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.”
Now it would be remiss of me before I move on to the film that truly introduced William Powell to Hollywood as a star without first looking at The White Sister, a movie that links up two of our three amigos, Ronald Colman and Richard Barthelmess.
As outlined in my birthday message, Ronald Colman had toiled away in the British theatre since the Armistice as well as making a few pictures for the Hepworth company, but in 1920, not having found much success in London, Colman went to New York. The White Sister was his first feature film, made in Italy by Inspiration Pictures, and it was the success of this picture that introduced him to the world as a new Hollywood star.
Inspiration Pictures had been founded by Richard Barthelmess, Charles Duell and Henry King, who had made the runaway success Tol’able David in 1921. The success of that picture enabled the company’s next big feature, The White Sister, to be made on location in Italy. Director Henry King utilised the most dramatic locations in Italy, including Rome, Sorrento and Mount Vesuvius itself! However, he also made full use of the expertise of his Italian crew, even down to small details such as ensuring that the original French blinds used on the sets were changed to Roman ones.
Indeed, one of the most emotional scenes in the picture, the ceremony whereby Angela Chiaromonte becomes a nun, was in fact designed and directed by a priest who was the head ceremonial director at the Vatican. Henry King, who was to later convert to Catholicism, wanted to ensure that this scene, which carried enormous spiritual significance, was accurate and credible to the Catholic Church in every detail.
The review in Photoplay Magazine describes The White Sister as ‘another personal triumph’ for Lillian Gish, the performance more nuanced than in her collaborations with D W Griffith. Gish brings a mixture of vulnerability and vitality to the role of Angela Chiaromonte that feels genuinely real. Her legendary ability to convey emotion through the camera is apparent here although to my modern cynical self, it seems a shame that being thrown into poverty by her jealous and vengeful sister results in Angela Chiaramonte turning into a bit of a tedious, pious bore. I did have to wonder why Giovanni Severi was still bothered for her once she’d made it plainly clear that she was going to remain wedded to the church and not leave it for him.
However, I fully recognise that this type of overwrought Victorian-style melodrama was very popular in the 1920s and that the strictures of mega-institutions like the Catholic Church were powerful enough to control the thoughts of entire populations. To transgress would be to invite shame and isolation. It certainly doesn’t lessen the impact of a fantastic drama and a remarkable debut for Ronald Colman, who is sensitive and sweet and gorgeous throughout. Colman, Gish, Henry King and Inspiration Pictures were soon back in Italy in 1924 to make Romola, an adaptation of a novel by George Eliot. The plot had a nice villainous character, and this role was awarded to William Horatio Powell.
For this week’s lost film we’re having a look at a vehicle which starred a lady who was going to be a regular co-star for William Powell – Bebe Daniels. As noted in this month’s Memorabilia of the Month, I’m leaving any in-depth discussion of Bebe Daniels’ life and career for my entry ‘Bebe Daniels – Silent Screwball’ in Paul S‘s Addicted to Screwball Blogathon, starting 23 May.
As it is the review of Dangerous Money in Photoplay Magazine describes the picture as ‘flabby’, yet another tale of a ‘boarding house slavey’ who inherits a fortune. However William Powell is highlighted as the ‘scoundrel, who runs away with the entire opus.’ Playing a gold digger in his smarmy git oeuvre, can you see the pattern forming here?
Also worth noting is that this was the first film that William Powell made for Paramount Pictures, although not under contract. He must’ve made quite an impression because, as outlined in William Powell’s Silent Villains, in 1925 Jesse Lasky signed Powell to a contract with Paramount – what an achievement after only three years in motion pictures.
In and amongst my research for this film I happened upon an auction for these negatives (referenced below):
The listing states that these pictures were taken for Dangerous Money and were Powell’s first sitting for Paramount Pictures.
I think Bill looks quite sublime in these pictures – the smile in the photo above is cheery but quite enigmatic also – as he stared down the camera, on the cusp of success, I wonder what was going through his head? Certainly, once he signed on the dotted line with Paramount, his financial pressures would be much alleviated. Indeed as I have alluded to elsewhere on this blog, Bill’s penury as a young actor lead to his reputation in Hollywood for being excessively careful with his money. That’s a smile as bright as his future!
I hadn’t expected to write much more than a synopsis of Under the Red Robe – as you can see William Powell is billed 10th so his must’ve been quite a minor part. The notices are lukewarm to say the least, Photoplay Magazine describes the picture as ‘a bit draggy’ and Picture Play says that Cosmopolitan ‘spent too much money’ on the film, considering that the cinema going public are now ‘pretty well fed up with the Court of France’.
However, I hadn’t reckoned with the life story of star Alma Rubens – a story that is cautionary in extremis. I wouldn’t be surprised if E! Channel hadn’t made an E! True Hollywood Story about her. By the time Under the Red Robe was released at the end of 1923 Alma was two years into a multiple drug addiction that would see her descend from the pinnacle of Hollywood stardom into the violent desperation that dependency on cocaine, heroin and morphine often causes and which ultimately led to her early death in 1931.
Her story, which you can read more fully from the references below, was very reminiscent of Barbara Payton and even to a certain extent Amy Winehouse, and I found it both incredibly sad but also very troubling insofar as the entertainment industry continues in this circular pattern of encouraging vulnerable artists to destroy themselves without much evidence of a duty of care other than a very generous cash remuneration. I accept I’m possibly being a little unfair and judgemental here, being a mere civilian, but Alma’s story is incredibly relevant to today and her experience seems sadly familiar.