Thursday, September 24, 2015

Crimson Romance (Mascot, 1934)

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

Two nights ago Charles and I watched a quite intriguing movie we’d downloaded from Crimson Romance, a Mascot production from 1934 at a time when Nat Levine was both the studio owner and its head of production. In 1935 Herbert Yates, president of Consolidated Film Laboratories, the top independent film processing lab in Los Angeles and therefore the go-to company for producers who didn’t have an “in” with the major studios (which, of course, had their own labs) to get their film developed, decided he wanted to get into the filmmaking business himself, so he took over Mascot and Monogram in exchange for forgiving the debts they’d run up to him in unpaid film processing fees. He called the combined company Republic and soon alienated the former heads of Mascot and Monogram, eventually buying them out; Monogram’s founder, W. Ray Johnston, got enough of a settlement that in 1937 he relaunched the second iteration of Monogram as an independent company (alas, at a considerably lower quality level than the first iteration; the first Monogram had made genuinely good films like 1933’s The Phantom Broadcast and the 1934 Jane Eyre, but the second-iteration company produced virtually nothing but low-grade schlock); Nat Levine got a similar settlement but, a gambling addict, he blew it on bad horse-racing bets and within a year he was trying to get jobs at whatever studio would hire him. At one point he even signed to make low-budget films at MGM, of all places, but they fired him after just one production, a story about nursing students called Four Girls in White (1939). As Mascot head, Levine’s strategy, like most of his confreres in the lower end of the movie business, was to get them “on their way up and on their way down.” At least one of Levine’s stars, John Wayne, was both: he’d been cast as the lead in Raoul Walsh’s spectacular epic wide-screen Western from Fox in 1930, The Big Trail, but that film had flopped and Wayne had done a quick descent down the studio food chain from Fox to Warner Bros. to Columbia to Mascot, Monogram and their successors, Republic — indeed, he would make his star-making film, Stagecoach, on loan to Walter Wanger and United Artists while still under contract to Republic. Crimson Romance was definitely an on-their-way-down movie: it was a World War I aviation story starring Ben Lyon, on the downgrade after his triumph in a much bigger, starrier World War I aviation story, Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1929); and Erich von Stroheim, who had once been a feared director at Universal, MGM and Paramount, but whose inability or unwillingness to bring in his movies at a reasonable cost and length had cost him his director’s chair. In the early 1930’s he’d still managed to get some prestigious gigs as an actor, including Friends and Lovers and The Lost Squadron (another World War I aviation movie!) at RKO and As You Desire Me alongside Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas at MGM, but by 1934 he was relegated to cheapie companies like Mascot and Chesterfield subsidiary Invincible. Stroheim biographer Thomas Quinn Curtiss called Crimson Romance “happily forgotten,” but in fact it’s an intriguing film whose only real flaw is how many other movies made around the same time did similar plot tropes and did them better.

The film starts in New York, where intrepid test pilots Bob Wilson (Ben Lyon) and Fred von Bergen (James Bush) are working for a company making planes for Britain and France in World War I — only after the sinking of the Lusitania and the resulting turn in U.S. public opinion against Germany, von Bergen is fired from the job after his boss accuses him of deliberately sabotaging the two planes he’s crashed in — accidents actually caused by the planes’ poor design and construction. Wilson, who’s been a friend of von Bergen and his German immigrant family since they were both kids, walks out with him in sympathy. No other U.S. aircraft company will hire von Bergen — even though he’s a native-born U.S. citizen — and Wilson can’t find a job either because he insists that he and von Bergen are a “package deal.” Von Bergen impulsively enlists in the German army and goes off to fight in the war on the German side — and Wilson, unwilling to separate from his friend, joins the German army too. They end up in a squadron commanded by Captain Wolters (Erich von Stroheim), and Wilson, whose reputation back home was as a lady-killer, seduces von Bergen’s new girlfriend, nurse and ambulance driver Alida Hoffmann (Sari Maritza, who just before this film was made had a flaming two-year affair with Charlie Chaplin that ended only when he met Paulette Goddard). They stay out all night and as a result Wilson misses a key patrol flight Wolters ordered up — and of course Wolters thinks Wilson skipped the flight deliberately, either out of cowardice or because he didn’t want to fight against the British and French even though the U.S. hadn’t yet entered the war. When the U.S. does officially declare war against Germany, Wilson is torn — if he walks out on the German army Wolters will capture him and execute him for desertion, while if he stays he’s liable to be prosecuted by the U.S. for treason. His good friend von Bergen helps him to escape, helpfully pointing out a German plane on the runway, fueled up and with its engine running, and telling him that if he makes a break for the plane von Bergen will be obligated to stop him — but he does, von Bergen shoots at him but deliberately misses, and Wilson shows up at the headquarters of the British air force. At first they don’t believe his story and suspect him of being a German spy, but he eventually wins a chance to prove his bona fides by taking a British bomber that’s been disguised to look like a German Gotha and using it to blow up a munitions dump near where he was stationed as a German flyer. (One suspects this whole plot line is largely an excuse to use footage of a real Gotha — or at least one elaborately re-created with Howard Hughes’money — from the original Hell’s Angels, which served for years as a source for stock footage of World War I air battles.)

