Thursday 3 December 2009

The Girl Said No (1930)

Director: Sam Wood
Stars: William Haines, Leila Hyams, Polly Moran and Marie Dressler
Girls often said no in classic Hollywood movies, which were so grounded in reality that the boys asking were people like William Haines, the most flagrant queen in town, something that the studio execs never managed to hide from the public as hard as they tried. He's Tom Ward here, but from moment one he's precisely what you'd expect from Haines: a thirty year old returning from college, turning his family's quiet home into an insane asylum in about five seconds flat, but all with a face that's utterly charming and innocent. Haines was a riot on screen, his antics always the personification of youth run wild, so contagiously alive that he inevitably had a whole troupe of followers and hangers on. Eventually though his utter freedom from the concept of consequences alienates them all and sets himself up for redemption at the end of the film. It was the Haines formula, whether he was playing opposite Marion Davies or Lon Chaney.

If blowing back into town and through his parents anniversary party like a hurricane isn't enough, he heads out to dine with a slew of hangers on who are eager to welcome him home from college. At the restaurant he spies one of his fellow students, who's as studious and reliable a student as his name of J Marvin McAndrews might suggest. Ward has a waiter escorting him to the kitchen as a joke until he sees the lovely young lady who's accompanying him, so promptly takes over her life. He flirts ruthlessly with her, pays a waiter fifteen bucks to pour tureen of soup over her boyfriend, then when she tries to leave steals her car and her with it, risking both their lives to steal kisses from her. After she escapes he moves into her office at work, bench and all, to start back up where he left off.

Stalking didn't exist in the thirties, you see, and its equivalent was as un-serious as un-serious could be, merely opportunity for comedic shenanigans, after which the girl involved always realises how wonderful it was that she was stalked. The girl in question here is Mary Howe, played by Leila Hyams, a busy girl in the late silent and early sound eras but whose career lasted just over a decade. She's perhaps best known for her role as the evil Venus in Freaks, but also appeared in films as memorable as different as The Big House, Island of Lost Souls and Ruggles of Red Gap. She'd played opposite Haines before, in 1928's Alias Jimmy Valentine, which was MGM's first talkie; in Way Out West the same year as this one; and finally in 1931's New Adventures of Get Rich Quick Wallingford, another Sam Wood movie.

By that point, Hyams had sixteen films to go though they were crammed into a mere six years before she retired from the screen, but Haines only had four more left in him. Fed up with his refusal to hide his homosexuality, Louis B Mayer finally ordered him to ditch his boyfriend Jimmie Shields and publicly marry a woman. He refused, was fired and promptly became the most prominent interior decorator to the stars. Incidentally he stayed with Shields for fifty years, Joan Crawford calling them the happiest couple in Hollywood. Their partnership ended only with their deaths, Haines dying in 1973 of lung cancer and the broken-hearted Shields following him by suicide a couple of months later.

It's amazing to watch Haines on screen today because while his career ended no less than 75 years ago, he's as relevant as ever today. In fact his antics, which he always took at least a couple of steps beyond what anyone could deem remotely acceptable, are highly reminiscent of the sort of thing that characters often get up to in modern comedies. He never cared about consequences, at least during the first three quarters of his films, living entirely for the moment. The precodes were a natural place for him and he often seemed willing to stretch their limits, suggesting that he'd have happily thrown himself into the likes of National Lampoon's Animal House or American Pie, if only he'd been college age at the right times.

He owns this film utterly, with most of the cast fading into the background and those who simply couldn't not getting the opportunity to compete. Polly Moran and Marie Dressler are both here, but neither gets much screen time and they don't share a single scene. That seems like a bizarre choice, William Haines hardly being someone that the studios would or should worry about being upstaged by such a consummate double act. Ralph Bushman, credited as Francis X Bushman Jr as he was for much of his career, plays a character so inherently lacking in spontaneity that it's nigh on impossible not to disappear into the scenery. Only Leila Hyams really gets a chance to do much as Mary Howe, but she's hardly written with much consistency, so the show belongs to Haines who could play parts like this in his sleep. If you can ignore the moral connotations, he's a bundle of infectious energy that you won't be able to resist.

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