Friday, October 11, 2013

Laughing Sinners (MGM, 1931)

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

After our recent viewing of St. Louis Woman with Jeanette Loff and Johnny Mack Brown (a better-than-average indie from 1934 with solid direction by Albert Ray) I thought it would be interesting to watch the movie that cost Johnny Mack Brown his major-studio career. He was a former football player who was signed by MGM late in the silent era and got to make silent films opposite the big female stars on the MGM lot: Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford. In 1931 MGM production chief Irving Thalberg green-lighted director Harry Beaumont (whose 1929 musical The Broadway Melody had won the first Best Picture Academy Award given to a sound film) to make a film based on a recent (1930) play by Kenyon Nicholson called Torch Song. This was about a small-time cabaret entertainer in Cincinnati who falls for a traveling salesman, only he dumps her for a rich woman and she’s about to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge when she’s rescued by a Salvation Army missionary. Thalberg cast Joan Crawford as the cabaret singer, Ivy “Bunny” Stevens; Neil Hamilton as the slimeball salesman, Howard “Howdy” Palmer; and Johnny Mack Brown as Carl Loomis, the Salvationist who Takes Her Away From All That — only when Beaumont turned in his first cut, Thalberg decided that Mack Brown’s performance was too weak and ordered all his scenes reshot with another actor. The new actor was Clark Gable, whom MGM had signed without a clear idea of what to do with him — in his early days at MGM he alternated between playing the voice of traditional morality (as he’d done as Constance Bennett’s brother-in-law in his first MGM film, The Easiest Way) and playing a bad-ass gangster (as he did in his first film with Crawford, Dance, Fools, Dance, and in the sensationally successful A Free Soul with Norma Shearer and Lionel Barrymore)

It was when Gable managed to fuse the good and bad sides of his characterizations and started to play lovable rogues on screen that his career “broke” and he became a superstar. (It also helped when he grew the famous moustache, which oddly brought more character and definition to his face; this early he’s clean-shaven and it’s Hamilton who’s sporting a neatly trimmed moustache that establishes him as a slimeball roué who uses women.) Frankly, Johnny Mack Brown would probably have been more believable as a Salvationist — given the way they were usually cast, one would expect to see Gable as the seducing salesman and Hamilton as the Salvationist — but Gable’s presence on screen is so electrifying that even in a miscast role he makes his authority felt and makes the predictable ending (Ivy strays back into Howdy’s arms when the two end up in the same hotel, she’s ready to throw all the traces over and embrace the wild side, only Gable comes in and, in the same stern tones he’d use to boss Vivien Leigh around eight years later in Gone With the Wind, he orders her back to the straight and narrow, and by sheer force of will he gets her to comply) believable. Laughing Sinners isn’t much of a film plot-wise but it’s saved by the sheer conviction with which it’s done, the skill of Beaumont and the writers (Bess Meredyth, Edith Fitzgerald and an uncredited Martin Flavin) in depicting the various moods of the story, and the ability of the actors to use what the director and writers have given them to create characters we can believe in and care about. It’s also nice to see Joan Crawford this early in her career, and while there are scenes in which she’s visibly thinking out her performance instead of really becoming the character, she’s able to make us feel for the emotional dilemmas that have left her caught between these two different men and the two very different lives they’re offering her.

It’s also one of MGM’s most successful forays into the proletarian territory usually staked out by Warner Bros.; the nightclub where Ivy performs looks like a nightclub and not an airplane hangar done up in art deco, the atmosphere of the hotel room where Howdy and his equally slimy friends Mike (Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards) and Cass (Guy Kibbee, repeating a role he’d played in the Broadway stage production of Torch Song) attempt to have their way with Ivy and their other pickups is properly sleazy (and though Kibbee is a letch in this one he’s considerably lower on the socioeconomic scale than he usually played at Warners and he’s much less of a comic foof — both he and Crawford manage to make us believe the rather preposterous plot turn that she’s been so filled with self-hatred after Howdy re-deflowers her that she’s willing to throw herself at him because all those woman-hating men around her have convinced her she deserves nothing better), and both the bad and the good worlds are refreshingly free of the gloss that afflicted later MGM productions. The spaces the characters inhabit look like those the script tells us they could afford, and director Beaumont and cinematographer Charles Rosher manage to make the scenes between Crawford and Gable look lighter than the ones between Crawford and Hamilton without resorting to sparkledust effects on the former or chiaroscuro shadows to represent the demi-monde. Indeed, the scenes in which Gable and Crawford are working a children’s picnic the Salvation Army is throwing glow with innocence without getting as glucose-sweet as such scenes usually are (it probably helps that this film was made three years before the emergence of Shirley Temple and her redefining, seemingly forever, the depiction of children in movies into her gooey-sweet mold) — and the kids at the picnic are, astonishingly, racially integrated: Black and white kids are playing together and being served food together and nobody is making a big deal about it either way.

Laughing Sinners is one of those studio-era triumphs of style over substance — and it’s a curious coincidence that Marjorie Rambeau is in the cast playing an aging, over-the-hill entertainer at the cabaret where Crawford works, and 22 years later she would play Crawford’s mother in an MGM film that used the original title of this one, Torch Song. From the opening scene in which Crawford greets Neil Hamilton’s train in a driving rainstorm to the closing, in which she and Gable walk arm-in-arm, their backs to the camera, in a sylvan nature glade on a sunny day, Laughing Sinners is a testament to the cool professionalism of the studio system in general and its underrated director, Harry Beaumont (who according to film historian Richard Barrios had far more “clout” at MGM than a lot of directors who are much more highly regarded today), in particular.