Saturday 8 August 2009

Polly of the Circus (1932)

Director: Alfred Santell
Stars: Marion Davies, Clark Gable, C Aubrey Smith

Every year, TCM pauses their regular programming to turn the month of August into Summer Under the Stars, a season in which each day is dedicated to a different star. This is at once a good and bad thing for the cinematic explorer. The bad news is that often the films shown for Person X are the same films they've shown all year so there's nothing new at all. The good news is that every year they pick a couple of people who are sadly underrepresented on the regular schedules and we can catch up with some obscure gems. I tend to find that during Summer Under the Stars my DVR either does nothing at all or gets slammed all at once. And here, on Marion Davies day, I get to catch up not just with four of her films that I've never seen but also fill a gap in my Clark Gable filmography.

We're in Oronta, the so called Pride of New England, where the circus is coming to town. It's the Nailor Circus, inevitably billed as the Greatest Show on Earth, and most prominent on their billboards is Polly Fisher aka Mlle Polly, their resident queen of the flying trapeze in the delectable form of Marion Davies. At least she would be prominent on their billboards if the painters had their way, but Oronta is a conservative town and so when the circus train runs into town they see Mlle Polly decked out in painted skirts or bloomers or even with actual clothes attached to the billboards.

They're pretty ingenious really from an artistic standpoint but Polly isn't impressed in the slightest because suddenly she's the butt of every bloomers joke and she quickly gets fed up with it. She storms into the office of the local rector, the Revd John Hartley, to complain and ends up insulting both him and his uncle, the bishop. Unfortunately for her Hartley had nothing to do with it. He sympathises with her plight in a jocular way. As he tells us, he hasn't missed a circus since he had whooping cough as a kid and he heartily approves of circus outfits just as long as they're in the circus.

He's an unlikely cast Clark Gable, who nonetheless turns in a solid performance, even though at this time he was still best known as a gangster after his explosion onto the Hollywood scene slapping Norma Shearer in A Free Soul. He was a busy man at this point in his career, playing every sort of role he could find and he was an in demand leading man. However after no less than 13 films in 1931 he was still trying to find the film that would firmly establish him as a star. This was his first 1932 film, but it would be the one after it that really did the trick: the steamy Red Dust.

But back to Marion Davies, given that this is a Marion Davies production starring Marion Davies. The best and the worst thing to come out of these bloomers jokes happens at the same instant. A loudmouth throws out a loud joke just as she's about to leap onto her trapeze and the distraction causes her to fall fifty feet to the ground. There isn't a hospital for miles but Hartley's house is right round the corner so she ends up there. She has obvious wounds, not least a broken leg, but the doctor isn't sure about internal injuries and orders her to stay there for at least three weeks until they can be sure she's not going to die on them.

So the Revd Hartley gets to put up our trapeze artist and the three weeks soon become two months and I'm sure you won't be utterly astonished to find that they fall in love and promptly get married. This is only half our story though, because stuffy old uncle C Aubrey Smith is a little horrified at how much his plans for his favourite nephew have been messed around with and Downey, Hartley's servant, is a twisted man more than able to cause his share of trouble. So the pair are happy but frustrated because now no church will hire him and he won't let her earn a living for him, so it's up to Polly to find a way to fix everything.

This isn't an unsatisfying movie but it should have been more than it was. As Polly Davies reminded me a lot of Myrna Loy. She doesn't have the dramatic range to be able to handle some of the more serious scenes but she moves in every way that Loy didn't. She was always a very alive actor, using her body as well as her face and happy to leap into impersonations every once in a while. She was best in comedies that lent full range to her comedic talents but wasn't incapable in serious roles. This one falls into both ponds but a little too far on the serious side to make it a great Davies performance.

The filmmakers don't make the most of her either, though there are some solid scenes opposite both Gable and especially Raymond Hatton who plays Downey like some sort of bitter gnome. Downey had worked for Hartley's father, only to fall into the ways of drink and women and end up in stir. Hartley has helped him out ever since but he's never truly all there, obsessed with dust and more than happy to play around with people's minds. He should have had a bigger part, as should C Aubrey Smith, whose role ends up really defining the film.

Smith was a capable actor who ended up typecast far too often, but he's thrown into a strange situation here. It's a pivotal role that has all too little to do, a character of depth without the opportunity to show it and so he ends up unsatisfying, the talent hindered by the part. The film works much the same way, taking the easy way out instead of playing up the real drama. Whether the blame can be laid more at the feet of Margaret Mayo who wrote the original play or at those of Carey Wilson who adapted it I really can't say, but between them it ends up something less than it should have been.

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