Monday, April 16, 2012

Forgotten (Chesterfield/Invincible/Universal, 1933)

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

Charles and I watched a movie together; Forgotten, an unexpectedly interesting film from the Chesterfield-Invincible company in 1933, directed by Richard Thorpe (whose directorial credit is in the form of a signature, an honor usually reserved for more prestigious directors like Erich von Stroheim) from a story and script by Harry Sauber. The credits are somewhat confused in that the opening title reads, “Maury M. Cohen Presents Forgotten, a Geo. R. Batcheller Production” — ordinarily Batcheller headed Chesterfield and Cohen headed Invincible (though they were actually two branches of the same company and both above- and below-the-line personnel freely bounced back and forth between them) — and the opening logo is Invincible’s (an eagle perched on a plinth, not that different from the 1940’s and 1950’s Republic logo) while the closing credits feature the Chesterfield logo. There’s also a bit of confusion as to the cast: the American Film Institute Catalog lists Jean Hersholt, Jr. as playing Hans Strauss, Jr., but there’s no Hans Strauss, Jr. in the film: he plays the younger version of Hans Strauss (Selmar Jackson), while his on-screen siblings Louie and Lena are played by Warren Glasser and Betty Jane Graham, respectively, as children, while their older selves — in the later part of the movie Hans has renamed himself “Hannaford” and Louie “Lee” — are Leon Waycoff (later Leon Ames) and June Clyde.

The real star of Forgotten is Lee Kohlmar as the Strausses’ father, who in the opening scene is shown boasting to “Uncle Adolph” (Otto Lederer) — though since the character is of a similar age to Strauss Vater it’s clear he’s called that because he’s the children’s uncle, not Strauss’s own — and it’s never made clear whether Adolph was the brother of Strauss or his wife, whom we never see in the film and we presume is deceased — that he now has “privileges” and he is no longer a foreigner in the U.S. Since both Strauss, Sr. and Adolph are speaking in thick German accents that sound like vaudeville voices, it’s clear they’re both immigrants (the film opened with a close-up of the Statue of Liberty and some stock shots of New York City tenements) but the “privileges” Strauss, Sr. are referring to are those of an American citizen — he has just naturalized and proudly shows off his naturalization papers. Then there’s a shot of a rainy mountainscape and over it the title, “Fifteen Years Later,” and the already grown Hans, a.k.a. Hannaford, has got older, Louie a.k.a. Lee and Lena (who alone of the Strauss kids has not changed her first name) are now adults, Strauss has risen through the class system and is now the owner of the profitable Strauss Dye Company, and both the Strauss sons have acquired unpleasantly gold-digging wives, Myrtle (Natalie Moorhead — we know from the credits that she’s a bad girl, not only because Natalie Moorhead is playing her but because when she’s introduced in the credits sequence she’s smoking a cigarette, in a script where the different ways the characters consume tobacco — cigarettes, cigars, pipes — are considered important indicia of who they are as people) and May (Natalie Kingston).

Under pressure from Myrtle and May, Hannaford and Lee convince their dad that he should retire, and eventually Lee and Myrtle force him out of the home he built with his dye-company earnings and push him into renting space at a home for old men, where he’s surrounded by quarrelsome, kvetchy codgers and lives an existence he hates but pretends to love. While all this is going on, Lena has been dating a young man named Joseph Meyers (William Collier, Jr.), who has invented a new dye process that, because the system of manufacturing it requires one less processing step, will be cheaper; also, unlike the Strausses’ existing process, which requires imported ingredients, the Meyers dye can be produced entirely from raw materials available in the U.S. — which appeals to Strauss Vater’s patriotism towards his adopted country but which the Strauss Söhne couldn’t care less about (which makes their attitude seem far more “modern” than their dad’s!). Unfortunately, she has to leave him (temporarily) when dad sends her out to California to look after the fatally ill Uncle Adolph. When she gets back, she realizes that what’s wrong with her father is he has nothing to do, so she hatches a plan to use the money Uncle Adolph willed her as capital to found a rival dye company, the American Dye Company, using her boyfriend’s process and her dad’s business expertise. American quickly underbids the Strauss company and within a year the Strauss brothers are forced to declare bankruptcy — only they’re bailed out by the mysterious owners of American, whom they have no idea are their father, sister and future brother-in-law.

Shot under the working title The Fifth Commandment (the one about honoring thy father and mother), Forgotten is an understated drama that thanks to Sauber’s script and the unsentimental direction of Richard Thorpe avoids the assault on the tear ducts stories like this usually mount; instead, with its parallels to the story of the prodigal son (actually referenced in the dialogue, even though this father has two prodigal sons and it’s his daughter who is the responsible one) and King Lear, it’s a classy melodrama in which Lee Kohlmar creates a haunting character in spite of his near-comic accent. It’s also an ironic movie in that it’s the father who realizes that the business has to grow, change and adopt new technologies to survive, while the sons are the “conservative” ones who refuse to change their production methods until it’s too late. And thanks to Chesterfield/Invincible’s production and distribution deal with Universal, though they were an independent company they had the run of a major studio, including the major studio’s backlog of sets (which is why Charles and I recognized some of the sets from Universal’s own productions) and even some of Universal’s personnel, including longtime “gowns” designer Vera West (they even made that a selling point for their movie by including in the opening credits, “Filmed at Universal City”!), and most importantly they also had access to state-of-the-art sound recording equipment, so the dialogue is clear and audible instead of muddy and buried under hiss the way it was in a lot of 1930’s indies. Forgotten is one of those minor gems buried in the output of 1930’s Hollywood, a pleasant time-filler and also a genuinely moving drama.