by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Among the films TCM showed on its August 19 day-long salute to Barbara Stanwyck was her 1929 talkie debut (imdb.com lists her as playing a fan dancer in a 1927 silent, Broadway Nights), The Locked Door, which if nothing else indicates that Stanwyck got to make her (sound) debut squarely on the “A”-list: second-billed to silent heartthrob Rod LaRocque in a major production for a major studio (United Artists), with a major director (George Fitzmaurice, whose best-known credit is probably The Son of the Sheik, Rudolph Valentino’s last film) and other major talents both before and behind the cameras: William “Stage” Boyd and Betty Bronson are the second leads, Ray June the cinematographer, Hal Kern the editor and William Cameron Menzies the art director.
After watching It it was interesting to see another movie that starts with a woman being romanced by the son of her boss, though in this context it’s totally different: the film starts out with a long shot of a large boat (which frankly looks like it was shot with a toy in someone’s bathtub). The camera approaches and we find out this is a pleasure ship (a “rumboat,” it’s referred to in the dialogue) in which a lot of people with more money than good sense are drinking because the boat is (presumably) outside the 12-mile limit and therefore Prohibition doesn’t apply. Ann Carter (Barbara Stanwyck) is a secretary who’s there on a date with her boss’s son, Frank Devereaux (Rod LaRocque), only she doesn’t know until it’s (almost) too late that he’s a no-good rotter: he takes her to a private room on the boat and locks her in, pocketing the doorknob so she can’t get out, and her virtue is only saved by a gang of cops in a flotilla of speedboats, who raid the rumboat and take in all the customers. A papparazo takes a photo of Frank and Ann being led off the boat but Frank slips him $100 and buys the negative.
Then there’s a title reading, “Eighteen months later,” and it turns out that six months after the incident on the boat Ann got married to a rich but decent man, Lawrence Reagan (William “Stage” Boyd) — incidentally his last name is pronounced “REE-gun,” the way Ronald Reagan did when he was still an actor, instead of the “RAY-gun” pronunciation Ronnie adopted once he got into politics — only the two of them are worried about the man Lawrence’s sister Helen (Betty Bronson) is seeing. Helen duly shows up at her brother’s and sister-in-law’s house with said boyfriend — and of course it’s that dirty, no-good Frank Devereaux, who aside from his personal connection with Ann has aroused Lawrence’s ire by seducing a Mrs. Cohen and getting Mr. Cohen so mad at him Lawrence is desperately trying to talk Mr. Cohen out of murdering him.
Determined to do whatever it takes to keep her nice, sweet, innocent sister-in-law (who did play Peter Pan, after all!) out of the clutches of her almost-despoiler, Ann overhears Frank and Helen plotting to run away together and she goes to Frank’s apartment to try to stop her. Lawrence also shows up there, with the same purpose in mind, and after confronting Frank and learning that he printed the photo of them taken on the rumboat and stashed both the prints and the negative for potential blackmail if necessary, Ann hides in Frank’s bedroom (not the most sensible place for her to go!) when Lawrence shows up, Frank pulls a gun on him, they both reach for it (if Chicago author Maurine Dallas Watkins could have made a nickel every time that plot gimmick was used she’d have been a billionaire!) and eventually Frank is shot and left for dead.
In a bizarre but visually effective scene, Ann maneuvers around the room in semi-darkness and it’s not at all clear what she’s doing, but eventually she picks up the gun and she shoots Frank a couple more times, trying to make it look as if she and not her husband killed him. Then Helen shows up, but only after the police, alerted by the hotel’s switchboard operator (played by ZaSu Pitts, whose first name is spelled “Zazu” on the opening credits), have come and are jumping to all the obvious (wrong) conclusions as usual. Finally one of the cops, who had been working undercover on the raid on the rumboat in reel one (ya remember the raid? Ya remember the rumboat?), absolves Ann of any guilt in her association with Frank, and in a really over-the-top finale Frank himself turns out to be not quite dead, having still enough life left in him to issue a dying declaration that Lawrence was indeed acting in self-defense when he shot him.
Though the showing of this quirky movie on TCM was preceded by Robert Osborne warning us that it was an early talkie and a lot of actors really didn’t have a clue how to handle acting for sound film (which required not only an ability to handle dialogue that silent film hadn’t, but an ability to talk softly and intimately that threw a lot of actors whose experience with dialogue was performing stage plays in big theatres where they needed to PROJECT to the farthest balconies), The Locked Door actually turned out to be an unusually good early sound film from the technical point of view. George Fitzmaurice keeps the camera in motion — it even moves while people are talking, a rare and difficult effect in the early days — and gets some marvelous traveling shots of the rumboat in reel one.
The film betrays its origins as a stage play (The Sign on the Door by Channing Pollock, the playwright who screwed up Metropolis — Paramount assigned him to re-edit Fritz Lang’s sci-fi masterpiece for American audiences and he slashed the film so badly that much of the plot made no sense, and reviewers understandably but wrongly blamed the original writer, Thea von Harbou, for inconsistencies that hadn’t existed in her script and for which Pollock was responsible) and was adapted by C. Gardner Sullivan, with George Scarborough and Earle Browne writing the dialogue (a frequent division of labor in early sound films, recalling the distinction between script writing and title writing in the silent days), and once it gets into the titular locked room at the end it gets creaky and stage-bound, but even so much of the acting is relatively naturalistic and Stanwyck, though a bit more chipper than she’d be in her later films (and not flattered by the bobbed hair still fashionable in 1929), delivers quite a good performance, especially in the later reels when her character is desperate to retain her husband’s affections even as she’s lying her way into a murder rap to protect him. Indeed, she out-acts the rest of the cast — especially Rod LaRocque, whose career in the sound era didn’t do the spectacular crash-and-burn of John Gilbert’s but didn’t reach the heights it had in the silent days, either, and I suspect for the same reason. He has a perfectly presentable voice that makes sense for the character, but he hasn’t a clue how to act with his voice, how to vary his inflection and tone to convey the emotion of a scene.