In which we file away The Blue Bird (1918), The Last of the Mohicans (1920), "The Light of Faith" (1922), The Signal Tower (1924), Smouldering Fires (1925), The Goose Woman (1925), The Eagle (1925), and Kiki (1926), plus—talkie bonus!—Navy Blues (1929)
One should not have to "discover" Clarence Brown, but that's the way it is in the year 2022, and the way it has been since, probably, the mid-1950s, when he retired on his own terms to go live on a ranch for the next three decades. Maybe the word "discover" does too much: he's only as obscure as any Old Hollywood studio man, but such a person can get pretty obscure, after all, because it sometimes feels like so much of the fullness and flavor of Old Hollywood's legacy was lost to the grimly-streamlined Boomer cinematic canon, which became the dull, conformist framework for communicating and teaching film history for the next sixty years. In any case, discovery is what it felt like to me, when I noticed over the course of about a year that the guy who did The Rains Came was the guy who did The Yearling was the guy who did Flesh and the Devil and I said, "okay, show me" when National Velvet made its rounds on HBOMax and I saw that this, too, was Brown, leading to the statistically-startling and hugely-tantalizing realization that I had seen four Brown movies at more-or-less random but had also seen four masterpieces.
And then, as I do, I got really enthusiastic and burned through Brown's 1941-1947 stretch for no reason but I felt like it, since "what I feel like" is the long and short of my critical ethos here, and as I've gotten a better grasp of the director, it turns out that for whatever reason that stretch in the third decade of his career saw Brown hit not only his stride (just great movie after great movie in the middle of that decade) but also many of his highest peaks, which means that were I to, say, decide upon a more systematic overview of his career, it would be almost guaranteed to be a bit of a let-down. After all, nobody, not nobody—at least not nobody who had to do what Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer told him to once or twice or three times a year, whether he wanted to do it or not—was likely to have managed to keep that level of superlative quality up. That's something that his tossed-off second film of 1941, They Met In Bombay, indicates powerfully, despite coming in between Come Live With Me and The Human Comedy. That's just the business—even beyond the studio system, you should expect even the greatest filmmakers to have fallow periods and the occasional dud—but you know, Brown's late 1920s and 1930s aren't wastelands either. They absolutely have some peaks of their own, and not just a few, either.
Brown's earliest years, however... well, everyone has to start somewhere, and Brown started not in Hollywood but in the New Jersey industry, an apprentice to the allegedly great director, Maurice Tourneur, whose two greatest contributions to the artform really might have just been tutoring his protege, Brown, and siring his son, Jacques. If you watch movies from this period, it can honestly sometimes feel like American audiences in the late 1910s and early 1920s apparently really did remain so impressed by the mere fact of moving photographs that you could still get away with making movies that were downright coma-inducingly boring; Tourneur was at least a cut above this, and Brown was, too. I don't think Brown ever fell fully into the silent era trap. But in the aggregate these first films are rough going, sometimes extremely rough going, and hence this little collection of capsule (or semi-capsule) reviews, before picking back up with Brown's career after he arrived at MGM. For the record, these are not for the most part recent (at least not "last night" or even "last week") watches. These are reworked (maybe not even that fully-reworked, I haven't done it yet) reviews from my Letterboxd account; I expect if you read 'em there, you'll have read 'em here, and this is primarily just an exercise in completeness and tidiness within my own archive. I planned it thus, at least semi-consciously, because I figured out early that I wasn't having a great time with these, and so allowed those quick-hits to run longer than I like Letterboxd reviews to run, in anticipation of later publication here.
Unfortunately (and I mean it—even if there's a very significant chance I wouldn't like them, I have enough of a scholarly interest I'd still want to see them), this is not a complete run-down of Brown's films from 1918-1926. There are several that are lost, or unavailable outside some preservationist society's archive, or a combination of both. These are 1920's The Great Redeemer (co-directed with Tourneur); 1921's The Foolish Matrons (ditto); 1922's The Light In the Dark (Brown's solo debut, extant only in edited form); 1923's Don't Marry For Money; the same year's The Acquittal; and 1924's Butterfly. (That's a lot! But that's early cinema for you.) I am also very well aware that Navy Blues is a movie made in 1929 and well into Brown's MGM career—hell, it's a sound film—and it does not fit the principal theme of this post. It does fit the secondary theme, "some of these movies I never want to see again for as long as I live."
This is either the earliest film Brown worked on that's still available to us, or it's just the earliest he worked on that attracted me in the slightest; either way, The Blue Bird was a product of Fort Lee, NJ, one of Maurice Tourneur's efforts on behalf of one of Adolph Zukor's Paramount-affiliated subsidiaries, adapting the beloved 1908 Maurice Maeterlink play. It's one of the lynchpins of Tourneur's present-day critical reputation, which is fair enough, as it already was one back in 1918. In full honesty, I'm not really sure why except, perhaps, because of the dearth of content in the fantasy space back then.
As an adaptation of late 19th century/early 20th century kid's fantasy, it's probably pretty shapeless in its source material already. It is a possible confirmation that I don't actually like late 19th century/early 20th century kid's fantasy; the only example of the genre from the time period I've ever really liked is Peter and Wendy—that is, J.M. Barrie's book—which is so soaked in arch irony that I think it could only really have been meant for the suffering adults whose kids were dragging them to the play. As for this one, it shares with the major silent film adaptations of the two biggies—Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz—a sapient carnivoran, and just like Pan '24 and Oz '25, The Blue Bird decides to render this character as a man dressed in a fursuit. But wait, The Blue Bird actually has two carnviroans in fursuits: a cat and a dog, covering all bases, assuming, that is, you hate cats and would like to see them punished. Arriving well before those other two films in 1918, it's entirely plausible that this is the very first film in history to depict a man licking his own hand in mimickry of feline grooming. And somehow, though a full century and more has passed, we still have not learned the lesson that this is a weird and unsettling image, not a cute or charming one, and certainly not one that's funny in any remotely wholesome way; Tom Hooper made a whole movie on the subject just three years ago.
