Thursday, February 23, 2012

Lena Rivers (Quadrangle/Tiffany, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ran a movie the night before last: Lena Rivers, a 1932 film from an outfit called Quadrangle Productions, releasing through the short-lived Tiffany studios, one of the attempts in the early 1930’s to start a long-term independent studio that foundered on the shoals of the Depression and what it did to box-office grosses. (Tiffany held out until 1933 and they made a number of interesting films, including Journey’s End, James Whale’s first film and an adaptation of a play by R. C. Sherriff he’d also directed on stage, and A Study in Scarlet, the 1933 film directed by Edwin L. Marin and starring Reginald Owen as Sherlock Holmes five years before director and star collaborated at MGM on another classic, A Christmas Carol.) Lena Rivers opens with an atmospheric sequence that was by far the best thing in a movie: a young woman returns home to the farm owned by her parents (Russell Simpson — whose tall, gaunt appearance and long beard makes him look like what Abraham Lincoln would have in his dotage if he’d lived that long — and Beryl Mercer, the actress pressed into service as Lew Ayres’ mother in All Quiet on the Western Front after 1930 preview audiences saw the originally cast ZaSu Pitts and started laughing their heads off because the preview came on right after one of Pitts’ comedies) and dies giving birth to the titular heroine. The scene seems to be drenched in fog even though it’s taking place indoors, and for much of the film’s running time I misread the scene: I had thought it was Lena Rivers herself who was dying in childbirth, barely tolerated by her parents and scorned by everyone else because she’d got herself pregnant without benefit of wedlock first, and the rest of the movie would be a series of flashbacks showing how she ended up in that state.

No, it was Lena’s mother who had suffered that fate and what we were seeing was Lena being born but taking her mom off the planet even as she herself emerged into it. There’s a quite clever montage by director Phil Rosen — this was the early 1930’s, when Rosen was a quite capable and sometimes very interesting director (he made at least two great films around this time, The Phantom Broadcast and Dangerous Corner, before his career sank into the acres of “B” hackwork he was known for in the 1940’s), and the rural Gothic atmosphere is superb; the screen seems to sag under the weight of all the oppressive moral hypocrisy, vividly dramatized in visual terms. The montage shows actresses of various ages playing Lena at various ages (ending with Charlotte Henry, who plays her in the bulk of the film), all kneeling down beside the bed in which Lena was born and reciting bits of the Lord’s Prayer in sequence. Alas, after the death of Lena’s grandfather (he’s a sailor and he’s presumed lost at sea), she and grandma go to live with some well-off distant relatives, John Nichols (John St. Polis) and his bitchy wife (Betty Blythe), who can afford to be bitchy because the reason they’re affluent is because he married her money. Mrs. Nichols makes it clear that she doesn’t want Mr. Nichols’ seedy relatives in her house, but Mr. Nichols for about the only time in his married life (at least that’s the impression we get) puts his foot down and insists that Lena and her grandmother be allowed to move in with them.

Caroline (Joyce Compton in a marvelous performance that shows she should have been able to compete for the Jean Harlow roles), the Nichols’ daughter, doesn’t want Lena and grandma there either, particularly since she’s afraid Lena is going to win the affections of Caroline’s fiancé, Durrie Belmont (George Galloway), Durrie and Lena meet-cute when Durrie shoots a rabbit and Lena, sounding an awful lot like a modern-day animal-rights activist, upbraids him for it; he explains that what he shot wasn’t a nice, harmless little bunny but a “cottontail” (presumably the point is that they’re predators who would eat all the produce they’re growing on their farm if he didn’t kill some of them, but that isn’t all that clear in the film itself), and from their little D.I.Y. ecology lesson they naturally start falling in love. Caroline catches Durrie kissing Lena and, as soon as Durrie leaves, tears into Lena and slaps her, saying that her mom never married and Lena is obviously like-mother, like-daughter. Durrie is living on the next-door plantation as the “ward” (that’s what the American Film Institute Catalog synopsis calls him) of Henry R. Graham (James Kirkwood, silent-era veteran whose turn-down of the 1921 film The Sheik opened the door to Rudolph Valentino and kept Kirkwood on the “B” list, though I once met and interviewed his son, A Chorus Line co-author James Kirkwood, Jr.), who at first seems to be a lecherous old man trying to get into Lena’s pants himself but ultimately turns out to be (surprise! No, not that much of a surprise!) Lena’s biological father; he said he actually did marry Lena’s mom, using his middle name “Rivers” as a pseudonym because his own parents wouldn’t have approved of him marrying so far beneath him class-wise.

