Wednesday, August 20, 2008

It (Paramount, 1927)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Yesterday I ran out of time to write about the movie that was shown at the Organ Pavilion Monday night. Though mistakenly billed in the program as The “It” Girl — actually the sobriquet Paramount’s publicity department tagged on its star, Clara Bow, after its success -— it was really called It and was more or less based on Elinor Glyn’s best-selling novel of that title. I say “more or less” because Glyn wrote two separate stories, one for the novel and one for the movie; the one for the novel was a sort of apolitical prototype of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in which the central character was a super-industrialist named John Gaunt with an infatuation for his secretary and complications involving her brother, an opium addict.

The movie is also a story of an employee — a shopgirl at the huge Waltham’s Department Store in New York — falling in love with the son of her boss, though it’s considerably lighter in tone and, despite all the pretensions around the concept of “It,” is really a prototype of a screwball comedy with a hard right turn into domestic melodrama midway through. In the preface to her novel, Glyn explained, “This is not the story of the moving picture entitled It, but a character study of the story which the people in the picture read and discuss.” (Dorothy Parker, whose review of the book is my only source for all this since I’ve never read, or even seen a copy of, Glyn’s novel, predictably lampooned the whole idea that she was expected to review “a character study of a story,” though that simply may mean that the version of It shown in the book was published in Cosmopolitan magazine and the novel may simply be a longer and more detailed version of the same plot.)

Glyn gave a series of different and sometimes contradictory definitions of what she meant by “It” — indeed, in the movie Glyn herself makes a cameo appearance when the leading characters are dining at the Ritz Hotel’s restaurant and having an animated discussion about just what “It” means, and naturally they recognize the author and decide to query the source directly — but she did say that “It” didn’t just mean “sex appeal” and that anyone who said it did was vulgarizing her concept. Well, she might as well have saved her breath, for it was as a euphemism for “sex appeal” that “It” entered popular language in the 1920’s — and it’s clearly so meant in this film. It the movie was scripted by Hope Loring and future producer Louis M. Lighton from Glyn’s story, with George Marion, Jr. writing the titles (wittier than usual, with some genuinely funny wisecracks — notably when Bow’s character is being accused of having given birth to an illegitimate child and, asked if the effeminate comic-relief type is the father, she says, “Him? He couldn’t even give birth to a suspicion!” — that make this one silent movie in which one misses sound more than usual) and an uncredited assist from one Frederica Sagor.

The plot of It concerns the unrequited love of Waltham’s shopgirl Betty Lou Spence (Clara Bow) for Cyrus Waltham, Jr. (the singularly uncharismatic, un-“It” Antonio Moreno), son of the owner of Waltham’s department store; and her rivalry for him with his childhood friend Adela Van Norman (Jacqueline Gadsdon). With Adela he has staid dates at dull places like the Ritz; with Betty Lou he goes to Coney Island and has laid-back proletarian fun — only after their date he tries to kiss her and she reacts by slapping him, issuing forth with one of Marion’s wisecracking titles: “So you’re one of those Minute Men — the minute you meet a girl you think you can kiss her!”

The plot gets complicated by the fact that Betty Lou is rooming with another girl from Waltham’s sales force, Molly (Priscilla Bonner), who’s had a baby — the exact circumstances by which the kid was conceived and born are discreetly unmentioned — and the two are visited by two middle-aged social workers (whom Betty Lou tells off with the line, reminiscent of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, that instead of messing around with other people’s children they should find men, get married and have some of their own) who threaten to take the child away because her father is unknown and her mother has no job (she had to quit the store when she became ill as the baby was being born) and therefore no means of supporting it. Betty Lou declares that she is actually the baby’s mom and she still has a job, and the commotion is overheard by all the neighbors as well as an enterprising young reporter for the News-Dispatch, who in a stroke of (bad) luck for Our Heroine happens to have its offices on the same block. (The reporter is played by the young Gary Cooper in a bit part that helped make him a star; after seeing him in the rushes Bow decided she wanted him as her leading man for her next film, Children of Divorce.)

As a result of the newspaper article and the resulting scandal, Betty Lou loses her job and she decides to get even. With the help of the effeminate comic-relief guy, Monty Montgomery (William Austin), she wangles an invitation to a cruise on Waltham’s yacht and Waltham, of course, is initially appalled to see her there but ultimately comes around and — after Monty, steering the boat, gets it involved in a mid-sea collision that puts most of the principals overboard — they end up together. It is actually quite creatively directed by Clarence Badger — the opening shot uses both a track and a crane to steer us into the action instead of just starting it — and Bow, though stuck with one of those excessively unattractive hairdos that were all the rage in the 1920’s, does come off as a genuinely charismatic, “It”-bearing star.

Bow’s star fell partly because she got a reputation of being difficult — Dennis James (who mistakenly named this as Gary Cooper’s first film — that was actually The Winning of Barbara Worth, made two years earlier) said she had a nasal Brooklyn accent which recorded badly, and other sources say she was just too hyperactive to be contained in the early sound era (though that’s belied by her first talkie, The Wild Party, in which she’s a co-ed who sets her sights for anthropology professor Fredric March, making his film debut; it’s a quite good film and, once director Dorothy Arzner invented the mike boom — with the sound department stumped by Bow’s willingness to stand in one place and deliver her lines, she brought a fishing pole to the studio, had the microphone tied to one end of it and had a grip hold it by the other end, instructing him to hold it above Bow’s head just out of camera range so her voice would record no matter where she went — Bow’s performance was just fine).

More likely the fall in Bow’s career had more to do with the scandals that surrounded her in the early 1930’s — notably when her former secretary, Daisy DeVoe, leaked a diary to the media that purported to record Bow’s sexual conquests but was probably largely, if not totally, made up — and the sense that with the 1920’s over she was simply no longer fashionable. It is a film rather oddly perched between two eras, the heavy-breathing romanticism of Elinor Glyn’s tale and the screwball machinations that surround it, and one can readily imagine a 1930’s remake with, say, Joan Blondell and Cary Grant.