Saw a trio of films that turned to be central to the 1933 Best Actress race. Katherine Hepburn won her first Oscar for a somewhat strange performance in Morning Glory, playing an actress who goes from young, innocent, naïve, and quirky to a confident star.
She was up against May Robson, who gives an excellent and touching performance in one of Frank Capra’s earliest successes, Lady for a Day. (You may have heard the story of the Best Director Award being announced by Will Rogers, who just said, “Come and get it, Frank.” Capra was halfway up when he realized Rogers was speaking to Frank Lloyd, director of Cavalcade. Awkward.)
Peg O’ My Heart wasn’t nominated for anything, but the lead, Marion Davies, gave what many considered her most solid performance. Her much older and married lover, magnate William Randolph Hearst, apparently devoted a great deal of energy—pre-Harvey Weinstein—to try and secure her a nomination, as he rightly felt that this was her best work as well. But to no avail.
All three of these films are in that peculiar early talkie period where the camera hasn’t yet rediscovered its pre-sound freedom, and much of the action is played at a mid-range, with little movement and stage-like blocking of the actors. Capra’s film is by far the most sophisticated visually of the three, and Robson’s performance has echoes of the stage, but still feels fresh and engaging. It’s the corny story of a poor alcoholic who is believed to be high society by her overseas daughter until such daughter announces her engagement to a European aristocrat, and tells her mother she’s on her way to see her. Then she receives help from rather unscrupulous characters to pull off the charade of her being as high society as her daughter believes. Robert Riskin’s screenplay is full of energy and wit, even while the plot itself combines a creaky Damon Runyon central story with a dip into the occasionally wisecracking New York underworld. Riskin and Capra fared better the next year with Oscar wins for It Happened One Night, with awards for them as screenwriter and director, plus wins for leads Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, plus the Oscar for Best Picture.
Peg O’ My Heart’s best feature is Davies, who gets to show off her charisma and comic skills, too often hidden by Heart’s insistence that she be in stuffy costume dramas that didn’t suit her. The story had been filmed more than a decade earlier with Broadway legend Laurette Taylor in 1922, a film based on the play written for her by her husband a decade before that (Taylor was 38 when she played the teen in this film; Davies was 36.) Her co-star Onslow Stevens (yes, that’s his name) gives a compelling, naturalistic performance that is ahead of its time. He has star quality to beat the band and is leading man handsome, but in spite of a long acting career, never made the leap to full-fledged stardom. The film itself, like Lady for a Day, is a fish-out-of-water film, with country Irish Peg being forced to go live in London with rich relatives for reasons that seem more confusing as time goes on. The clash between fresh, stubborn and innocent Peg and her snooty rich relations is at the heart of the story, though the love story (such as it is) and her love for her father via for domination at times. As most of the Davies films, it’s primarily a showcase for Hearst’s admittedly talented paramour, but Davies makes the film hers, and it may well be her best sound film performance. The story is as creaky as Lady for a Day’s, and it “feels” more like a silent than the others mentioned here. Plus, it ends far too abruptly, raising interesting questions it doesn’t answer.
Morning Glory is perhaps the oddest of the three. Director Lowell Sherman, who was also a successful actor who made the transition to sound (e.g., 1932’s What Price Hollywood?, really the first of the A Star is Born films), directs in an old-fashioned manner in terms of camerawork and blocking. But he also elicits a modern performance from Hepburn, whose angular features, unique voice, and unusual vocal delivery make for an uneven but compelling performance; you can’t and don’t want to take your eyes off this strange creature. One could say she exhibits a broad acting range in the performance; others might say she was all over the place.
Up-and-coming son-of-legend Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. plays the male lead, and is pretty much eaten alive by Hepburn. He has a pleasant presence however, that helps balance the film. Adolph Menjou plays, well, Adolph Menjou, and happily, C. Aubrey Smith has a substantial role and helps to hold the film down to earth.
All the above films are worth seeing for their central female performances. Personally, I found Robson’s to be the most consistent, mature, and well-rounded. But seeing a silent (and controversial) star succeed so well in a talkie, and seeing a legend in her first Oscar-winning performance—well, also worth the time.
Lastly, there is the intriguing King of Jazz, which is firmly in a short “moment in time” period of film history, when talks often meant musicals, and film didn’t quite know what to do with its new abilities. This isn’t a musical, but a revue of songs, dance, and comedy routines put together in chapters. The central personage is Paul Whiteman, generally unknown today except for his introduction of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in 1924. But for a time, he was the King of Jazz, and well known for it.
This is a Universal Film, but with an M-G-M look to it. It was hugely expensive for its time–$2 million, and it looks it. There are hints of Busby Berkeley-style work (but better directed in many cases) and early moments that presage the over-the-top numbers in The Great Zeigfeld. Some of the numbers are stunning, and surprisingly grand.
The film strongly features John Boles, a star-of-the-moment with a lovely operatic voice that worked well in more popular songs. He was handsome, and seemed destined for great stardom. He worked throughout the 1930’s, and not just in musicals. But he faded and became an oilman. Ironically, the film also has a much less handsome crooner who was part of a Paul Whiteman group called The Rhythm Boys, formed in 1925 and picked up by Whiteman the next year. They are featured strongly twice in the film, with cameos along the way. That much less handsome crooner became as famous as Boles became unknown. His name was Crosby–Bing Crosby–and it is a delight to hear him in his early years. The charisma is all there, as is that magnificent voice, which was featured (solo) over the opening credits. (He made things difficult for the production, though, by having to be escorted to the set every day from jail, where he was servicing a four-week sentence for drunk driving, a sign of things to come.)
Aside from being a hybrid musical-revue-comedy-skit parade, the film is also the richest example of a two-strip Technicolor film I’ve ever seen. The two-strip process, starting from the last ‘20’s up until the three-strip process came to fruition in 1935, featured reds and greens, and the film nearly overwhelms the viewer with the colors. (It won the Oscar for Best Art Design.) Within those limitations, the film is wild with color, and has more variety than one might think possible. Anyone interested in the history of color film, or anyone interested in art design, has to put this on their list to see. The film has been lovingly restored (which is a complicated story of its own), and is a fascinating treat to experience.
There is one breathtaking omission, however, and one that damages the film’s reputation today. “Jazz” in those days meant lightly-jazz-infused pop/dance music, and is not what we think of today when we think of jazz. But the grand finale, the Melting Pot number, ostensibly celebrates modern music as the amalgamation of influences from all over the world as they blend together to create modern American music. And there is nary an African-American to be seen or referred to. To attempt to present popular music of 1930 as a combination of musical influences without considering true jazz or the overwhelming contributions of black artists is somewhere between laughable and tragic. It’s thought that this had less to do with Whiteman than with the producers, as Whiteman was known for working with black musicians. But the whole in that portion of the film is huge.
Aside from that gaping omission, however, the film offers a glimpse into the period of great “in-betweens”—between two- and three-strip Technicolor, in between rigid camerawork and the more fluent cameras of just a few years later, and in between having the opportunity to use sound for music and dance, and actually knowing what to do with those opportunities. There hadn’t been a film quite like King of Jazz, and there certainly never will be again. As a time capsule for film and vaudeville, it’s invaluable, and charming, enthralling, and curious all at the same time.