There’s also a subplot involving a race horse called “Brimstone” whom only Lena can tame, and who Graham enters in a big race on her behalf (though the set is so small the “big race” seems to be taking place in somebody’s backyard and the only additional horses for Brimstone to run against are in a stock clip of a real race); Brimstone wins, but Graham actually fixed the race by bribing the jockey of the principal rival to pull back at the last minute. For some reason — perhaps he thinks Graham and Lena are getting it on — Durrie’s response to all these events is to propose to Caroline, though when they’re about to elope he shows up in his convertible several sheets to the wind, drives recklessly, resists Caroline’s attempts to take the wheel from him (the sequence is staged quite effectively and Durrie’s vertiginous wild ride is genuinely suspenseful even though we know what’s going to happen), and eventually Durrie crashes the car and both of them end up in hospital, Caroline with minor injuries but Durrie so badly hurt it’s touch and go whether he’s going to live. Caroline starts a flirtation with one of the doctors taking care of her, Durrie finds out that Graham is Lena’s father (something Lena herself just learned a few minutes’ worth of screen time earlier!) and, with a weird headdress-like bandage on his head, he flees the hospital in search of her, Lena is already in the car he gets into at the hospital entrance, and the two kiss and are obviously headed for a happy ending that sits oddly with much of what has transpired before.

Lena Rivers started life as a popular novel by one Mary J. Holmes and got filmed in the silent era no fewer than four times — a short from Thanhouser in 1910, two early-feature versions in 1914 (one of which starred Beulah Poynter as Lena; she was also credited with having written a play based on Holmes’ novel, though that may just mean she wrote the script for the film) and one in 1925 — but this appears to be the only talkie, and it’s clear that by 1932 this story was already considered rather creaky. Lena Rivers is not a great film but it’s a quite haunting one, and though some of the acting is as old-fashioned as the plot, the two young women in the female leads are first-rate. It’s a real treat to see Charlotte Henry playing an adult — her two best-known roles, as Alice in the 1933 Paramount film Alice in Wonderland and Bo-Peep in the 1934 Babes in Toyland, produced by Hal Roach as a vehicle for Laurel and Hardy, both had her playing kids (did the “suits” at Paramount and Roach think they were going to make her the Mary Pickford of the sound era?) — and she turns in a finely honed performance in which she conveys both her shame over her background and her fierce determination to rise above it. And she’s matched by Compton, who usually got cast as dumb-blondes but got a major role that enabled her to rise over her stereotyping and portray a not altogether unsympathetic characterization who remains somewhat likeable, or at least understandable, despite the annoying sense of entitlement that’s her character’s least endearing trait — though she doesn’t say so in so many words, her tone of voice, manner and posture all screams, “How can he fall for that piece of lowlife trash when I’m available?”

Lena Rivers also has quite a few African-American characters, and while one of them is Clarence Muse doing his usual dumb-darkie act (one would never guess from most of his movies that the man actually had a Ph.D. in history!), there are also some quite vibrant scenes featuring the Black colony near the plantations, which supply most if not all of the farm labor (and, intriguingly, the jockeys who ride the horses in the “big race” are all Black, too!) and are played by the Kentucky Jubilee Singers, who offer us some quite lovely traditional spirituals. In most movies of this era, the cinematography of the affluent characters’ environments is considerably more lavish and visually interesting than that of the poor ones — but not this time; director Rosen and cinematographer Ira Morgan seem much more interested in the lives of the story’s poorer characters, both white and Black: the opening Southern Gothic of the scene showing Lena’s birth and the rich chiaroscuro visuals of the Kentucky Jubilee Singers holding their revivals (Charles said the fact that they sing spirituals instead of gospel itself dates this movie, though the line between the two is as vague as a lot of the definitions of musical genres: some of Mahalia Jackson’s best records are of spirituals in rocked-up gospel arrangements) are far more interesting visually than the relatively dull photography the rich people get. I wouldn’t call Lena Rivers a forgotten gem, and it’s easy enough to see why no one has gone near this story since, but it’s a nice little rediscovery and a welcome reminder that Phil Rosen at his best was a lot more talented than one would think from the crap that he made at Monogram in the mid-1940’s!