Tuesday 28 June 2011

Navy Blues (1929)

Director: Clarence Brown
Stars: William Haines, Anita Page, Karl Dane and J C Nugent

For his first sound film, William Haines returned yet again to a military setting, which always felt strange to me, especially given the surreal ongoing saga that is 'don't ask, don't tell'. It isn't only that Haines was gay, it was that he was obviously gay. In real life he continually incensed studio executives by refusing to deny his homosexuality, going so far as to live openly in a committed gay relationship with his partner, Jimmie Shields, a fifty year relationship that lasted his lifetime and cost him his movie career. On screen he isn't stereotypical or flamboyant, but he exhibits so many quintessentially gay mannerisms that it never ceased to amaze me how often his studio put him into uniform. In 1926 it was Tell It to the Marines, in 1928 West Point, now in 1929 Navy Blues. He even ended his screen career on Poverty Row with another military role in 1934's The Marines are Coming. Of course, on screen he was officially a ladies' man, so realism be damned.

His previous picture was Speedway, released earlier in 1929, and it's fascinating to compare his last silent movie with the first he made with sound, not least because the three main actors in many ways reprise the same parts they played in that film. Haines is Jack Kelly, the practical joker of his particular battleship, yet another opportunity for him to chase the ladies, antagonise the men and run through the inevitable story arc once more in ways that would cause his arrest today. If a real sailor acted like this they would spend most of their time in the brig. To be fair, he's a lot more sympathetic here than he was in Speedway, his inevitable fall from grace is a lot less powerful or direct and his just as inevitable redemption is more believable and worthy, but that doesn't mean that Kelly ends up fundamentally different from any of the other characters Haines had played over the previous decade or so.

Most of his jokes are unsurprisingly perpetrated on his friend, Sven Swanson, yet another chance for Karl Dane to haul out the tough but dumb Swede persona that he had been wearing for even longer than Haines had been playing practical jokers. Dane gets more screen time here than he did in Speedway, especially early on, but that merely helps to highlight just how thick his Danish accent was, the primary reason for the collapse of his career. Many actors lost their careers with the advent of sound, because they didn't speak English, because they didn't sound as audiences expected or because they weren't intelligible to a wide audience. Dane fits in the latter category, an English speaking foreigner who couldn't have pulled off a major part without substantial voice training. However this film suggests that he could have stayed on screen as was, merely in much smaller roles, similar to this one where his 6' 3½" bulk is more important than his voice.

Dane's decline was so tragic that he became one of the most referenced examples in Hollywood history. He had found fame in The Big Parade in 1925 and major roles in La Bohème, The Scarlet Letter and Son of the Sheik brought him to a salary of $1,500 a week, but in less than a decade he would be penniless and dead by his own hand, unable to persuade MGM to give him even $5 a day as an extra or carpenter. His Danish accent may have been the catalyst for his decline, but the stories don't include the many other factors that contributed. He worked through a nervous breakdown and suffered from a bout of pneumonia, a relationship with a crazy Russian dancer and the loss of all his mining investments to fraud. A return to vaudeville failed and even menial jobs didn't work out, including the famous hot dog stand that wasn't really in front of the gates of MGM. When a pickpocket took his last $18, he locked his door and shot himself dead.
Perhaps the most tragic thing about Dane's story is that it doesn't seem unlikely for a character he might play. So often he was the big man that everyone else took advantage of, whether that be his gold rush partner in The Trail of '98 who manoeuvred him into doing both their jobs or his shipmate here fleecing him of his dance partner and his pay. Dane played big and dumb, Haines played small and bright, even though he was six feet tall, a sort of prototype for the fast talking con man that Lee Tracy would soon master in the precodes. Sure enough, it's Dane's character who's matched with Anita Page's at a Ladies Uplift Society dinner dance that the crew attend, but it's Haines who leaves with her in yet another astounding display of insolent insubordination. He manhandles her emotions unashamedly during his ship's leave. Caught up in a whirl, Allie Brown leaves her family for him, only for him to put her up in a hotel and go back on board ship.

Anita Page was so frequently a romantic interest for Haines that he proposed to her for real in 1932, during the shooting of Are You Listening? It wasn't serious, of course, but it demonstrates how close they were as friends that when Louis B Mayer piled on the pressure for him to enter into a lavender marriage, that he chose her to ask. I wonder if Mayer was a contributing factor to her declining his proposal, given that 1932 was also the year that her own MGM contract lapsed, apparently because she rejected Mayer's sexual advances. Like Haines and Dane, she's given a much more substantial part here than in Speedway, one that leads her round a rollercoaster of an ethical story arc, from a virtuous daughter to a taxi dancer, or paid dance partner, a common precode metaphor for prostitute, then finally back to reconciliation with her family in the finalé. While Haines's character finds redemption, for a change he shares it with his leading lady.

I'd call the plot a simple one, but compared to Speedway it's deep. However nobody watches a William Haines movie to be enlightened, they come to watch his schtick. Audiences must have liked what they saw because this slightly more sympathetic version of his usual routine sped him on the way to even greater success. A year later he was the biggest male box-office draw in all of Hollywood, something that must have stuck in Louis B Mayer's craw. He shares the film better than usual here too, giving Dane and especially Page opportunities to shine. Dane gets to fight on a few occasions, one brief scene in the lobby of the Garden Cabaret being a gem. He knocks out the doorman and pulls down a chandelier to use as a prop in knocking out plenty more. Page carries the dramatic side of the picture, though she's not as sympathetic as she should be. All in all, it's a great step back up after Speedway for all concerned, but still not enough.

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