Wednesday 7 October 2009

The Devil to Pay! (1930)

Director: George Fitzmaurice
Stars: Ronald Colman and Loretta Young
Myrna Loy made a heck of a lot of movies in her seven decade career, so even though I have a full fifty of them under my belt I ought to be able to fill my schedules with new ones easily enough. However they have an annoying knack of being surprisingly hard to find. This one's from 1930, so it's one of her early sound films at a point in time where she was generally a supporting actress, often the token exotic in the story. Here she's a nightclub singer in a blonde wig, acting with her body as she tended to do back then only to promptly cease to do once the Production Code had hit. She's no higher than sixth on the credit list, surprisingly behind people like Florence Britton, who didn't have any more screen time, was only in her second film and would retire three years later after Brief Moment.

While Loy is solid here, this is a Ronald Colman film through and through. We open up in British East Africa, at the Kenya Colony, something that highlights how old the story is, though it wasn't even based on a play as was the custom in 1930. He's Willie Hale, the youngest son of Lord Leland, and he's auctioning off all his goods to pay his passage back to England because apparently his horses always have short noses and the cards were good but not good enough. He's certainly a character and he has what would appear to be a grand set of friends, hardly surprising given that it's Colman, after all, but he also has a talent for running out of money, something his irascible father is more than a little upset about.

In fact Lord Leland is so irascible that he threatens to kick him out the moment he arrives home, and he makes that threat frequently to anyone who might be within earshot. These threats are well worth hearing as the actor responsible is Frederick Kerr, who would a year later bring life to the elder Baron in the original Universal version of Frankenstein and had played Colman's father in Raffles only one film earlier. Perhaps this is why these memorable threats don't amount to anything at all or perhaps it's because Willie has a silver tongue. Whatever the reason, the pair play off each other very well indeed.

Just as Lord Leland knows deep in his heart that he's not going to kick Willie out, Willie knows it too, so happily shows up a day after his luggage, having stopped off to see his old girlfriend Mary Crayle, that nightclub singer played by Myrna Loy. He even brings a wire-haired fox terrier with him, called George, though it's 1930 and Asta wouldn't take the world by storm for another four years. Given that Myrna Loy was such a huge part of The Thin Man, which began a major craze for such animals, I wonder if this particular uncredited dog gave her the inspiration. To be honest, I don't know whose inspiration it was but it's leaning towards her right now.

Already in the Leland house when Willie arrives is a friend of his sister, Dorothy Hope by name and the daughter of a rich merchant who has made it big in linoleum. She's engaged to be married to a Russian aristocrat, the Grand Duke Paul, but it sounds suspiciously like the classic new money attempting to marry into old and established class. Needless to say Willie is struck by Dorothy and she by him, and we're all set for a romantic melodrama of the sort they don't write any more. It's fluff, of course, but it's surprisingly well written, well acted, well directed fluff that has a charm to it that isn't entirely due to the irresistible Ronald Colman.

In fact it's a surprising film all round, breaking a lot of expectations. 1930 was generally a bad time for the movies because the industry was still adapting to the new sound technologies and hadn't quite mastered them yet. Many films from 1929 and 1930 have muddy sound, where the dialogue is lost in the mix, and the characters end up rooted to whichever spots on the set have the large microphones of the time hidden nearby. This is one reason why so many films of the time were based on plays, because of the inherent restrictions on the sets. Yet this film has crystal clear sound throughout, even when the characters wander off to watch the Derby from the wrong side of the tracks, picnicking in a field and watching through opera glasses. The story was even written for the screen and isn't quite as limited as you might expect in its choice of locations.

The leading lady is Loretta Young, third on the credits behind Colman and Kerr, and she does a fine job. She wasn't new to the silver screen, having debuted in 1917 as an uncredited fairy in The Primrose Ring and made herself very apparent as Lon Chaney's love interest in Laugh, Clown, Laugh. This is only the second sound film I've seen her in, following her previous picture, The Truth About Youth, and an earlier one, The Squall, both of which also featured Myrna Loy, but the next couple of years would see her playing the leading lady opposite names like James Cagney, Edward G Robinson and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Loy of course would work her way up to stardom in 1934's The Thin Man but that doesn't mean that she wasn't prominent before then. The other name above her in the credits is David Torrence who's a little stagy but not too bad as Dorothy's father. He'd played leads as far back as 1913 but was never as famous as his brother Ernest, who was fifteen years younger but died nearly two decades earlier.

There really is nothing here you haven't seen anywhere before, but it's a fast paced blitz of a film and Colman in particular shines. Mostly though the film stands up better than most of its contemporaries because their flaws tended to be far more obvious technical ones while this one merely tries a little too hard to get by on charm rather than substance. Watch it for the charming and engaging cast and the fact that the 72 minutes it runs seems more like a half hour TV show, rather than to be surprised by anything.

1 comment:

Chris said...

Just watched this movie last night. Loy is rather criminally under-used, as is the dog, but a fun bit of fluff. The scene with Colman and George at the pet shop is the best part of it. Dogs had been major film stars ever since Strongheart and Rin Tin Tin in the silent era, so it was hardly The Thin Man that created that craze--it would just ebb and flow. There's a terrier in The Thin Man movie because Asta was a significant character in the Dashiell Hammett novel the film was based on. Only in the novel, Asta is a Standard Schnauzer, not a Fox Terrier. I doubt Loy had anything much to do with that, and her character in this film doesn't really interact with the dog--Young's character does. Probably they just had a properly trained Fox Terrier on contract at MGM. Never actually saw a Standard Schnauzer as a film actor. Lovely dogs, but temperamental.