Mostly, though, it's about two kids, the irritatingly-named Mytyl (Tula Belle) and Tyltl (Robin Macdougall), who are tasked in a dream—it's unusually narratively open about this fact—by a fairy, Berylune (Lillian Cook), with retrieving the bluebird of happiness, this quest vaguely suggested to be a punishment for Mytyl's earlier refusal to let the sickly, impoverished neighbor girl borrow her pet bird, which the film seems to believe is selfish rather than the only appropriate response to a deeply inappropriate request. (If you suspect that a quest to acquire a blue bird threatens to run afoul of making color an important part of a film with no color in it, then know this: eventually, it does indeed get there.)
Still, that's all reasonable enough, though Mytyl and Tyltyl are the most complete non-entities, and it might as well have been just one kid, for even between the two of them these ciphers never manage as well-etched a personality as a Wendy or a Dorothy or, goodness, even an Alice (these are all very low bars, but even Alice was at least kind of stupid). Joining them are a collection of elementals, or rather, the "Things" of their domestic space, which have now had their inner souls revealed via a combination of fairy magic and childlike openness. This includes (but, Jesus, might not even be limited to) Water, Fire, Light, and, uh, Sugar, Bread, and Milk. So one must reckon with the very high likelihood that some version of this was a direct influence on Adventure Time. Likewise, their dog and cat, now made talking animals (in fursuits), join them. The cat turns against them fairly rapidly, based on the fairy's proclamation that all of them will lose their souls at the conclusion of the quest. Resisting makes the cat evil, apparently. It kind of doesn't matter, as it's not a stressed element of the plot/"plot" as soon as the first major vignette's over. These beings—who make for an extremely crowded quest party, frankly—are brought to life in a "Trumpy you can do magic things"/sub-Melies magic show, sometimes inventive (the stop motion is at least cool), sometimes not (get ready for a lot of dissolve effects). According to the clock, this eventful witching hour in the dead of night after the family has fallen asleep arrives at 7:45pm. Man, the rural past, huh?
I am, theoretically, still on the movie's side at this point: schematic journeys through primordial ideas and anthropomorphized concepts is very much my jam, but somehow the vast majority of it feels stripped of any mysticism or meaning, things getting off on precisely the wrong foot when they challenge the personification of Night and literally nothing is capable of even frightening the children, let alone doing them physical or psychic harm; the closest they ever get to danger is the boy being confronted by Night's ghosts, which are immediately chased off by his faithful dog. It's just a collection of stuff, shuffled through extremely rapidly, sometimes effected with some neat Art Nouveau-inflected proto-Expressionism (the ghosts surrounding the boy, the "wan illnesses" rendered as effects shots of faces popping out the darkness, eventually the souls of the unborn, and so on), some of which bears some imagistic power and a lot of which does not, Tourneur seeming incapable of judging what's genuinely effective and what he's just using as fantasy-movie filler. Only in the midsection of the film does it manage to ever latch ahold of any identifiable, sustained mood, namely the extraordinary morbidity of the land of the dead, where the children meet not only their departed grandparents, but their dead siblings—all seven or eight of them. But for the most part this is one terribly dry mystery tour, without even being especially sensible about it: it's the kind of construct where the quest's object is the Bluebird of Happiness and one of the quest's waystations is the Palace of Happiness, and these things aren't actually related. It manages to be cheap and vague and stagelike in that early silent way, but only very rarely uses that as a strength to capture the dreaminess that should be built-in.
As for Clarence Brown, his credited job on The Blue Bird was editing it. I don't know what that would've entailed besides gluing filmstrip together, and perhaps making sure those dissolve effects worked out, as otherwise there's barely two shots in a row in physical or narrative continuity with one another anyway.
Here's a hair-raising fact: Maurice Tourneur directed or co-directed seven films in 1920. The Last of the Mohicans is one of the latter: following Tourneur's second film of the year, The Great Redeemer (and there is indication that Clarence Brown directed that alone and Tourneur's co-director credit is nominal), and then four more films that Tourneur had his name on, the master-and-apprentice took on James Fenimore Cooper's celebrated Seven Years War adventure novel. What they wound up with was a functional, watchable adaptation of the (idea of the) Cooper novel, and that wouldn't be nothing, I guess, even today—though it would have to contend with Michael Mann's 1992 the-source-material-is-for-losers masterpiece today, and if I'm being completely honest, Tourneur and Brown's version has to contend with that, too, even if that's very unfair. But it's certainly not the least achievement for the cinema of the early 20s.
There are elements that, individually, work out very well here: particularly, Barbara Bedford's doing just terribly strong work in using her eyes to express the pangs of forbidden lust her Cora feels for Alan Roscoe's Uncas. Meanwhile, Wallace Beery isn't anyone's platonic ideal of Magua but he's suitably leering and menacing. I think above all, and I think you'd agree with me, the use of the rock formations in Yosemite—though not feeling especially Appalachian to this son of the Appalachians—affords some absolutely unforgettable shots of the principals reduced to tiny creatures smashed into the sides of the frame, struggling vainly across some majestic yet uncaring landscapes. I'm especially taken by the extremely long shots (like "1500 feet away" long shots!) of Magua waiting for Cora to shit or get off the pot, as regards her threat to leap from the most dramatic outcropping she could find.
