A new picture starring Richard Barthelmess and Dorothy Gish should have been an easy sell to the cinema going public, but by all accounts The Beautiful City was a lacklustre affair, a melodrama that in the words of the Photoplay Magazine Review was in dire need of some ‘PEP‘.
As it is the synopsis reads like a fairly typical potboiler melodrama with Richard Barthelmess playing a poor Italian flower vendor in New York City who becomes embroiled in a gang run by Nick da Silva, played by Powell. Reading from the reviews I can imagine that in this lost film, Barthelmess would play his usual cornpone innocent, Dorothy Gish the cutesy love interest with William Powell reprising his Italian villain trope and perhaps this is where the picture starts to lose interest. Once the players revert to familiar types, you get the impression that the ensemble were almost ‘phoning it in’.
However, William Powell’s consistency as a performer continued to be noted, with Mordaunt Hall remarking that he ‘… makes the villainy as impressive as possible.’
William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant
Photoplay Magazine, January 1926, p.48
“I knew all about that man – where he was born, who his parents were, why he joined the Foreign Legion. I knew he was a degenerate and what the circumstances were which led to that state of affairs. Characters like that lift this business of acting out of the commonplace, mechanical rut and portraying them becomes a real joy.”
Thus William Powell explained how he made his characterisation of Boldini in Beau Geste so realistic and believable, but also provided us with a very thoughtful and humane consideration of how a character can become a flesh and blood human being. As opposed to presenting a mere shadow on the screen, Powell brought to life individuals with a chronology and back story to explain their actions.
For the What A Character blogathon I’m jumping ahead a year to 1926, and to a picture that was designed to showcase Ronald Colman as the ultimate hero, but as was becoming common practice, ended up being another opportunity for William Powell to steal the show with an in-depth study of humankind’s failings.
In Beau Geste, Powell played Boldini, a lickspittle coward, blackguard and cheat who’s only agenda is to preserve his own neck even if it is at the expense of others. I have to confess I watched this film a number of months back and was sorely disappointed. The picture had received pretty much universal acclamation in the contemporary reviews I had read and you can see for yourself in Mordaunt Hall’s piece for the New York Times below, as well as others linked. In addition Beau Geste won the prestigious Photoplay Magazine Medal of Honour for 1926. Swayed by this I was expecting a fast paced movie full of action, but actually found parts of it quite plodding.
However, in preparation for this blogathon I thought I must give the film a second chance and this time round I enjoyed it more fully. I suspect that’s because I’m more acclimatised to silent pictures and have come to realise the importance of place and atmosphere – enjoyment of silent film needs to be an immersive experience, and watching a poor print on YouTube on my morning train commute would inevitably dull my viewing pleasure. Imagine Mordaunt Hall as he describes Beau Geste for the first time – in a New York Picture palace, no doubt all the invited guests in evening dress, with full orchestra to keep the pace of the picture. With these types of elements present Beau Geste must have created a stupendous evening of adventure for the picture goer.
Bearing all this in mind, I sat down for a second viewing and was much more satisfied. Ronald Colman always brings a laconic charm to his roles, with a slight hint of irony, which ensures that his movies don’t become sappy and this is especially the case with Beau Geste. This tale of love, honour and betrayal could be very plodding and worthy, but Colman’s playing style offers a hint of emotional distance that I suspect would be very natural to the Englishman.
However we’re here to discuss William Powell’s contribution to Beau Geste as a character actor and as the Photoplay Magazine reviewer said about Powell and Noah Beery, “…watch these two boys cop the picture.” Powell’s biographer, Roger Bryant is firmly of the view that his characterisations are as authentic as any portrayal from the supposedly ‘naturalistic’ method style of the 1950s and includes Powell’s rendering of Boldini in his conclusion. Thanks to his careful preparation and the seriousness which he brought to his craft, Powell presents Boldini as a man who is perpetually desperate and who’s lack of honour does for him in the end. The ultimate theme of Beau Geste is honour, and Boldini is the antithesis of honour as opposed to Beau Geste, and that cannot be presented two-dimensionally.
This is my entry in this year’s What A Character! Blogathon – do have a look at my compadres’ entries, there’s some wonderful reads about some wonderful actors!
William Powell: The Life & Films – Roger Bryant
Watch out for the What A Character Blogathon on 15 December!
In 1925 Clara Bow was on her way up to becoming one of Hollywood fastest growing stars. Clara had an unusual ability to switch her emotional response almost immediately upon direction, crying real tears on tap, displaying genuine happiness and all without the type of overwrought over emoting often seen from actresses at the time. This gave a realism to her performances that audiences could empathise with and were starting to respond to in a big way.
B P Schulberg, the proprietor of Preferred Pictures, whom Clara had been contracted since her arrival in Hollywood in 1922, also responded to this increased interest in his up and coming starlet by loaning her out to other studios for big profits. In 1925 Clara would be paid $750 a week by Preferred Pictures but Ben Schulberg arranged the loan outs for $3,000 a week – a tidy profit. Thus Clara became almost a machine on the shop floor, like all those factory girls who followed her so ardently.
William Powell made two pictures with Clara Bow during this loan out phase in her career. Powell himself had been offered a contract by Paramount in 1925. His talent as a character actor and consummate villain had been recognised and remunerated accordingly (which I’ll talk more about in my piece for the What a Character! Blogathon on 15 December), but My Lady’s Lips enabled him to play an honest joe – as you can see from the poster below:
The star of the vehicle was Alyce Mills, pictured above, who played Dora, leader of a gambling gang who reporter Scott Seddon, played by William Powell tries to infiltrate but falls in love with. Clara Bow is Lola, a spoiled rich kid, who becomes embroiled in the gang but also falls in love with Scott. The Photoplay Magazine reviewer, while enjoying the pace of the drama, found the plot rather preposterous and proceeded the damn the picture with the faintest of praise, saying it would be enjoyed by the ‘older folks if they like em crooked’. I think the film sounds like fun and as this is another picture that has been preserved, let’s hope it is released soon.
Clara Bow: Runnin’ Wild – David Stenn
William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant