Tuesday 10 November 2009

The Vagabond Lover (1929)

Director: Marshall Neilan
Star: Rudy Vallée
Every small town has its band with big ideas. In my part of town that would be a mariachi band but this is 1929 in New England so they're the Connecticut Yankees, all ten or so of them. They laugh about how bad they are, except for Sam, but perhaps that's because they have Rudy Vallée as a saxophonist instead of a singer. However they've improved considerably as Rudy soon demonstrates with his new gold plated sax. He's Rudy Bronson here, he's been studying for six months through the Ted Grant Correspondence School of Music and it seems to have worked. Now they're a real band with real talent and all they have to do is find their way to Grant's highly advertised summer home at Longport to play for him. Of course they discover that the advertising was all a con to drum up publicity for the correspondence course and he promptly throws them out.

This was Rudy Vallée's debut screen performance, something that shows painfully because he's about as comfortable on screen as I would be. He's nervous and wooden and he keeps missing his cues so only gets more and more uncomfortable as the film goes on. IMDb describes this as 'a zany musical' but that presumably refers to a whole new meaning to the word 'zany' that I've previously been blissfully unaware of because the laughs are few and far between. Compare this to another 1929 film featuring a notable debut performance, for instance: The Cocoanuts starring the Marx Brothers. To say that there's no comparison is more than a painful understatement.

Vallée was no small name, even at this point. He was the original crooner in whose wake floated people like Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, so you could claim that he influenced a good portion of the next few decades of American music. Young ladies were already swooning at his voice or just a sight of his lips through his trademark megaphone, so perhaps they just didn't notice how awful an actor he was. What makes things worse was that everyone else in the film obviously acts so much better than he does, even when they're not great themselves. For instance Sally Blane is a lovely leading lady, though her role as Jean Whitehall, Ted Grant's neighbour, doesn't exactly call for much beyond looking like a lovely leading lady. Even with as little as she has to do and even with a few cue flubs herself, she still shows up Vallée's lack of acting chops something rotten, something his band (who were his real band) manages too on a regular basis.

What's still worse for Vallée, Radio Pictures decided to throw in a real actress to back him up, no less a name than Marie Dressler, as Jean's aunt, Mrs Ethel Bertha Whitehall. If you've ever seen her, you can just hear her saying that name aloud and she does it with characteristic relish. Dressler is the reason I'm watching this, courtesy of TCM's tribute to her on what would have been her 141st birthday. She only made 29 films in her career, from the first feature length comedy, 1914's Tillie's Punctured Romance, to Christopher Bean in 1933, the year she ranked the top box-office star of the year. TCM showed no less than ten of them in a row, four of which I hadn't seen and was eager to record.

As Mrs Whitehall, in social competition with the more connected Mrs Whittington Todhunter, Dressler flusters around like it was an Olympic sport, but if it was she'd have taken home the gold medal without any competition. She certainly doesn't have any competition here and could really have breezed through this film and stolen it. She does a lot more than breeze though and she is by far the best thing about the film, though that's hardly surprising given her co-stars. A year later she'd be playing opposite bigger names than this: Greta Garbo in her talking debut, Anna Christie, and of course her best foil Wallace Beery in Min and Bill, which brought her an Oscar.

Outside Marie Dressler, this film is a pretty dismal affair. The story is predictable, obviously designed to showcase the talents of Rudy Vallée and his band who get far more songs than you would think would fit into a 65 minute running time. Yet it distracts away from that too often, to give us a terminally cute rendition of Georgy Porgy by four screen orphans and a strange dance scene that served only to highlight the lack of technical expertise in 1929 Hollywood. Under every high kick is an audible bouncing board. The comedy is almost non-existent, there being a single joke that made me laugh and that surely an old chestnut even back then. The acting is poor, Marie Dressler notably excepted, with Vallée ranking lower than any other acting performance I can think of off the top of my head. I think he's worse than Marshall Grauer in Zaat, whose painful walk and overblown narration won't leave my head.

Really, beyond Dressler, there's a lot of early crooning and a cute lead. Is that enough to warrant your interest? If not, don't bother.

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