That makes it sound like this Last of the Mohicans should be exciting, but more often it's a little logey. The biggest part of this is Roscoe, who comes off as a real non-entity, both surprisingly scrawny as Uncas and, worse, just plain uncharismatic, in a role that absolutely demands that he not only be a demigod in Cora's eyes, but also stand around shirtless for an entire feature film. (I know very little about the indigenous material culture of the northeast, but they had shirt technology.) I think his directors may have even recognized this, and tried to push him to the margins of his own story. There's also a real tendency for the first several reels to linger on the wide shots of the English fort as people mill about, presumably because it cost money to build that fort set and hire those people, so they wanted to get their value out of it, even if watching them turned out to be boring. There's unsteady editing elsewhere, too, not assisted by some remarkably ineffective intertitling; combined, they can render some scenes a geographic and narrative mush, "followable" in the sense that everything that's happening is deliberately basic and I also already know the story, but it's certainly fuzzier than you'd prefer it. It looks like a Tourneur—the dark foregrounds, often populated by silhouettes, especially during the cavern sequence—but we'll see that Brown, working definitively solo, would still be aping his teacher's style for a while.
The good news, anyway, is it picks up and doesn't truly set a foot wrong in its final third. Yet I'm not sure whether the Tourneuresque photographic choices that render the two adversaries in their final duel as elementalized and difficult-to-distinguish silhouettes are the correct ones, considering that this isn't just action for its own sake; theoretically, we have a real investment in this specific hero killing this specific villain. At bottom, though, the movie absolutely lives or dies by how completely it manages to sell you on its central tragic romance, and for all Bedford's efforts, I just didn't feel it in my bones the way the movie needs me to.
In "The Light of Faith" what we actually have before us, in 2022, is what's left of Brown's definitive debut film as a director in his own right, The Light In the Dark. The extant version is a 33 minute digest intended to be shown in church and in schools; the primary reason it is extant, interestingly, is that the state law of Rhode Island required that films kept at schools be printed on non-flammable (not inflammable, what a country) safety stock. It's kind of a weird movie, so it has that going for it, revolving around the plight of poor cast-off Bessie Macgregor (Hope Hampton, also the film's producer, which may explain the frequent "additional intertitles suggested by" moments where writers Brown and William Dudley Telley keep insisting how hot their boss is). She has fled in tears from her paramour, archaeologist J. Warburton Ashe (remarkably, the woman who loves him only ever calls him "Warburton"; E.K. Lincoln), and wound up in a shitty apartment across the hall from Tony Pantelli (Lon Chaney, unrecognizable in his lack of make-up), who is initially positioned as a gross sex pest, thrusting his crotch out towards his new neighbor. Perhaps that's bad acting—Chaney is, surprisingly, somewhat terrible in this, much of his performance involving mugging unspecifically towards the camera—or perhaps in the longer version his character had more of an arc, but in the shorter version, when Bessie falls badly ill, he's immediately in her corner and ready to do anything to help her. In particular, he reads in the paper that her old archaeologist boyfriend has just dug up the Holy Grail—see, I told you it was weird—from an abandoned church somewhere in Britain, and, aware of its healing properties thanks to a shitty Arthurian interlude narrated (well... told in intertitles) by Bessie, he contrives to steal the Grail from Warburton to save the woman he's now fallen in love with. This comes with consequences, though he succeeds; however, now that Bessie's whole, she still needs to be happy, and she's convinced that no one else can make her happy besides Warburton.
This movie, whatever else, looks neat. Its crazed little premise affords some very cool visuals—in fact, the whole thing is shot pretty niftily, very Tourneur-influenced in its light and darkness (and light in darkness, yeah), even Expressionist at times. You can see how Brown might build on that in the future with the more sophisticated aesthetic the higher technology of the late 20s would afford him. Yet certainly nothing strikes as hard as that glow-in-the-fucking-dark Holy Grail, which means that I now know what technical foundation upon which Brown built his emotional immensities in Flesh and the Devil, though I can't say for sure that I'm glad I know this. Because ultimately this is so goofy—the more you think about it, the more idiotic the conceit of the cup of Christ glowing like it's impregnated with radium seems. For starters, I doubt an artifact of supreme importance to all Christians, that also glowed brightly in the dark, would have remained so well hidden for 1900 years. Though I am not myself a Christian, I also strongly question the propriety of rendering the Holy Grail as a dumb children's novelty toy. (I cannot even begin to imagine why Brown, who to my understanding was a fairly serious Christian, thought making the light emanating from Jesus's cup a literal thing rather than a pictorial and metaphorical thing was a good idea, except he thought the whole prospect was silly and didn't care. The scene where the judge has the lights turned off in the courtroom to see the glow-in-the-dark effect is especially trivializing.) The weaknesses of "The Light of Faith" and The Light In the Dark are pretty obvious, then: the melodrama is a little boilerplate and a little lame; the melodrama doesn't even end satisfactorily; and the driver of the film's most interesting imagery is the most aggressive dumbfuck hokum possible. I have doubts I wouldn't like the feature version less, too: at 33 minutes this is suspiciously coherent in its narrative, in ways you'd assume any actually-interesting movie could not be after somebody had excised half its runtime.
