Thursday, January 1, 2015

Captain Swagger (Pathé, 1928)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Captain Swagger, a Pathé production from 1928 and a vehicle for Rod La Rocque (a sporadically interesting actor whose best film was probably his performance as the “bad” brother in Cecil B. DeMille’s silent version of The Ten Commandments in 1923, opposite Richard Dix as the “good” brother) whose first reel is probably its best. It takes place in World War I, and La Rocque plays Captain Hugh Drummond (presumably an American flying with the Lafayette Escadrille since he has an Anglo name but his plane is a French Spad), who shoots down German ace Von Stahl (Ullricht Haupt) but allows him to live if Von Stahl will allow him to escape and fly his own plane back to the French lines. Directed by Edward H. Griffith — a director with a spotty record but one who made some quite compelling films (notably Next Time We Love, a Universal film from 1936 that was the first of four teamings of Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart — Captain Swagger introduces the La Rocque character while he’s tumbling out of a car, dead drunk, accompanied by a woman he’s obviously picked up for the evening. Alas, after the war sequence the film flashes forward 10 years to the 1928 present, and Drummond is a Broadway playboy who’s run through his fortune and is about to be thrown out of his suite at the Plaza Apartments. To the shock of his comic-relief butler/sidekick Jean (Victor Potel) — apparently we were supposed to believe he’d brought this guy back from the war as a sort of human souvenir — Drummond announces that he’s going to get his fortune back by using a “Chicago-style” technique, meaning he’s going to become a modern-day highwayman and hold up passing cars.

The first passing car he holds up — in a preposterous (even by 1928 standards!) get-up of top hat, tails and a white mask — is occupied by unemployed dancer Sue Arnold (Sue Carol, who later quit acting and became an agent; she’s best known for both discovering and marrying Alan Ladd) and her sugar daddy de jour, Phil Poole (Richard Tucker). Phil is driving their car (a Rolls-Royce with right-hand drive, which in itself establishes him as a snooty no-goodnick) in a reckless fashion that indicates he’s drunk, and when the car finally skids to a stop Phil puts some untoward moves on Our Heroine that lead her to ask the bandit to rescue her. Naturally, he does so, taking her back to his apartment — she complains that she owes one month on his own place and is about to be thrown out onto the streets, and he shows her the letter from his landlord, topping her by saying he owes five months — and offering to get her a job dancing at the Viennese Club. The club’s manager (Maurice Black) notes how wretchedly untalented they are but figures they’ll go over big as camp — especially since Drummond is a well-known enough celebrity (one of those people who’s famous just for being famous, sort of like a male version of the Kardashians) people will flock to the club just to see him make an ass of himself. After his opening number (quite impressively produced for a silent film, and likely shot to an especially composed score since, though we weren’t watching it that way, Captain Swagger originally came out with a synchronized Photophone music-and-effects soundtrack) Drummond jokes to Sue about how easy it would be for him to rob the nightclub — and just then a gang of real crooks shows up and actually does rob the nightclub, and the gang turns out to be led by Drummond’s old wartime acquaintance/enemy Von Stahl. Drummond is torn between his normal honesty, his desire to protect Sue’s career, and his owing a favor to Von Stahl; in the end, of course, the crooks are captured and Drummond and Sue are paired to survive God knows how.

Captain Swagger is a mediocre movie with elements of a good movie trying to get out; it occurred to me that it was an attempt to do a screwball comedy about six years too early, and I couldn’t help but wish there’d been a talkie remake in the mid-1930’s with Barbara Stanwyck and Cary Grant — screwball was a genre that democratized movie comedy (it meant that actors with reputations for dramatic roles could let their hair down and make comedies that could be cast with anyone on the studio’s contract list and didn’t require specialists like Chaplin, Keaton, Arbuckle, Langdon or Lloyd) but so much of its humor was driven by wisecracks it really required sound, especially since it was all those Broadway writers like Herman and Joseph Mankiewicz, Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, George S. Kaufman, S. J. Perelman, Jo Swerling, Robert Riskin and the like who had come out to Hollywood in the wake of sound that supplied the wisecracks. Still, it was a fun if rather inconsequential movie, and it was rather oddly presented by in a print that included a score played on both piano and organ (presumably the original Photophone soundtrack is long since lost), and was shown in a continuous blue tint rather than either straight black-and-white or the variegated tints and tones that quite a few silent films were released in to make up for the lack of color. Charles and I had seen a few films from the 1950’s on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 in overall blue tints (you could tell it was the source for the movie rather than a glitch in the program itself because the interstital sequences with the MST3K cast looked normal) and his private-label print of the 1932 film Woman Wanted come with an overall green cast that made me wonder if the original had been shot in two-strip Technicolor and what we had left was a badly faded print with pretty much just the green dyes intact (not true), but this is the first time we’ve seen it in a straightforward presentation of a film that wasn’t in the process of being ridiculed.