice. But, you ask, what about the film's title? Yes, the film's title is there to ask us, is Dulcy 'not so dumb' after all? Well, there's far more madness here than method and a more telling question may be the one that Smith asks Dulcy after everything goes pear shaped: 'My God, are you smiling?' I'm not sure how anyone could be, whether they be watching the film or acting in it.

The height of humour here is Marion Davies saying things like 'the early worm always gets the bird', Oscar winning writer Donald Ogden Stewart walking up and down on a garden hose or playing golf indoors or Perkins the butler not being able to master his one line. Yeah, that's not very high up the comedy scale but it's as high as we get here. Elliott Nugent and Raymond Hackett get their names on the title but I have no clue why, because they do precisely nothing. Even Franklin Pangborn doesn't get anything to do. It's all an utter waste.

I should point out here that Marion Davies is very good at being utterly obnoxious in a well meaning way but that doesn't mean we want to watch her do it. She has an unfair reputation, propagated into posterity by her fictional representation in Citizen Kane that she was a talentless wannabe who only got screen credits because her sugar daddy, William Randolph Hearst, put up enough money to make it happen. I know that's unfair because this is my 14th Marion Davies, more than enough to realise that she was a highly talented comedienne and this film is utterly beneath her.

What's even more surprising is that this is a King Vidor film, one of the great directors of the silent era. He made two of the Marion Davies films I've seen, the best two: Show People is a masterpiece and The Patsy isn't far behind, which makes it rather stunning to find that this is a product of the same people. I can only hope that there aren't viewers out there who discover Davies or Vidor through this film and make the obvious conclusion that they're no talent morons who should never have been let near a camera. They couldn't be more right about this film or more wrong about the people who made it.

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