Friday, July 19, 2013

Men of the North (MGM, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Men of the North, a 1930 snooze-fest from MGM directed by Hal Roach (of all people — apparently as part of Roach’s distribution deal with MGM to release his marvelous comedy shorts with Laurel and Hardy, Anita Garvin and Edgar Kennedy, and others, he asked for and was given the assignment to direct this serious “Northern” drama at MGM itself) from an “original” (quotes definitely merited) story by Willard Mack and a screenplay by Richard Schayer. It was one of a series of “Northerns” TCM decided to show one recent morning, and it stars Gilbert Roland as French-Canadian trapper Louis La Bey. At the start of the film he’s celebrating his birthday with a case of (stolen) beer in a hall large enough for his guests to do the Virginia reel (Sammy Lee was credited with dance direction but this is a simple and well-known enough dance he really didn’t need to work that hard at it), despite the tsk-tsk’ing of his best friend, a priest played by Robert Graves, Jr. He encounters hot blonde white girl Nedra Ruskin (the singularly uncharismatic Barbara Leonard) and immediately falls for her, much to the consternation of his Native girlfriend “Woolie-Woolie” (Nina Quartaro).

Through most of the film we’re carefully led to believe that Louis is really the outlaw “Louis the Fox,” and he’s being chased as such by the Columbo-like Mountie Sgt. Mooney (Robert Elliott, an actor whose approach to being in a talkie is evidently to see if he can gum his lines to death before they exit his mouth) — only he seems to be on hand to rescue both Nedra and her father, Senator John Ruskin (Arnold Korff), so often the Lone Ranger seems like a recluse by comparison. They get stranded in the snow? He’s there to pick them up and offer them a lift. They get buried in an avalanche (a scene I suspect was taken from the same Northern documentary — the 1926 Pathé two-reeler Alaska Adventure — as the “Frozen North” footage in the 1944 Monogram film Return of the Ape Man)? Louis is there to dig them out and rescue them again. Eventually the jealous Woolie-Woolie reports Louis to the cops, Sgt. Mooney and his even dumber and more oppressive assistant Corporal Smith (George Davis), and he’s duly arrested for stealing gold from a mine owned by the Ruskins. He’s put through a preliminary hearing — at which it develops that he was really half-owner of the mine, only his partner sold his share to the Ruskins and told them they were buying the whole mine, so he was merely taking back the gold that was rightfully his. Accordingly Louis is freed, he and Nedra pair off and goodness knows what happens to Woolie-Woolie, who’s not only a much more interesting character but is played by a far better actress. Men of the North is the sort of movie that could have been made quite excitingly about six years later, when sound technology had been perfected, actors were allowed to speak normally on screen, background music was available to liven up the action scenes, and the major studios had become far more adept at splicing stock footage and second-unit work into the main action. Alas, the version we have was actually made in 1930, and despite his reputation for running his own lot like a tyrant Hal Roach was still letting the people in the studio sound department push him around, telling the actors … to … speak … very … slowly … and … distinctly, and patiently wait for their cue line to finish before they spoke their own line.

There are plenty of stories about how clueless Hollywood in general was in the early days of sound (one of my favorites was how Paul Whiteman was summoned to Universal in 1929 to make The King of Jazz and forced to assemble his orchestra on the sound stage and record innumerable “tests” for sound engineers who knew far less about how to record a band than did Whiteman, who in 1929 had been one of America’s top recording artists for nine years), and though it’s not as horrendously dull and awful as Behind That Curtain, Men of the North is pretty boring. About the only fun the movie involved is the sheer camp element: it’s hard enough to believe Gilbert Roland’s sing-song speaking style as coming from a French-Canadian — he seemed to think he could disguise his genuine Mexican origins by pushing his voice higher and adopting a sing-song timbre without actually changing his accent — and it’s harder to believe the even thicker-accented Latina Nina Quartaro as a Native from north of the U.S., though aside from the risible “Mexican Spitfire” accent she’s a quite dynamic screen presence and she dominates every scene she’s in. The film also suffers from an all too obvious mismatch between the second-unit footage that was actually shot on a snowy location with silent cameras and the “outdoor” footage involving the stars, which was obviously from a backlot set with a lot of white-painted cornflakes strewn about to represent snow. It’s clear that none of the actors involved have any idea of how to drive a dog-team to pull a sled — something that happens quite often in this film — instead none of the sleds would move if it weren’t for the actors’ doubles driving them correctly across genuine snow in long-shots. Between the mish-mash of accents, the mish-mash of studio and location footage, the overall clichéd dullness of the script and the utter failure to depict that the actors are really in extreme climates (as in all too many “Northerns,” the actors’ breaths don’t steam the way people’s do in genuinely cold environments), Men of the North is an endurance test (it’s only 65 minutes but it seems considerably longer than that), and it’s hard to believe anybody took it seriously just eight years after Robert Flaherty had shown us what this country really looked like, and how people lived in it, in Nanook of the North!