Score: N/A (incomplete film) (fine, 5/10)
Here we have Clarence Brown's fourth solo film, but the earliest available in full, as well as the earliest of his works at his new home at Universal and arguably his first "auteur" work, based on a magazine story by the wonderfully-named Wadsworth Camp that Brown purchased himself with the intention of turning it into a film. It'll remain my favorite of his movies for a couple of years to come: as far as I know, the home invader thriller was never a mainstay of silent films, and that (along with some rad train stunts) definitely helps The Signal Tower stand out. It is, nonetheless, not especially good. I say train stunts, but let's be clear: we're not dealing with The General here. The plot is simplicity itself, all the better for the vibes it's going for: Dave Taylor (the also wonderfully-named Rockliffe Fellowes) is a signalman out on a treacherous stretch of mountainous track, sharing duties in twelve-hour shifts with a colleague. Following the retirement of his old friend and signal tower partner, the railroad sends out a new signalman, Joe Standish (Wallace Beery), and given the general lack of housing out here in the woods and the obvious inconvenience of the commute, Dave invites Joe to come live in his house, with his wife Sally (Virginia Valli) and son, er Sonny (Frankie Darro). This, you have already guessed, was a mistake.
There's a whole "edenic idyll threatened by the encroachment of the dread city folk" thing going on, though I don't know how really insisted-upon this particular resonance is, outside of Beery's costuming, particularly his shiny shoes; more directly, then, this is a movie purely about good husband/bad stranger dynamics and the violence you can wring out of that dynamic, for, predictably, the lecherous lodger decides to try his chances at ravishing the wife. (So you see that Beery was a good casting choice.) It's not bad in the lead-up, but there are absolutely some sleepy parts, and everything about the first fifty minutes of this 70 minute movie is either disagreeably transparent about existing solely to fill time till we get to the climax, or disagreeably transparent about setting that climax up, whereupon our hero shall be bound by duty and humanity to stick to his job in the signal tower while his wife is left to fight off the villain alone. It is a pretty swell climax, though, and the last couple of reels are an effective if somewhat primitivist exercise in cross-cutting. (As far as the primitivism goes, there is in fact some very weird and borderline-dysfunctional editing attending this—a plot-crucial split-second is not actually captured onscreen and the less-exciting of the two big train stunts is, for some reason, duplicated in the print about three minutes after the first time we see it.)
Anyway, I don't mind at all that it's principally about its own mechanics, but I'm bothered in a very outsized way by how nakedly instrumental its thriller contrivances get, particularly the extraordinarily creaky solution the story comes up with for the problem of how to put an unloaded (or is it?) gun in Sally's hands. The way Brown and his scenarist James Spearing did it was to have Dave task their young child with delivering it to her, necessitating it being unloaded, of course, because he's five. The viewer is well aware of why this needs to happen (frankly I think you're supposed to be well ahead of the characters as regards precisely how it'll shake out), and that's good for the suspense. But it's pretty annoyingly unintuitive even so, because Sally is a housewife and the signal tower where the gun's kept is roughly a two hundred foot walk away, so she could... just go with him and get it herself? What else has she got to do for the next five minutes?
Well, disregarding the repeated footage of the lesser stunt, it features at least one genuinely badass and frightening real train stunt in the climax. More usefully, at least in terms of a whole film rather than just one awesome scene, it has some genuinely strong "mysterious woods" location work (the best shots of the film, in fact, are probably the shots taken from the backs of trains moving steadily through those vaguely-hostile-seeming wilderness locations), and it was the beneficiary of Brown pushing Universal to invest prodigiously in its physical production. Sometimes it must default to storybook-like models, but they are really very well-done storybook-like models. Naturally, they get smashed in cool ways, because fundamentally what Brown wanted to make was a cool action movie, and with some caveats, he succeeded.
Smouldering Fires falls flat on its ass and it absolutely didn't have to, but it's somewhat interesting as an object lesson in how being reductive and reactionary about gender roles isn't just "bad," but can actively fuck up your narrative, even a narrative whose whole point is to tell you that departing from your assigned gender roles will hurt you.
We have, then, Pauline Fredrick playing Jane Vale, heir to the Vale manufacturing empire—and not just the passive recipient of its income, but a dynamic and savvy businesswoman, who's dedicated the majority (if not the entirety) of the reproductive phase of her life to her dad's legacy. Unfortunately, she's been so successful that she's now surrounded by sycophants and dipshits, and so when young go-getter Robert Elliott (Malcolm McGregor) is actually willing to intelligently criticize her policies, this catches her attention. The upside is the young man gets a promotion; the downside is that, for the first time, Jane falls in love. She keeps this to herself but in defending her honor against the well-founded factory gossip (they make very little effort to avoid the appearance of impropriety, so it does indeed look exactly like he's fucking his boss to get ahead), he lets it slip that he loves her too. She's thrilled; they get engaged; the movie's... over? It seems like it should be over. But no: her twenty-years-younger sister Dorothy (Laura La Plante, top-billed, which is a bit of an irritant in itself) shows up, and she immediately suspects Robert of gold-digging. Robert doesn't do much to prove he does love Jane, insofar as now he falls in love with Dorothy, pretty much explicitly because Jane is too old, whereupon what feels like an entirely different scenario replaces the previous one.
