It’s ironic that for the purposes of the What a Character Blogathon we are heading back into villainy as Powell’s previous outing White Mice was his actual first starring role, and I will come back to that picture at a later date.
Lorenzo Salvia, as portrayed by Powell, is a drunken Italian who abandons his wife, (Florence Vidor) and makes off for the island of Panda.
Inevitably Salvia’s dissipated lifestyle leads to his destruction before his wife can save him.
However despite all this drama Photoplay Magazine describes the pace of this lost picture as ‘snail-like’.
It is worth mentioning that around the time of filming Powell had been signed to a long term contract at Paramount – at this stage in his career Powell’s ability to play effective villains and secondary roles had enabled him to achieve some consolidation, even if this meant treading water in movies like Sea Horses which were little more than programmers. Despite such dull fare 1926 was to prove to be an exciting year for William Powell, with some exciting roles to come!
There doesn’t appear to be much to say about today’s lost picture. Clearly a filler, this melodrama didn’t exactly create any buzz or excitement. Therefore, I am going to leave today’s post in the capable hands of the Photoplay Magazine reviewer:
“A good strong dose of the smelling salts will be needed to revive you after this. Taken from the popular novel by Zona Gale this hasn’t a thing to offer. Everything in the picture compares with the perfume. It’s faint entertainment. William Powell, who was so very grand in ‘Romola’ is the only person in the cast worth mentioning, and even he – oh, well, what’s the use.”
Which is why Photoplay Magazine still stands the test of time for sharp, contemporary writing even after 90 years!
Stella Dallas marked the third in a tremendous run of pictures for Henry King, another melodrama, but this time set in America not Italy and including some harsh commentary on social stratification and the power of class to stifle and repress.
What a treat to be able to view this excellent melodrama, one of Ronald Colman’s few remaining silent dramas. It’s an odd experience watching Colman in a silent picture because with the benefit of hindsight you can actually hear his velvet tones speaking through the title cards.
It is interesting to note that Colman takes the top billing for the movie, because as you can see from the poster above this is very much Belle Bennett’s picture – she has the most screen time and pretty much steals every scene playing the overblown, dirt common Stella. Don’t be fooled though that Bennett over emotes in this role though. Bennett brings real pathos to a woman who for me was not remotely sympathetic and that I often felt frustrated with.
In ‘The Parade’s Gone By’ Henry King notes that the author and screenwriter of Stella Dallas, Frances Marion was insistent that Belle Bennett was perfect for the role. “This woman has just what it takes… She is a mother, she has two children and she has had everything on earth happen to her. Both on stage and off, she is Stella Dallas.”
However this is the genius of the adaptation – Bennett’s portrayal alongside Henry King’s direction allows the viewer to have complex emotions about Stella. Stella has the total lack of confidence and self-esteem that often comes with being working class and therefore subjected to society’s judgement. This leads Stella to displays of conspicuous consumption in a futile attempt at fitting in with her new peers, futile as the symbols of belonging are often very subtle in order to maintain privilege and to exclude. As a result of this rejection, and without realising it, Stella undermines the new life she has built for herself as she doesn’t understand her lack of belonging in an echelon which will never accept her.
What the viewer begins to understand is that despite Stella’s almost self destructive course, she is clearly a fantastic mother to her daughter and it is evident throughout the picture that Laurel has tremendous love, respect and above all loyalty to her mother.
This connection with the audience led to great success for the picture, critically and at the box office. To quote Henry King, “And the money that rolled in was quite fantastic.”
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.’
“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!
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.
1925 was a momentous year for a number of our heroes – William Powell’s output virtually doubled, Ronald Colman cemented his Hollywood career and his heartthrob status, Richard Barthelmess consolidated his already enormous fame and Myrna Loy was recognised and brought to the forefront thanks to Natacha Rambova.
We can add into this good fortune the beginnings of a career for 16 year old Jane Peters. We’ve covered her post accident work in Carole Lombard’s Mack Sennett days, and this seems a good time to have a look at the first major feature she appeared in. Now as we know when Jane Peters was 12 years old she appeared in the film A Perfect Crime with Monte Blue which provided her with the impetus to follow a movie career. Various acting classes and auditions followed during her teens, but like any other teenager in Hollywood Jane was drawn to the nightclub and party lifestyle and it was at the Cocoanut Grove’s regular dance competitions that Jane started to get really noticed.
In 1925 Jane Peters was signed to the Fox Film Corporation and Carole Lombard was born – an amalgam of a family friend’s last name and the result of Elizabeth Peters’ liking for numerology – although a consistent spelling of Carole Lombard wouldn’t settle until around 1931.
Carole’s first substantial role came in 1925’s Marriage in Transit, but her lack of experience was apparent and the film was seen as lacklustre despite Carole’s admitted over-emoting!
“Poor Eddie Lowe! They told me to tear him to shreds! To this day Eddie can’t see me without ducking.”
And this then led to Hearts & Spurs, a now lost Western melodrama starring Buck Jones and coincidentally directed by W S Van Dyke, who of course was the director of The Thin Man.
