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Saturday, March 23, 2013

NAVY BLUES (1929) / ARE YOU LISTENING (1932)

Audiences during the transition from Silents to Talkies were naturally eager to hear the speaking voices of their longtime faves. This meant big grosses for the first two or three releases (misread by studio execs as votes of confidence), followed by calamitous box-office plunges thereafter. Poor John Gilbert is poster-boy for fast-fading silent stars, but other than Ronald Colman, Wallace Berry & Greta Garbo, virtually every major silent star was in serious decline by the early ‘30s . . . or gone. William Haines, one of the top juvenile stars at the cusp of the sound era, made his move on NAVY BLUES, a first Talkie for Haines, most of the cast and director Clarence Brown. Haines sticks with his signature character, the careless jerk with the snappy comeback line for all occasions, a guy who disregards possible consequences until he crosses the line, hurts someone, or finds his actions blowing up in his face. At last, he sees things plain, redeems himself in the last reel, then shows he’s still the prankster for the fade-out. It was a remarkably unpleasant sort of characterization to catch on, but it must have resonated with a generation’s youthful rejection of old-fashioned virtue & authority in the ‘Roaring ‘Twenties.’ And Haines’ fey quality gave everything a weightless tone that seemed to say, ‘just kidding.’ In NAVY BLUES, he’s a sailor boy who picks up a cute girl when he’s out on a 2-day pass. But his ship unexpected sails out, and it’s 6 months before he can get back and save her from the grind of dancehalls. Released just after The Crash, but before the Depression kicked in, Haines’ fans apparently didn’t mind his awkward line readings or a barely-there storyline. Plus, it reteamed Haines with regular co-stars Anita Page & Karl Dane. Two years later, ARE YOU LISTENING shows much smoother moviemaking, with megger Harry Beaumont using diagonal ‘wipes’ to zip us thru three or four interconnected storylines. But Haines is no longer kidding around all the time. After slamming his way thru some satirical scenes as a radio station exec, he finds himself out of a job, stuck in a loveless marriage, responsible for an accidental death, and on the lam with the girl he really loves. And the happy ending is a jail term! It’s sort of fascinating, but also sort of desperate. M-G-M gave the fast-fading Haines one more shot with another wisecracking service comedy before he got the heave-ho. Haines, a more-or-less openly gay man, is usually credited with giving up his acting career rather than playing along with sham dates and such, mandated by his studio, hastening his ouster. And while he did eventually move on to a hugely successful second-career as interior decorator (see book cover), this PC explanation doesn’t quite ring rue. Never much of an actor, here Neil Hamilton & Wallace Ford run him off the screen, he tried a couple of Poverty Row pics which failed to restart anything. Sexual orientation, lack of ambition, aging out of his character? Maybe. Or maybe audiences just wanted new actors to go with their New Deal.

WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: To see Haines’ caddish fellow functioning at top form, try George W. Hill’s TELL IT TO THE MARINES/’26. Setting Haines’ swinish behavior up against Lon Chaney’s pug-ugly masochism does wonders for both of them. Hill’s direction of the action set pieces is impeccable and lovely Eleanor Boardman is someone worth competing for. Alas, it’s all but impossible to see MEMORY LANE/’26, John Stahl’s heartbreaking small-town/can’t-go-home-again tale with Haines, Boardman & Conrad Nagel, all wonderful. Haines is a particular revelation as a boy who left town and made good. Now, he returns to find his old girl, Boardman, about to marry Nagel. The film materials are in excellent condition, but the only available print is all out of order, with scenes sorted reel-by-reel for color-tinting. (Or has some kind entity fixed it up for hungry movie mavens?)

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