What I mean by "this is so reductive it can't even understand what it's doing wrong" is that he went after her. I assume it's written this way because The Man Pursues, and it breaks the narrative pretty completely. Dorothy is not the first twenty year old woman this dude has seen, and presumably not the first he could have plowed; and for a few minutes my expectations drifted into a tragic romantic thriller where the younger sister actively seduced her brother-in-law to prove a point, and ruined everything in the process. Instead, she likewise falls in love for no identifiable reason whatsoever, except she's a bit hotter, I suppose, and it makes very little sense: Jane, for starters, runs afoul of the Romantic Triangle Problem every movie has (even if she has a penchant for dressing like a cool lesbian and/or Annie Lennox, Fredrick is still very heterosexually appealing, and far too attractive to be a completely dried-up old maid). But my point: Robert wasn't cajoled into marriage; he didn't accede to her proposal of marriage because he felt he owed her; he actively, passionately desired her (he beats the shit out of another guy to prove it!); and he got her. And while theoretically you could still build a psychologically credible drama on these bones, Smouldering Fires doesn't, and doesn't really try. (I think it tries to make an argument that Jane is more easily-tired while La Plante is energetic, but it doesn't really stress this enough—and fertility, to no one's surprise, is never so much as mentioned, and to the film's strict demerit, considering that some failed pregnancies would at least be explanatory.) I would never have liked this movie's thesis—"career women doom themselves to lonely deaths," basically—but I could've liked the movie itself, appreciating it as an emotional machine, if only it had the intelligence to make its case well and it just doesn't. That one thing renders it so blindered it falls apart.
On the plus side, Brown is directing it well, with occasional kineticism (he also indulges his love of location work, using an excursion to Yosemite to at least try to explicate Jane's unsuitability as a wife for Robert), but also with a surfeit of sensitivity. He really does lean into a sympathy for Jane, repeatedly using some really curious three-shots (you know, like a two-shot, but with three people) that puts Fredrick in the center and underlines her sexual martyrdom on behalf of her sister and the man she still loves. And there's other bibs-and-bobs of cool stuff, like the heavy foreshadowing of a shot of their feet during the wedding where he drops the ring, or basically all of the costuming and styling decisions that render Fredrick as masculine as possible. There's a downright masterful piece of storytelling where Jane keeps naming names to guess who Dorothy, sobbing in a bed, is pining for, and she interrupts the list to call out "Robert" from a window, and Brown manages to make it instantly readable to us that Dorothy gives herself away, that Jane sees her sister's reflection in the window and knows, and that Jane had shifted subjects suddenly, which would be so easy as to not be worth noting in a talkie, but strikes me as more complicated than most directors probably would've attempted to do in a silent where the sudden change in tone had to be communicated with visuals and intertitles. So we can see Brown's burgeoning talent, I suppose, although by no means are the visual components of the movie enough to outweigh such a moralizing and largely-insensible love triangle.
This one hurts a little, because throughout his life Brown always pointed to The Goose Woman as one of his favorites of his own films, and while it didn't set the world afire financially, it did establish him as one of a critically-loved crafter of melodramas. The problem is that it is contrived to the point of absolute nonfunctionality: Mary Holmes (Louise Dresser) is an ex-opera singer whose pregnancy ruined her voice—I'm not an obstetrician, but is this even a thing?—and in the long interim between then and now, she's become a drunken hermit whose trade is raising geese and selling their eggs. The product of this pregnancy, her son Gerald (H.P. Lovecraft—not really, it's Jack Pickford, but he has a similar twerpish energy and the exact same oil-slicked hair) is a J.D. Vance type, who holds his mother in contempt for her white trashiness. Mary despises him right back. Through some never-delineated means this child of an alcoholic wreck who lives in a hovel has escaped his Staten Island holler and found some ill-defined economic niche for himself (sufficient, anyway, to afford an engagement ring and a car) in which he expects to continue to rise, and presently he's wooing the starlet he intends to marry, Hazel Woods (Constance Bennett). Gerald's rival, Hazel's harrassy manager (Marcus McDermott), winds up dead, the victim of six gunshot wounds. Did I mention that the white trash goose woman somehow lives right next door to the wealthy stage impresario? She does. Though initially reluctant to come forward due to maltreatment by the press, she's interviewed by the cops, who receive a major break in the case due to her testimony, as she spied the killer, who drove a car with one headlight. We are invited to recall that Gerald's new car also has one headlight. So Mary has accused her own son. EVENTUALLY, like REALLY LATE IN THE MOVIE, she realizes this, after having used the opportunity to get back in the limelight—kind of? that, anyway, is her character arc, such as it is—with a makeover provided courtesy of the police department, who have gone this entire time without piecing together that their star witness and their chief suspect are mother and son respectively, and they hate each other... and goodness is this a bad story.
This is not the worst part: everything about this scenario screams that it has been engineered for some very unlikely but very high test melodramatics—the themes have been those of maternal responsibility, and the longer you ignore those responsibilities the more you have to sacrifice when the bill comes due—and yet none of those expected fireworks ever actually arrive. Though it's operated as a character study (again, sort of), it makes a go at being a murder mystery after all, albeit one that plays with astonishing unfairness and by no accepted rules of that genre; it is unbelievably and offensively convenient where the guilt ultimately lands. It is unmotivated and extravagantly stupid.
