Sunday, November 17, 2013

Back Pay (Warner Bros. as "First National," 1930)

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

After The Opposite Sex, I went hunting for a relatively short movie to fill out the evening and found it in Back Pay, a 1930 production by Warner Bros. in “First National” drag (the logo on the end credit was even the First National one — a map of North America ringed by a chain, symbolizing that First National was founded in 1918 by independent theatres who organized into a chain, started a studio and hired the two biggest stars they could get, Mary Pickford from Paramount and Charlie Chaplin from Mutual, so they could ensure access to first-rate product with “A”-list stars and resist the efforts of Adolph Zukor of Paramount to merge the major studios into one giant company that would control all the top box-office draws — and not the familiar Warners shield), a remake of a 1922 silent and based on a story by fabled tear-jerker writer Fannie Hurst. The story opens in the small town of Demopolis, Virginia, which boasts that it has now reached sufficient size to support its own department store, Finley’s — but at the time (which is 1914, on the eve of World War I) it still doesn’t have much in the way of paved roads or automobiles: Finley’s customers still generally get there via horse-drawn wagons or carts. Hester Bevins (Corinne Griffith, a major silent star whose career quickly ended once talkies came in — she retired in 1932 and made only one more movie thereafter, Paradise Alley in 1962, though she lived until 1979) is a restless salesgirl at Finley’s who’s first seen at the picnic of the “Finley Employees’ Loyalty Association” (which sounds like a “company union” to me!) in the company of her boyfriend, apprentice bookkeeper Gerald Smith (Grant Withers, who looks like an apparition with his hair dyed blond; it’s the most attractive I’ve ever seen him but he’s still a mediocre actor). He wants to marry her, but she doesn’t want him because he’s poor; instead she wants to go to New York City, meet a rich man and become a kept woman. She pulls this off; a salesman who services the store, Al Bloom (Hallam Cooley), invites her to take the New York train with him, and in the film’s most powerfully staged sequence — much of the direction is surprisingly creative for a 1930 talkie, especially given that the director is the usually hacky William A. Seiter (his two best films, Sons of the Desert and Roberta, are great only because of the legendary teams that star in them: Laurel and Hardy in Sons of the Desert and Astaire and Rogers in Roberta!) — we see Hester in her room, debating whether to stay in Demopolis and be a good little girl or flee, and the noises of the train are heard outside her room, beckoning her to go — which she does with only the clothes on her back. Then we see a title saying essentially that Bloom couldn’t hold her long given that there were much higher bidders available, and in the next scene we see who won the auction: Charles Wheeler (Montagu Love), who’s first seen tearing his hair out over the bill for more than $1,000 she’s just stuck him with for her most recent wardrobe.

Wheeler and his kept woman have the usual useless hangers-on of both sexes, and they seem to spend most of their time getting into their cars (as an “goofs” poster pointed out, this is supposed to be taking place during World War I but both the women’s hairstyles and the cars are those of the late 1920’s) and going on long trips, first to Lake Placid in upstate New York and then to Hot Springs, Arkansas — which, at least according to the script Francis Edward Faragoh (whose most famous credits are Little Caesar and Frankenstein) fashioned from Fannie Hurst’s story, is close enough to Demopolis that Hester manages to convince Wheeler and their traveling companions, Ed (William Bailey) and Kitty (Vivien Oakland), to stop there so she can see the place for old times’ sake. By this time it’s 1917 and Gerald, convinced that Hester is a successful career woman, still wants her to marry him, and when she turns him down again he decides to enlist in the Army and go to France to fight in the war. Then he disappears from the story until there’s a big parade of returning disabled veterans, and Hester sees a list of the participants’ names in the paper and notices Gerald’s on it. We’ve already seen how he got injured — he was on a night detail laying down barbed wire to protect his trench from a German tank attack when he got pinned down and the Germans launched a gas attack which permanently blinded him — and of course it’s a shock to Hester. She asks Wheeler for permission to marry Gerald and stay with him for the two to three weeks his doctors say he has left to live. Wheeler duly O.K.’s this unusual deal, and Hester and Gerald live a happy and decent life for the time he has left — and by Fannie Hurst’s authorial fiat, Gerald lives just long enough to hear the Armistice Day parade go by his window (courtesy of some relatively well-integrated stock footage of the real one) before he croaks. Needless to say, Wheeler fully expects this woman in whom he’s invested so much to return to him, but Hester — who’s already signaled her discontent with being kept during one of the drunken parties Wheeler and company threw for her by saying, “If the wages of sin is death, I’ve got a lot of back pay due!” (the only time we hear the title explained) — walks out on her sugar daddy to a fate left powerfully unstated at the end.

This isn’t much of a plot, but there are so many felicities in how it’s done that Back Pay is worth watching almost in spite of itself — despite the major surgery it got when director Seiter’s original 77-minute cut got shorn of 20 minutes before the film’s general release (and no, I have no idea of what was deleted). I was particularly amused when Wheeler is planning to take Hester to the opera, and I couldn’t help but joke, “What opera? Traviata? Bohème? Manon?” — all operas about women torn between being mistresses of rich men and their genuine love of not-so-rich ones, and all works in which the heroines die at the end. What makes this especially interesting for an early talkie, though, is Seiter’s surprisingly stylish direction, even though the film was shot with the cumbersome Vitaphone sound-on-film process (the next year Warners would abandon Vitaphone and start shooting sound-on-film like everyone else); the film includes quite a few uses of off-screen sound effects as well as musical underscoring under dialogue without any on-screen source (the film histories generally cite Cimarron, from 1931, as the first talkie to use unsourced music under dialogue, but here’s one from a year earlier). Seiter also gets a relatively naturalistic dialogue delivery from his actors, though one can pretty well tell why Corinne Griffith’s career ended so quickly after the transition; like John Gilbert and Marion Davies, there wasn’t anything particularly wrong with her voice per se but she delivers all her lines in pretty much of a monotone, without varying her inflections to convey emotions. Still, Back Pay is an interesting movie — watching it right after The Opposite Sex offered a compelling contrast in their attitudes towards women gold-diggers (and, if anything, the portrayal in Back Pay seems actually a bit more sympathetic — or at least understanding — towards the “kept woman” even though we don’t really like her until her love and self-sacrifice at the end ennoble her), and it was also a surprise that a usually plain and unstylish director like William A. Seiter actually had some creative talent before it got burned out of him by years of hackwork.