Needless to say Carole’s role as Sybil Estabrook although substantial involved nothing more than a lot of simpering while Buck Jones did the inevitable manly stuff with horses and fighting and the like. Carole was starting to become frustrated with the limitations of her roles which felt two dimensional and merely served as fragrant wallpaper for the all action hero.
However, a year later Carole’s fateful and horrific entanglement with a Bugatti would, due to her ties to Fox being cut, put her in the sights of Mack Sennett who would enable Carole to beef up her acting skills and cinematic presence.
Carole Lombard: Twentieth Century Star – Michelle Morgan
Too Many Kisses marked Harpo Marx’s debut in motion pictures. Considered to be lost, a copy was found amongst the collection of director Irvin Willat, a friend of Richard Dix, and clips from the movie have appeared in Marx Brothers documentaries.
Harpo said “…it seems the cutters had been at work on the film and they hadn’t figured my acting amounted to much…” but in his first film appearance you can see he is already recognisably Harpo!
Richard Dix had become a major Hollywood star after appearing in Cecil B Demille’s The Ten Commandments in 1923, indeed in 1926 he was voted above Rudolph Valentino in a Motion Picture Magazine popularity contest.
Too Many Kisses is another of those movies where it seems a shame that it hasn’t been released to the public – as you can see from Mordaunt Hall’s review and others, the picture was generally reviewed as a diverting evening’s entertainment, maybe nothing special but worth a see nonetheless. The film is about a rather Twenties preoccupation – a boy with too many girls at his disposal! In this case Richard Dix’s lead character is sent away by his father to the Basque Country to cool off – not such a random location as the father is lead to believe that the ladies over there are only interested in their local menfolk.
Needless to say, that isn’t quite the case when Richard Gaylor Jr turns up, and his popularity with one señorita in particular is not appreciated by her boyfriend, Julio.
‘William Powell is excellent as Julio. It is a part which fits him like the proverbial glove. He is jealous, cowardly, vengeful, affectionate in a perfectly natural way.’
‘Too Many Kisses,” in spite of its queer title, is a constantly amusing light entertainment, just the thing to make one forget the cold wind and changeable weather.’
Romola gives us another opportunity to admire William Powell’s cracking pins encased in Renaissance tights whilst putting his all his efforts into a plum villain role, that of Tito Melema, a con artist on his uppers looking for his one chance to attain power, fortune and glory. That opportunity comes via the aristocratic Romola, played with customary ethereal grace by Lillian Gish, who falls in love with him.
In the meantime a peasant girl, Tessa, is also falling in love with Tito, and he does everything to encourage her, including participating in a fake wedding! The dirty dog eventually gets his comeuppance but as William Powell pointed out years later:
“[Tito]… married the woman he loved and because he found her cold, he took the little peasant girl… and had with her the simple peasant-like life he craved. But he didn’t go around making fools of women just because it was easy, or he could.”
Although the picture did provide an excellent villain role for Powell I have to concur with the fan mag reviewers that Romola does lag in the middle, an issue which plagues even modern movies (La La Land being a good example). It certainly doesn’t have the energy, pace and melodramatic confidence of The White Sister and Ronald Colman’s part is rather flat in comparison.
Henry King describes Romola as a difficult picture to make as its scale and scope was much larger and more complicated than The White Sister, if you can imagine that. The set was in Florence and involved the construction of ships and 274 foot replicas of the Duomo and Campanile! Despite all this great care and attention taken, it does mean that the actual story does get somewhat lost, as well as the fact that the characters of Romola and Carlo are a bit wet, Powell’s characterisation of Tito Melema leaves him with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever, which leaves Dorothy Gish as the sparky peasant girl Tessa as the one character who has a bit of zip, but ends up betrayed. As it’s difficult to empathise with the characters and be swept along by their journey, Romola ends up feeling rather flat.
This wasn’t helped by the fact that unlike The White Sister I watched a poor quality print of the film which was difficult to view and as a result perhaps lost a lot of context. While watching The White Sister I was able to immerse myself in the sumptuous glory of King’s location filming in Rome, Sorrento and Capri, whereas with Romola it was impossible to gain any appreciation for King’s aesthetic vision, the time and effort taken in the art direction as you can see in the photograph below.
The photographs I’ve included here give a much better account of how the picture should look and the potential of a fully restored print. Indeed, the addition of a more sympathetic soundtrack would make up for the paucity of the story and move the action on more effectively. I have to say though, I did watch The White Sister without a soundtrack which I thought would be a challenge as it’s quite a long movie, but the pace of the action means that the picture motors on at a fair lick with the dramatic tension fully maintained throughout. In the finish up I was so engrossed in Angela and Giovanni’s story that I forgot there was no music!
It just goes to show how silent movies are a far more immersive experience than the talkies and if elements are missing how disappointing they can be!
The filming of Romola is also notable for one significant episode in William Powell’s personal life. Powell and his first wife, Eileen Wilson, by this time had been separated for many years, however as their son, William David Powell recounted:
“Unknown to one other (both being romantic) they decided to go to the same place to forget – Italy. They ran into each other in Venice. It was midsummer. A full Italian moon was riding the skies – music floated up from the gondolas gliding along the Grand Canal. I made my debut in 1925.”