Thursday, November 27, 2014

Peacock Alley (Tiffany, 1930)

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

Afterwards Charles and I ran the 1930 film Peacock Alley, made by Mae Murray on her way down and out. Mae Murray was a former Ziegfeld Follies star who’d studied dancing with Vernon Castle and worked with him in a 1906 musical (when she was just 17!) called About Town. She made her film debut in 1916 in To Have and To Hold with Wallace Reid, and after two previous husbands she married director Robert Z. Leonard, who even though movies were still silent managed to build her into a major screen attraction by staging spectacular dance numbers with her. Murray helped boost Rudolph Valentino’s career, dancing with him first “live” and then in two films, including The Delicious Little Devil, directed by Leonard at Universal in 1917. In 1925 Murray got the plum assignment of playing the title role in Erich von Stroheim’s adaptation of The Merry Widow at MGM — which turned out to be a disastrous experience for both of them. Stroheim got along just fine with the film’s male star, John Gilbert — ironically, they bonded over their mutual detestation of studio head Louis B. Mayer — but he and Murray hated each other from the get-go and at one point Murray actually pulled rank with Mayer to have Stroheim fired from the film. Only she did that at a time when her big dance number to the Merry Widow waltz was half-finished — and the extras refused to come back for the second day’s work unless Stroheim was rehired. About the same time Murray divorced Robert Z. Leonard and married Prince David Mdivani, one of three brothers from an impoverished Polish royal family, all of whom latched onto major movie stars and bled them dry financially — so five years after being the star of one of the biggest movies of the year Mae Murray was reduced to working at Tiffany Studios (a company she and Leonard had co-founded in 1921 but had passed to other hands by then). Peacock Alley was actually filmed in 1929, though not released for a year afterwards, and the original print included a big 10-minute production number called “In My Dreams, You Still Belong to Me” (in which she lip-synchs to a voice double and does the big dance number her audiences would have expected in her first sound film), which was shot in two-strip Technicolor. Apparently the sequence actually exists, but the currently circulating version (we got it from an download) doesn’t include it.

So what we got was a 54-minute soap opera in which Broadway showgirl Claire Tree (Mae Murray) spends her spare time hanging around the lavish (as lavish as a Tiffany set-design budget could make it, anyway) Park-Plaza Hotel and occasionally going up to a room and spending the night with a male companion. From this, the typically obnoxious house detective Dugan (William L. Thorne) has concluded she’s That Kind of Girl, though she really isn’t. At the start of the film she’s having a confrontation with her latest well-to-do boyfriend, Stoddard Clayton (George Barraud), who wants to keep her as a mistress and set her up in an apartment in Long Island. But she’s virtuously disgusted with that idea and instead insists that she’ll only be with him if he marries her. He declines on the basis that marriage is an old-fashioned institution and if two people really love each other they don’t need validation from the government or a church. She regards that as so much malarkey and, after giving him one last night together, she tells him she has another partner who is willing to marry her and she’s going to take him up on it. The other man is Jim Bradbury (Jason Robards — the father of the famous Jason Robards who became renowned starring in revivals of Eugene O’Neill’s plays on Broadway and briefly became Lauren Bacall’s second husband), who works as a district attorney in the Texas county in which Claire grew up and has always loved her. He arrives in New York, they get married and they end up spending the wedding night at the Park-Plaza even though Claire, knowing what she’s going to be up against, pleads with him to take her anywhere else. Their wedding night is interrupted by Dugan, who orders them both out of the hotel; the hotel manager apologizes to them and offers to comp them for the rest of their stay if they remain and he doesn’t sue; but Jim will only accept that offer if Claire can assure him that there’s no truth to Dugan’s allegations — and Claire refuses to lie. Jim storms off and then there’s an abrupt cut in which the production number (which takes place at the Peacock Alley nightclub where Claire works — without that sequence there’s no explanation of the film’s title) is supposed to take place, following which Stoddard Clayton reappears, again tells Claire he’s in love with her and this time is willing to marry her (presumably after her marriage to Jim is annulled).

Directed by Marcel de Sano (who turned up at MGM the next year collaborating on the script of Red-Headed Woman with F. Scott Fitzgerald, of all people — though their script wasn’t used and Anita Loos wrote the brilliant, wisecracky version that was finally filmed and became Jean Harlow’s breakthrough movie) from a script by some prodigiously talented writers — Carey Wilson and Wells Root, both of whom had their names on much better films than this, as well as Frances Hyland — Peacock Alley seems like a great idea for a movie that faltered badly in the execution. Most of it is played in long dialogue scenes aimed directly at the camera, though at least the actors don’t have to take long pauses between hearing their cue lines and speaking their own, and while the two male leads turn in serviceable performances, it’s clear that Mae Murray was pretty much at sea in sound-film acting. She’s not downright bad — the problem seems that, like her Merry Widow co-star John Gilbert, she didn’t know how to act with her voice, how to vary her inflections to convey emotions. It also doesn’t help that she was 40 years old when she made this, and the makeup department tried to cover up her age by plastering the stuff on her with a trowel; between that and the horrible bee-sting lips that had been her trademark in her peak but had gone way out of fashion by 1929 she looks less like a woman than a drag queen, and a modern viewer might have some interesting fantasies about what really upset that house detective about “her”! There’s one interesting scene early on, as she’s leaving Stoddard for the first time, when her voice starts to growl like Bette Davis and we start to think that under a better director and with a more challenging script she could have learned to act with her voice and had a decent talkie career — but it comes on like a flash and goes just as fast, leaving Murray to declaim her rest of her lines in a dreary monotone.

There’s a myth that virtually none of the silent-era stars crossed over to the talkies and had major careers in sound films, which is half true; most of the major male stars actually did make the transition (Gary Cooper, William Powell, Ronald Colman), and while fewer of the women did, it was more because when sound came in a lot of  them, including Murray and Gloria Swanson (whose first talkie, The Trespasser, was actually the biggest hit she ever had!), were hitting their mid- to late-1930’s, an awkward age for women stars then and now! It would be nice to see Peacock Alley with the color musical sequence inserted — as with Chasing Rainbows (that odd early musical with Jack Benny and Marie Dressler for which the two-strip sequences are lost, making the film seem much more of a soap opera and less of a musical than its makers intended), without a showcase for Murray’s dancing skills Peacock Alley is dangerously imbalanced — but even if it were restored and shown “complete” it would be nothing more than a curio, a regrettable footnote to the career of a once-major and now-forgotten star. (She made two more movies in 1931 and then retired, though she had something of a comeback in Britain in the late 1940’s as a producer.) Charles did have an interesting comparison between Peacock Alley and The Fake that hadn’t occurred to me: he noted that in Peacock Alley Mae Murray’s character actually has some agency — she has values and is able to exert them in her relationships with men — while in The Fake, made 23 years later, the female character is purely decorative, just there to provide someone for the leading man to fall in love and have a few minor romantic crises with, with virtually no plot role at all.