Sunday, November 18, 2012

Picture Brides (Allied/Screencraft, 1933)

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

The film was Picture Brides, one of those 1930’s indies of uncertain provenance (the producer is M. H. Hoffman and the opening credit lists the producing studio as “Allied Pictures” while the closing credit lists it as “Screencraft”!), directed by Phil Rosen from a script by Adele Buffington (and, according to the American Film Institute Catalog, “additional dialogue” by an uncredited Will Ahern) based on a play called Red Kisses by Charles E. Blaney and Harry Clay Blaney (they were brothers and their scripts were donated to the library at Princeton). It’s one of those movies that’s O.K. in its own right but all too reminiscent of other, better movies made before it, including Safe in Hell (with whom it shares the same female lead, Dorothy Mackaill), Sensation Hunters, The Lottery Bride (though that’s actually an even more infuriating, boring movie than Picture Brides; not only were we supposed to believe Jeanette MacDonald as a mail-order bride, virtually nothing happened until the predictable melodramatic ending).

It takes place in the generic Hollywood rain forest, at the Stand Diamond Mine in a town called Lotograsso (according to the original review in Variety, the setting was supposed to be Brazil but the only clue to that in the film is the similarity between the town’s name and the real-life Mato Grosso province in Brazil), out in the middle of the proverbial nowhere, where Black workers clad only in loincloths (which gave this movie an aesthetic appeal, at least to me, having nothing to do with its plot or quality, or lack of same, as a film!) slave in the diamond mines for a sadistic overseer and part-owner named Van Luden (Alan Hale). In between the native workers and Van Luden are a handful of white men, all escaped criminals, who have some sort of position with the mine, one of whom is actually Van Luden’s partner, Dave Hart (Regis Toomey). Hart is wanted for embezzlement and there are two detectives on their way from the U.S. with extradition papers to take him in. Presumably he used the money he stole to finance the mine and acquire half-ownership of it, but that’s not made clear in Buffington’s script. Indeed, so much is not made clear in Buffington’s script that Charles was convinced whoever uploaded this to had got the reels out of order — though the sequence of events described in the AFI Catalog synopsis matches what we saw in the film. The “picture brides” of the title are a group of young women, just as desperate as the men, who have offered themselves to marry the white miners, sight unseen, and are on their way down to Lotogrosso in the monthly boat that services it. One of them, Mary Lee (Dorothy Libaire), was innocently lured to Lotogrosso by Van Luden, who sent her a letter offering her a job as hostess in the miners’ canteen. The other women laugh at her naïveté and eventually Mame (Dorothy Mackaill) sets her straight. Mame offers to trade places with Mary so Mary can marry the relatively decent (and good-looking) Hart instead of getting stuck with Van Luden or one of the other miners.

Also in the dramatis personae are an alcoholic ex-doctor named Rogers (Harvey Clark) and Mataeo (a nicely etched performance by Mary Kornman), the half-native girl he fathered and who’s used basically as a semen dumping ground by the white miners until their fairer, blonder “picture brides” arrive. There’s a sick little pre-wedding party at which Mataeo does a raunchy dance (this was 1933, still in the so-called “pre-Code” era!) and a mass wedding ceremony for the miners and their “brides,” including the ridiculously queeny Brownie (Will Ahern) who drove a cart to the dock and met the “picture brides” in the first place, who falls in love with Mame and tells her he’s never felt this way about a woman before (something we have no trouble believing!) — the AFI Catalog synopsis says he’s an ex-prizefighter but that’s not mentioned in the movie and it’s frankly unbelievable. Van Luden wants the innocent, virginal Mary and tries to rape her; Mame alerts Dave, who rescues her; Brownie proposes to Mame and gives her a rock as an engagement present, telling her it’s a diamond in the rough and when it’s cut it will be a 15-carat gemstone (“Fifteen carats!” Mame bursts forth, amazed, in what’s Dorothy Mackaill’s best moment in the movie); and at the end Van Luden lures Mataeo to his bedroom and rapes her, then leads the detectives to Dave, only Dr. Rogers (ya remember Dr. Rogers) kills Van Luden for raping his daughter, and Dave takes the $250,000 he invested in the mine from Van Luden’s corpse and gives it to the two detectives to pay off what he stole and compensate them for the reward they were expecting for busting him, so the film ends with Dave and Mary on their way back to the U.S. and Brownie left in charge of the mine, which Dave (the sole surviving owner) has instructed him to sell.

 Picture Brides is a movie that had a lot more potential than was realized; Dorothy Mackaill was a sporadically interesting actress who was brilliant under William Wellman’s direction in Safe in Hell and is actually quite good here, though hardly as incandescent as she was in Safe in Hell — and though she’s top-billed she’s clearly playing the second female role rather than the lead. Phil Rosen’s direction is competent but hardly at the level of Wellman’s, or of Tay Garnett’s in the similar Panama Flo and Prestige (or Victor Fleming’s in what’s perhaps the most famous film in this sub-genre, the 1932 Red Dust) — though Rosen’s work here is at least not slovenly, the way it got in those terrible potboilers he made at Monogram in the mid-1940’s — but it’s a story that could have used a lot more creative atmospherics than Rosen either could have brought or cared to bring to it. It’s the sort of movie that wears out its welcome even though it’s only a shade under an hour long, and we’re less tolerant of it than we’d be if we hadn’t seen these or similar situations done superbly in Safe in Hell and Sensation Hunters.