It ends about how you’d expect it to: Wilson’s mission is a success — though he’s obliged to shoot down von Bergen when von Bergen realizes the “Gotha” is really a British bomber and tries to shoot it down — and at the end, after the Armistice, he’s breaking bread with von Bergen’s family, whose understanding, in Nora Ephron’s phrase, passes understanding: they accept him and his new bride (Alida, of course, went home with him) as part of their family and conveniently forgive him for killing their son. There are quite a few other movies made in the early 1930’s that have a similarly dark view of World War I and in particular of the divided loyalties experienced by German-American immigrants who didn’t know whether to root for their original country or their adopted one. In 1928 John Ford’s Four Sons had been a major hit (it was also one of the first films released with a Movietone soundtrack, though virtually all the dialogue in it was “wild” — i.e., unsynchronized — though there was a heart-rending moment when one of the four brothers who ended up in the war on different sides calls “Mütterchen” as he’s dying; alas, the version of Four Sons in the Ford at Fox box was an all-silent version with a newly recorded instrumental score instead of the original Movietone release) and in 1933 Warner Bros. had made Ever in My Heart, in which the bond between the American and the German was matrimonial rather than just friendly — the American was Mary Archer (Barbara Stanwyck) and the German was Hugo Wilbrandt (Otto Kruger), whom Mary impulsively married instead of Hugo’s friend, her second cousin Jeff Archer (Ralph Bellamy), whom the family was expecting her to get hitched to. Jeff joins the U.S. army fighting against Germany, Mary volunteers for the World War I equivalent of the WAC’s, and Hugo leaves for Germany to “fight for my country,” as he explains it in a letter he leaves for Mary when he goes. Writers Bertram Millhauser and Beulah Marie Dix and the usually hacky director Archie Mayo made Ever in My Heart a great film, truly heart-rending, with an especially moving ending, and when Charles and I watched it, I had the thought that it could be remade today — in the modern version the heroine would marry an Arab-American and 9/11 would have the same plot function as the Lusitania sinking in the original, raising the level of prejudice against the husband until he left the U.S. and joined the jihad back home. Alas, that isn’t the film we’re dealing with here; had it not been for all the wrenching dramas that had already been made about World War I by 1934 (including the ones mentioned above as well as All Quiet on the Western Front and Ace of Aces, in which Richard Dix plays a returning flyer who suffers what would now be called post-traumatic stress disorder) Crimson Romance might have been more moving, then and now, than it seems.

But it’s difficult to believe that a U.S.-born man with an Anglo name would be so upset at the discrimination suffered by his German-American friend that he’d actually enlist in the German air force — maybe a tougher, edgier actor like James Cagney might have made it believable, but Lyon can’t — and the film also suffers from the nondescript writing of Erich von Stroheim’s character. (It was a committee-written script — Al Martin and Sherman Lowe, story; Milton Krims, screenplay; Doris Schroeder, additional dialogue — and the director was David Howard, who made Eran Trece, the surviving Spanish-language version of the now-lost first Charlie Chan film with Warner Oland, Charlie Chan Carries On; he also made the serial The Lost Jungle with real-life animal trainer Clyde Beatty and William Haines’ Mascot film The Marines Are Coming, and died suddenly December 21, 1941 — just two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor that got America into World War II — in L.A. at age 45.) Von Stroheim gets to play neither the delightfully vicious and sadistic villain he had played in World War I movies made while the war was still going on — the ones that had earned him the sobriquet “The Man You Love to Hate” from Universal’s publicity department — nor the genuinely noble and pathetic (in the good sense) character he would portray three years later in yet another World War I film, Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion — the “grand illusion” being that as an hereditary aristocrat he would have so much in common with his French counterpart, played by Pierre Fresnay, a captured flyer incarcerated in Stroheim’s prison camp — only Fresnay’s character aligned himself with fellow French captive Jean Gabin, deciding his country was more important than his class. Instead in Crimson Romance Stroheim is just a martinet officer, understandably concerned with maintaining good discipline and order in the ranks and seeing both Ben Lyon’s divided loyalties and his wayward dick as obstacles in his way. Crimson Romance also isn’t helped by the typically unfunny “comic relief” character played by Herman Bing, or the fact that all these people supposedly playing Germans speak in English — and mostly American-accented English at that. Still, at a time when the U.S. is in the middle of a Presidential campaign whose front-runner is openly and proudly fomenting hatred against immigrants and calling for their mass deportation — and who rises higher and higher in the polls the more hateful and mean his statements become — Crimson Romance does acquire a certain degree of timeliness!