Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Delightful Rogue (RKO, 1929)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ran a 1929 movie called The Delightful Rogue I’d recently recorded from TCM, which I was interested in for a couple of reasons. First, the star was Rod La Rocque, and after having just seen him in what’s probably his most famous role — as the “bad” brother in the 1923 The Ten Commandments — I thought it would be interesting to watch him in a talkie. Also, Brad Kay’s Superbatone reissue of Jane Green’s “almost complete recordings” — there’s at least one take of every song this interesting and woefully short-lived (1897-1931) singer recorded, though including the existing alternate takes would have made this longer than a single CD — includes a song from this film, “Gay Love” (dig that title!) by Oscar Levant and Sidney Clare, which Green recorded as voice double for the film’s female lead, Rita La Roy. I’d seen The Delightful Rogue before in the 1980’s back when American Movie Classics was what TCM is now — the cable channel for hard-core old-movie fanatics like me — before it became “Debbie-ized” and turned into an outlet for dull, sodden “original” shows — and hadn’t been impressed by it. I’m still not, though at least A. Leslie Pearce’s direction is considerably more capable than the work of some early talkie directors: at least he doesn’t have … the actors … insert those … damnable … pauses … between hearing their cue lines and speaking their own (watching a film like Behind That Curtain will make you understand why so many late-1920’s critics actually thought silent films were more naturalistic than sound ones), and the voice dubbing is handled more artfully than it was in many later musicals: Rita La Roy’s speaking voice and Jane Green’s singing voice sound credible as the same person, which didn’t always happen later.

The weaknesses of The Delightful Rogue are the hackneyed nature of the plot (the writer was Wallace Smith, who five years later came up with the bizarrerie of The Captain Hates the Sea — he seems to have been the sort of writer who reveled in how weirdly he could mash up the standard clichés, but sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t) and the horrible appearance and voice of Rod La Rocque. For his role as “Lastro,” international outlaw, murderer, (alleged) pirate (though the ship he sails on, a steam yacht, doesn’t seem like an appropriate platform from which to commit piracy) and (it’s hinted) deposed South American dictator, La Rocque adopts a hideous makeup with so much goop in his hair it looks lacquered to his scalp, and to suggest Latino-ness he speaks in a ridiculous voice that’s almost impossible to describe — you really have to hear it to believe it, and wonder why La Rocque, Pearce or whoever else might have been involved (imdb.com credits Lynn Shores as a co-director but he was probably a producer instead) actually thought this absurd accent would be credible as a Latino, or for that matter as a human being. The plot takes place on the fictional South Seas island of Tapit (“played” by Hollywood’s go-to location for Polynesia, Catalina), where Lastro is determined to win cabaret singer Nydra (Rita La Roy) away from her rather wimpy boyfriend Harry Beall (Charles Byer — and he’s blankly pretty but there’s a reason you’ve never heard of him) even though the entire Tapitian army (which seems to consist of an overweight commander, an assistant officer and about 100 mixed-race enlisted men in comic-opera uniforms) is out to capture him and collect the reward on his head. (He makes a big to-do about the unflattering picture of him on his wanted poster.)

He escapes the Tapitian army absurdly easily — either the commander is an old friend of his, he bribed him, or both — and kidnaps both Nydra and Beall. Lastro promises to release Beall in the morning if he can spend one night with Nydra, only when he gets Nydra alone with him in his (ludicrously well-appointed, given that we’re supposed to be on a small ship) bedroom he announces that he’s not going to … well, you know, with her. Only she insists on remaining with him until dawn as a test of whether Beall truly loves her enough to stay with her even if she spends a hot, sexy night with the pirate … or at least makes it look like she has. Beall is predictably disappointed and has a jealous hissy-fit, but agrees to leave with her — only at the last minute she jumps out of the launch and somehow makes it back to Lastro’s ship, united with her dashing pirate at the end. The Delightful Rogue has its points of interest, including the wild “Barbary Café” where Nydra performs (it’s owned by a Jewish-stereotype comedian, Harry Semels, as “Hymie”), at which we see two men dancing together in each other’s arms just before Nydra comes out and gives forth with “Gay Love.” (Gay love, indeed!) Mostly, though, it’s just a slog through the old cliché mill, and the two similarly named stars (both “R La R”!) don’t have much chemistry — though given the horrible makeup and accent La Rocque was saddled with, one can’t really criticize his acting, just feel sympathy with him for what he was up against. As a silent with Rudolph Valentino as star, The Delightful Rogue just might have worked, but as it stands it really doesn’t have much to offer (and if Valentino had survived long enough to make talkies, his career might have ended anyway if his producers had given him a script like this!). When I looked it up on imdb.com a recent review by someone calling him-, her- or itself “gerdeen-1” made fun of it in much the same way I would have: “If you’re one of those people who celebrate ‘International Talk Like a Pirate Day,’ check out La Rocque’s effort. You’ve got to be better at it than he is.”