Friday, July 20, 2012

Untamed (MGM, 1929)

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

The film was Untamed, a 1929 MGM production that is usually listed as Joan Crawford’s first talkie — though Hollywood Revue of 1929, an all-star musical MGM released the exact same day as Untamed (November 23, 1929), also counts as a Crawford talkie (and features her in a two-strip Technicolor scene; in 1939 Crawford appeared in two other films with color sequences, The Women and Ice Follies of 1939, even though she didn’t make a film entirely in color until Torch Song in 1953), and in both movies she not only dances but sings (doing the latter in a foghorn contralto that compared favorably to a lot of the so-called “torch singers” of the time — Crawford even made a few records for the Brunswick label in the mid-1930’s, though to my knowledge none of them are available today). What makes this movie particularly weird is the bizarre, contrived plotline, based on a story by Charles Scoggins, scripted by Sylvia Thalberg (no need to tell you whose sister she was!) and Frank Butler, with Lucille Newmark as title writer (like a lot of early talkies, this film continued the silent convention of using titles to indicate changes of scene, locale or time and to provide plot exposition, even though sound had rendered dialogue titles unnecessary) and Willard Mack, uncredited, providing additional dialogue. Untamed is one of those odd movies that’s really two films rather arbitrarily joined together at the midpoint: the first 40 minutes take place in the jungles of Latin America (it’s not clear which Latin American country they’re talking about, but the hints are that it’s a relatively large one with a big river running through it, so I guessed Brazil).

Alice Dowling (Joan Crawford) has been living there since girlhood, when her father Hank Dowling (Lloyd Ingram) took her down there as he was looking for oil. He found it, but in the meantime he’s descended from normal white guy to drunken wreck, and when the movie begins his daughter — nicknamed “Bingo” by the natives — is shown singing a Nacio Herb Brown-Arthur Freed song called “Chant of the Jungle” with a full band of native players. Then she’s nearly raped by a seedy-looking guy with a scraggly beard; unwilling to take no for an answer, her would-be rapist (whom she’s successfully fought off; Bingo’s quickness to resort to fisticuffs whenever she doesn’t get her way is a leitmotif of the film) goes to daddy and essentially asks the old man to sell him Bingo for drink money. Showing that all his ethics haven’t quite yet been pickled in alcohol, the old man picks a fight with Bingo’s assailant — and gets mortally wounded. Fortunately, Hank Dowling’s old friends Ben Murchison (Ernest Torrence) and Howard Presley (Holmes Herbert) chose that time to show up with the idea of taking Hank back to civilization. On his deathbed Hank tells Ben and Howard that there’s a tin box under his bed with clear title to huge tracts of oil-producing land, and he wants them to take Bingo out of the jungle and make sure she gets her fair share of the money from the oil. They take her to New York City on a tramp steamer, where Bingo meets and immediately falls in love with Andy McAllister (Robert Montgomery, in his fourth film, looking like he just got out of high school — though later writers Scoggins, Thalberg and Butler make his youth and lack of money a principal driving issue in the plot) and threatens to beat up the woman Andy has been dating, Marge (Gwen Lee), if she doesn’t give him up. Needless to say, Ben and Howard worry about this, not only because Howard has a crush on Bingo himself but also because they realize that once she gets to New York they’ll have to teach her conventional social manners and how to behave around people who didn’t spend years of their lives in the jungle, forced to be on guard and constantly fight others for their survival.

The story of just how they trained the jungle ways out of her could have made an interesting series of scenes, but instead the writers and director Jack Conway use one of Newmark’s titles to jump forward eight months, when the transformation is complete and Alice Dowling — to use her “civilized” name — comes down a spectacular staircase in the Cedric Gibbons-Van Nest Polglase-designed mansion her oil money has bought her, dressed to the nines in one of Gilbert Adrian’s fabled creations. She’s still quick to anger and quick to threaten, but the rest of the plot takes much the same turn as the other reverse-Cinderella stories that were a short-lived rage in early-talkie Hollywood (Dynamite, The Hot Heiress and Love Me Tonight), as Alice’s money and Andy’s lack of it combine to monkey-wrench their relationship until, on the eve of a big party at which Alice is planning to announce her engagement to Andy, Ben writes a $50,000 check to Andy, intending that he’ll tear it up and be so hurt by the blow to his pride that he’ll walk out of their lives forever, whereupon Howard can marry her (even though he’s twice as old as she, pretty seedy-looking and there’s no evidence that Alice a.k.a. Bingo was ever interested in him as a potential romantic or sexual partner) — only Andy double-crosses them and announces he’s going to take the money and marry Marge on it. Then, after he’s got horribly drunk at the party, he triple-crosses them and tears up the check after all, and finally Ben and Howard offer Andy a job running the Dowling mines (mines? Earlier on it was established that the Dowling money was from oil!) back in Brazil or wherever the movie started, so the two of them can get married after all and get safely out of the country where Alice’s, nèe Bingo’s, money won’t be an issue. (Well, at least it’s a little better than the finales of Dynamite and The Hot Heiress, in which the rich woman had to give up all her money at the insistence of the hot but broke proletarian she had married.)  

Untamed is actually a good movie technically — the camera angles are varied and the actors deliver their dialogue naturalistically without … those … damnable … pauses between each other’s lines that make a lot of early talkies almost unwatchable today (and gave rise to the frequently expressed sentiment among film critics then that the silent screen was actually a more realistic medium than the sound one) — and Crawford gets to sing two songs (one of them a duet with Montgomery, who has even less of a voice than she; no record company in the world was going to sign him!), do some wild dancing (before she signed with MGM she’d been known primarily as a featured dancer in the Shubert musical revues on Broadway, and even some of her silent films, notably Our Dancing Daughters, feature her as a dancer) and generally project herself as the forceful, rebellious personality the audiences from Crawford’s silents had come to expect before she transitioned from that image to the long-suffering shopgirl trying to sleep her way to upward mobility which she played in most of her early-1930’s films. The rest of the acting is serviceable, though Robert Montgomery is a virtual blank — it’s hard to believe from this movie that within two years he’d be a sophisticated enough light comedian to play the role in Noël Coward’s Private Lives that Coward had written for himself — and Ernest Torrence, an effective villain in silent films, has a scratchy voice that gets a bit annoying, especially since here he’s playing a rare (for him) sympathetic role. It’s well made and it’s got plenty of the MGM gloss — though the jungle scenes are utterly convincing (as they’d been in the Tod Browning-Lon Chaney vehicle West of Zanzibar in 1928 and would be in Red Dust in 1932 — for a studio whose contemporary urban-set films were so glossy MGM was surprisingly good at depicting the Third World!) and the Bingo incarnation of Crawford’s character is frankly more interesting than her Alice incarnation.