Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Truth About Youth (Warners as “First National,” 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The Truth About Youth was a 1930 Warners’ production based on a 30-year-old play, When We Were Twenty-One, by a writer named Henry V. Esmond. Produced under the “First National” imprint, The Truth About Youth was probably considered an antediluvian story then — the play had been produced on Broadway three times but the last time had been 1906 — and it doesn’t seem like screenwriter B. Harrison Orkow did much to update it. The top-billed star is Loretta Young, playing gooder-than-good Phyllis Ericson, daughter of the housekeeper to Col. Graham (J. Farrell MacDonald), who has been raising the young Richard Dane (David Manners) since he was six and his father died in an accident. Dad apparently lingered on a bit before expiring, since his last instructions were that Graham and his friends Richard Carewe (Conway Tearle) and Horace “Waddles” Palmer (Harry Stubbs) form a trio of guardians to raise young Richard, whose childhood nickname “The Imp” has stuck even though as the film opens he’s just about to turn 21.

The Guardians (that’s how they’re referred to throughout the movie) and Phyllis have planned a surprise birthday party for the Imp, complete with a symbolic place setting for his deceased father, but the Imp doesn’t come home that night; instead he phones and says his old psychiatry professor is lecturing that night at Carnegie Hall. I wasn’t aware any nonmusical events ever took place at Carnegie Hall, but it doesn’t matter because as any even remotely experienced moviegoer could guess that’s just a blind. What the Imp is really doing is attending the opening of the swank Firefly Club, featuring a spectacular entertainer called Kara (Myrna Loy), who performs as “The Firefly” and sings a song called “Playing Around” (by Sam H. Stept and Bud Green) that reflects her character’s utter disinclination towards monogamy. The Imp has formed a mad crush on Kara even though the Guardians have been expecting him to marry Phyllis, with whom he’s grown up — and Kara, an out-and-out golddigger who contemptuously tells her French maid Babette (Yola d’Avril) that she wouldn’t even think of continuing to see her last boyfriend after he lost all his money, is stringing the Imp along because she thinks he’s in line to inherit a major fortune, even though in fact he and the Guardians are almost totally broke (though, typically for a 1930 movie, they still get to live in an enormous, lavishly appointed mansion).

In fact, the Imp and Kara actually sneak off and get married — only in the meantime Richard, who has thrown us a lot of burning looks indicating that he has an unrequited crush on Phyllis (and they’re both such blandly boring and “good” characters it’s clear they belong together — sort of like a Jane Austen novel), intercepts a letter Kara has written the Imp and, since the address says “Dear Richard,” decides to pose as the man Kara is in love with and even gives her $5,000 (if they’re all so broke, where did he get that kind of money?) to spend a month dating him and making it look like he’s her new sugar daddy, in hopes that will bring the Imp back to his senses and steer him back to Phyllis. In the end Kara dumps the Imp for a previous boyfriend whom she had dumped when he lost his fortune, but is willing to take back now that he’s regained it; and Richard says that they should have no trouble getting the marriage annulled, but in the meantime Phyllis and the elder Richard have decided they belong together and the Imp is left without either the good girl or the bad one.

The Truth About Youth is a pretty lame movie by any normal standard, but one thing it’s absolutely convincing about is what a wretched deal circumstances and these relentlessly overprotective adults have thrown David Manners’ character: hemmed in all his life by a group of people so prying he doesn’t even know the meaning of the word “privacy,” and further infantilized by that ridiculous nickname (obviously their own convenience in being able to keep him separate from Conway Tearle’s character though both have the first name “Richard” meant more to them than his psychological well-being and ability to grow up), it’s no wonder that at the first opportunity he’s staking out his freedom and engaging in adolescent rebellion, even with dire consequences for himself as well as his family. It’s also a fascinating movie for Myrna Loy fans, made while she was being typecast as a sexually and morally rambunctious character (born Myrna Williams, she had been given the name “Loy” by a Warners casting director who thought the slight slant in her eyes fitted her to play Asians and therefore she should have a Chinese-sounding name; she got a lot of roles as Asian nymphomaniacs, including Thirteen Women and The Mask of Fu Manchu, and even when she got to play white people they were still immoral ones until she rebelled for real and told Louis B. Mayer she would no longer act such roles — and Mayer, to his credit, told her, “I was wrong about you. From now on you will always be a lady” — and so she was).

Loy is wretchedly miscast as the vicious, heartless vamp, singing in a dubbed voice (and her voice double was an Ethel Mermanesque contralto whose honking tones don’t even begin to match Loy’s lovely speaking voice) and responding to David Manners’ revelation that he’s broke not by sending him off with an excuse and quietly calling her lawyer to get an annulment (what one would imagine a real-life golddigger would do) but screaming at him and ultimately throwing three vases at him, followed by his coat and hat — but she still acts the role to the hilt, playing like the professional she was and giving her all even for a part she clearly hated. What’s more, this is one of the few films she ever made that gave her a chance to dance; though she couldn’t sing, she was a fully trained professional dancer — she’d studied under Ted Shawn, husband of modern dancer Ruth St. Denis (the couple founded the famous Denishawn troupe and Loy was a member of their chorus) — but her dancing chops are showcased in only a handful of movies, including this one and the 1929 Warners all-star musical The Show of Shows (in which her contribution to the otherwise preposterous “Li-Po-Li” number, the one part of the movie that survives in the original two-strip Technicolor, is marvelous and suggests that somewhere there’s an alternative universe in which Fred Astaire and Myrna Loy made a series of great musicals, while William Powell and Ginger Rogers did a series of mysteries as a hard-drinking husband-and-wife detective team).