There's some things to like. People seem to like Dresser's performance, and it's not bad, though half of it is down to just wearing that dirty mop on her head and I don't know if it ever escapes one-dimensional caricature (I should add, "even for a silent film poor person"). It's mainly just credibly carrying herself like a cartoon coot. It could be the earliest "hag up, win critical acclaim" role in cinema, but probably not; cinema was thirty years old by this point, so I'm sure it had been done many times. The set design is pretty nifty, erring on the side of "too much," tilting toward an absurd level of neglect—the goose woman's shack looks like it's been through a war, and a recent war, at that. Every inch of it is either strewn in garbage or has collapsed, a collection of junk and angles barely holding itself together, which essentially defines Dresser's character as well as her acting does. There are also a number of geese which somebody had to wrangle (one of them is well-trained enough to follow Dresser around during a long dolly shot out on a dirt road), and there are some reasonably amusing bits of drunkard/reverse class-war humor, here and there. But it never generates any real claim on the emotions and its very strongest gesture toward this—when Gerald visits to harangue his mother and carelessly drops and shatters the last recording of her opera voice—is also its very first, with an hour and a half of not much else left to go.
There are some occasional flourishes of style on Brown's part—notably the flashes of gunfire on Dresser's face, for example, and other deployments of light and shadow—and it's at least arguable that this portrait of "rural life" (e.g., Dresser stalking down that dirt road with a goose following her like a puppy) prefigures the interest in examining the countryside, past and present, that would lead to some of the strongest work of Brown's career. But this is not that. It's just a dumb yarn that doesn't even land the emotional gutpunch that should've been a gimme.
In 1925, Brown left Universal and made a brief two-film pit-stop at United Artists. My appreciation for the first of those films, The Eagle, has grown a little, because it is the first Brown movie that truly feels, to me, like a Clarence Brown movie, at least recognizable as the product of the same director as the superb work he'd get up the instant he arrived at MGM in 1926, despite The Eagle being in a rather different genre than he'd usually pursue. Or maybe because it's a different genre: Last of the Mohicans was still training-wheels (if he even directed that much of it himself); The Signal Tower had nudged him towards a more crowd-pleasing aesthetic; and The Eagle's requirement for something at least approaching high adventure pushed him all the way to figuring out how to make an exciting movie, and he'd go on to make plenty of exciting movies even when they didn't have much action. Hell, there is an argument, and I'm about to make it, that The Eagle itself does not actually have enough action. But the pacing is there; the strong underlying scenario, even if it isn't too well-handled, is there; the clever and sometimes-elaborate visual construction is there. And that all combines to make The Eagle effortlessly watchable, but try as I might—and try I do, because it is (to my mind) inarguably the best movie Brown made until he revealed a master in the following year's Flesh and the Devil—I nevertheless can't convince myself that it's very special.
That's a pity because I think The Eagle could've gotten there: the scenario is actually pretty well-built, offering 20s heartthrob Rudolph Valentino up as Vladimir Dubrovsky, the Cossack Sexual Harassment Zorro, after suffering a pair of misfortunes: the first arrives when the tsarina, presumably Yekaterina II (Louise Dresser, way cuter than in The Goose Woman) demands services that he'd rather not provide and he elects to go AWOL rather than be her sexual slave; the second comes when his family is dispossessed by Kyrilla Troekeroff, whom I will call Kirill because that's an actual name (James A. Marcus), a dick boyar. This is where The Mark of Zorro comparisons come in—The Eagle is "based" on the Pushkin novel Dubrovsky, but it is more proximately "based" on the huge success of Douglas Fairbanks's movies—and Dubrovsky dons multiple new identities, particularly that of anarchist rebel "the Black Eagle," to get close to Kirill to get his revenge. Distracted by stealing from the rich, etc., he only belatedly realizes that Mascha (Vilma Banky), the woman he's fallen in love with, is also Kirill's daughter. So maybe he's more like the Cossack Sexual Harassment Robin Hood.
It has a lot going for it: Valentino is a charismatic and likeable screen presence even in bad movies like Blood and Sand, and this is way better than Blood and Sand; Banky is very adorable but also given a shockingly active heroine for a 1925 adventure movie, and in having her figure out who her new "French tutor" is, she gets her own drama to deal with, trapped between love and filial piety to her tyrannical dad; it's likewise quite funny (the best joke, I think, is Yekaterina's second choice sex slave, whom she's obviously dissatisfied with but is, for his part, much more eager to sleep his way to the top than Dubrovsky was); and it is, in a fucking walk, better than Fairbanks's boring Robin Hood and with just a little more oomph could have been better than Fairbanks's awesome Mark of Zorro. But here's the thing: it's a Fairbanksian adventure movie that nobody bothered putting much resembling Fairbanks in, and the closest it gets to an "idea" in regards to action is the bear that Kirill keeps in his wine cellar to eat people, not unlike Jabba and the rancor. Which, I'll admit, is pretty cool. (It also has just an enormous problem in its plotting, in that it straight-up fails to resolve one of its hero's two major conflicts. In fact, both of them just kind of stop being a conflict: Dubrovsky isn't compelled to force the issue on either of them, and this is modestly satisfying with Yekaterina, and deeply unsatisfying with Kirill.)
I'd love to love it, but it simply doesn't leave as much of an impression as you'd like. What is noticeable is Brown honing his abilities and at least tentatively finding his particular style as a filmmaker; for the first time, there's a tendency in Brown's editing rhythms towards longer-than-usual close-ups that let his actors evolve their performances with patient gracefulness within single shots. It's not as much of a benefit here as in a romantic melodrama like Flesh and the Devil, obviously, but it does let Valentino and Banky create stronger and more credible characters than you might suspect. Oh, and I would be remiss not to point out that this was production designed by the great W.C. Menzies. I saw his name in the credits and I was stoked. Within twenty minutes I'd forgotten Menzies had anything to do with it. Not everything can be Thief of Bagdad, of course, and this ain't bad, but considering the goal must have been "fanciful storybook Russia," this is really pretty underwhelming.
Brown's second film at UA represents the kind of backsliding that makes it a constant surprise whenever I go back over his filmography and realize all over again that this was his last movie before moving to MGM, his ninth film as a solo director, and fully his twelfth film with a directorial credit, and not the fumblings of some untested dope. It plays to absolutely none of Brown's established strengths, and it required strengths he wouldn't fully demonstrate he even had till years and years down the line. In fairness, I'm responding as much to the scenario and what writer Hanns Kräly filled it with (for all I know, the source material of André Picard's play might have sucked already; a comparison with the Mary Pickford talkie remake from 1931 might be instructive, but, like, no thanks). And maybe I'm lying, and it did lean on a couple of Brown's strengths: for one, being the good studio soldier and for two, providing a smooth experience for his leading lady while showcasing her strengths (cf. Garbo, Crawford, though he'd already done it with Dresser and Fredrick). In this case, too, his lady was already a star, but she was not working with her strengths, having lately prevailed upon her husband, UA big wheel Joseph Schenck, to remake her against type as a comedic star. The nice part, at least, is that Brown did apparently get along well with Norma Talmadge, which would not always be the case for Brown with Mrs. Boss's Wives named Norma. (I mean Norma Shearer. But that's for the far-flung future.)
So, I cannot claim familiarity with Talmadge, a star of mostly romances, though I guess she must've gotten jealous of her sister Constance (a comedic star) or maybe just all the other comic actors around her husband (Buster Keaton, for instance, and Kiki is probably closer in its slapstick to something like that than C. Talmadge's, though this is very approximate). As for that story, pursued by Brown with grim and unsteady determination, which is definitely what you want in your comedy, we have our urchin and wannabe chorine Kiki (Talmadge), who manages to secure a place in rich impresario Victor Renal's (Ronald Colman's) life by way of a protracted process that lurches from pity for the girl's plight, to horniness for the girl's bod, then, back to pity, and finally to love, this process driven, as far as I can tell, by Talmadge being extremely obnoxious at him for over an hour and a half. It is, from time to time, marginally successful as a comedy, mostly thanks to the weird faces Talmadge makes and the weird ways she has decided to array her body; but on the occasions it's legitimately funny and not just vaguely amusing, it's almost always down to corny intertitle jokes, which is probably not where you want your silent comedy to live. The film would like you to think "Talmadge's" pratfalls are funny but these are almost uniformly cut to pieces in the editing so you don't get a full sense of the stunt, and you rarely see "Talmadge's" face in the action shot because it's obviously rarely Talmadge doing it. I have no idea why Talmadge thought she could be Keaton without actually putting herself in at least slight danger of injury (or even just pain, as none of these stunts are death-defying), but one of the few times she actually does do her own physical comedy, allowing the spectacle of her sitting incorrectly on a chaise lounge and flipping it over to be captured in a single shot, it is—by some inexplicable miracle!—actually funny. Unfortunately, by the time we get to the finale, a comedic cataleptic fit—which feels like the reason the movie even exists, and not in a good way, like somebody just built 96 minutes of scaffolding to get to this one halfway-cute setpiece—I'd lost all patience.
It is, anyway, not remotely enough to distract from the complete absence of any acceptable drama, and once Kiki installs herself in her romantic target's house the film spends every second praying that you won't notice it has no narrative engine, and that there are, in fact, no longer any real obstacles to the leads' coupling, besides the existence of his sort-of girlfriend (Gertrude Astor), which does not matter, and the very, very fuzzy idea that Kiki wants to play hard enough to get to avoid her man perceiving her as just a fuckbuddy. It's deeply unmoving and, frankly, as a narrative scaffolding, it's barely parsable.
Almost none of Brown's other films (and to date I've seen 27 out of the 51 or 52) have felt like such a waste of time as this one. Possibly only one his other films is this boring. This was his last movie before moving to MGM, and I can see why he finally made his nest there, not leaving till he retired. He's very checked out here, very much a hired hand, and I defy you to recognize the guy whose next film was Flesh and the Devil. It is almost certain that our director felt lost doing pure comedy (for the first time, unless his lost films are comedies, and nothing indicates they are), and sustaining comedy across a whole feature's runtime was something he wouldn't accomplish for a good while; but he would rarely be this bad at doing jokes ever again, and maybe it did teach him something, if only in the negative sense. I mean, The Eagle's certainly funny when it wants to be; but the first fifteen minutes of zany German Army shtick in Flesh and the Devil before Garbo shows up is kind of hilarious, and funnier than this whole movie is in the aggregate, and that movie is a shattering romantic tragedy.
The upshot is I don't know how Brown got so good so fast. The director of Flesh and the Devil is just not the director of these films except, maybe, The Eagle, but it's such a quantum leap once he arrived at MGM it feels like an entirely different filmmaker emerged alongside Garbo. I don't imagine it was her doing, even if having such an incredible talent to shape probably helped. So I don't know who to credit—Irving Thalberg? John Gilbert? Cedric Gibbons? William Daniels?—but whoever it was, thank you.
Then again, there's Navy Blues, with Brown fully ensconsed at MGM (it's his fifth at the studio), which might actually be Brown's very worst film, from its dumb pun title on down. It is also a pure comedy. It has no business being here, but I hate it so much, I just want to throw it in the trash at the end of this long post and be done with it forevermore.
The good news, anyway, is that it's less technically incompetent than a lot of films from 1929, but of course at that point we're offering praise for things that wouldn't even register a year or two later, like "Clarence Brown successfully managed to pull off a dolly shot going down and around a street corner while still picking up the on-set audio more-or-less properly," though the fact is the film does still have pretty iffy sound recording. There's bits and pieces that involve noticeable "style" or even basic giving-a-shit, I suppose—but not much basic-giving-a-shit. Brown was drafted onto production of this Edward Sedgwick picture when they decided to turn it into a talkie, following Brown's successful grappling with the technology on the sadly-lost Wonder of Women from earlier in 1929. And in any case, we're talking very thin modules of enjoyment here, mostly some stuff when Brown is having fun with the film's two modestly interesting locations (an actual US Navy destroyer, mixed in with the film's most interesting imagery, actual documentary footage of a USN destroyer flotilla on training exercise) and an amusement park roller coaster with the camera bolted to the front of it, perhaps inspiring those booths where they try to sell you photos of yourself looking like a shrieking dork. (Though he never made it a habit, Brown cameos as one of the riders.) There is also the matter of the ending, and while Navy Blues prompted a fun/frustrating conversation afterward with my spouse as I discussed what I'd done with my day, wherein she feigned an obtuse inability to understand why I don't just turn bad movies off if I hate them so much, the fact is that if I had I'd have missed the best part. Navy Blues manages to proffer one wonderfully unique idea in its climax, an elaboration on a similarly-insane set-destroying action-gag from Brown's The Trail of '98, in which Karl Dane (same guy as in Trail of '98, even!) rips a chandelier from the ceiling of a nightclub and begins beating the patrons of the nightclub with it. I desperately, desperately wish this were in a better movie.
Otherwise, imagine an Old Hollywood sailor musical except without any dancing or worthwhile jokes, and even rapier in its romantic storytelling ("how did you get back in here?" our heroine says of her clingy paramour, who has broken back into her home after being bid farewell), and instead of Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly it's William Haines—one of that mass of anonymous 20s stars who didn't navigate the transition to sound that well, but big enough in his day for his name to be bigger than the title here—who cannot manage to be sensitive or alluring even for the duration of a single shot without lapsing back into dopey shtick, stupid voices, or appearing to pattern his physical performance after a monkey he once saw at the zoo. Haines is trying to turn this into a bona fide live action cartoon, but everything around him (Brown, his co-stars, and probably the constraints of early sound) is fully invulnerable to his energy; it's vaguely possible I could like him in something else, but I think I laughed at Haines here only once, when, confronted with his girlfriend's harridan sailor-hating mother, Haines leaps into her father's arms for comfort like he were the daughter, despite having also only met him ten seconds earlier.
The story goes thus: at a dance put on for the benefit of the sailors, Jack Kelly (Haines) meets Alice Brown (Anita Page) and aggressively courts her till she falls for him, or whatever, but her parents can't abide it, and she throws a hissy-fit, running out on her folks to be with him. It occurs to me now (that is, at the time of posting) what a complete non-scenario this movie has, because somehow I've described most of the first hour in one sentence. Once Alice runs away it is perhaps slightly better, because now Haines is less belligerent, but the film around him is arguably even more drippy and boring. It finally stumbles, fully ass-backwards, into an actual dramatic situation only ten minutes before it stops, involving Jack's discovery that Alice has pridefully refused to return home even after he put the kibosh on her thoughts of marriage. An exceedingly thin reed, you'll agree, and despite this being the Brown scenario, the fallen woman serving as the narrative backbone for basically half his filmography, the way it's told here feels more like what you'd get if Sadie McKee didn't feature its own title character. You are also probably going to be keenly aware that this dude spent an inordinate amount of time and energy on seducing/"seducing" this woman only to tell her he's "not the marrying kind," but they also slept in separate hotel rooms and they never actually fucked, which is kind of crazy-making if you dwell upon how pointless it all feels in the execution—and so unnecessarily. It's a pre-Code film, for God's sakes!
Borders on the unwatchable—it's 75 minutes and feels like three hours, though it didn't help that when I watched it a couple of months ago, I paused it probably five times to go do something else—and if it doesn't beat Kiki as Brown's worst movie, it's only because I'm overcorrecting because I find Norma Talmadge's mugging to be more enjoyable to look at than William Haines's mugging, and don't want to use "Talmadge was an attractive woman" as a distinguishing factor. But it really is probably worse; Kiki's not funny, but it's funny more often than literally once. It's notable that Brown's two worst movies are both 1920s comedies, however, and while there would be extraordinary Brown comedies eventually, the genre was not really his thing, at least not yet, and the good ones are from rather later in his career when he'd absorbed enough from people for whom it was their thing (Lubitsch, Capra, perhaps Van Dyke) to do a sparkling imitation, in movies like Wife Vs. Secretary and Come Live With Me. Yet, as noted, even Flesh and the Devil (and Trail of '98) have some great comic bits. So who knows? Maybe this film, imposed upon him and done as a grudging duty, simply couldn't get him to care. Brown's judgment of his own work, like any director's, is not and should not be dispositive, but he hated this "dog," and it's easy to see how. It's absolute homework, exclusively for the Brown completionist, a group that probably doesn't extend much further than me and his biographer Gwenda Young. Though when it came time to write her chapter on Navy Blues, even she misremembered the plot. I don't blame her a bit.