Monday, January 19, 2015

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "Untamed"

Vildkatten, that satin doll.
Here are some words you will rarely, if ever, see in the same sentence:

"Kim Kardashian" and "talent."

"Downton Abbey" and "rowdy."

"Joan Crawford" and "lighthearted."

Yes, I like to pick on Joan Crawford. Hey, at least I'm straight up about it, ya feel me? It's just that she's always so ... so oxygen-suckingly earnest and yet phony-baloney, like a robot programmed to imitate actual human emotion. My favorite Crawford picture is "Mildred Pierce" because her melodramatic style fits the story so well. (When "The Carol Burnett Show" did a parody of that movie, the title pegged Crawford's style perfectly -- they called it "Mildred Fierce.")

Really?
And Crawford is at peak Crawford in her first full-length talkie, 1929's "Untamed." (She had earlier filmed a talkie number or two for MGM's "Hollywood Revue," but it was released afterwards.) In all fairness, "Untamed" would be terrible even if she wasn't in it -- it's a weird collision of embarrassing cultural assumptions and over-baked performances, sitting on top of a supremely uninteresting series of romantic complications that, like Crawford's grimaces, you can see coming from a mile away. (With dialogue by Willard Mack, bitchez!)

On the up side, Robert Montgomery isn't bad. (It is his first talkie as well.)


How to dance like no one is watching.
We open in the picturesque Valley of Zoro in South America or something, where lives a penniless Englishman and his daughter Alice, aka Bingo because ... she was conceived during a heated game? ("B-12! Oh, my God! B-12!")

Anyway, Bingo is the hit of the valley because of her spirited movements that approximate dance, and because she runs around in skimpy loincloths.

Accompanied by her pet monkey Chico, Bingo lives life as if it were a gay, mad game! She is as unspoiled as the jungle, as direct as a child, as graceful as a ... well, let's settle for two out of three.

Bingo's father is visited by two old friends, Murchison (Ernest Torrance) and Presley (Holmes Herbert). Father is then quickly stabbed, mostly so that Crawford can have a death to emote over; see for yourself, although I wouldn't blame you if you watched only a few seconds of this clip -- it seems to go on for hours.


So, it turns out that before Bingo's dad kicks off he tells his friends of a deed he has that's worth millions in oil rights. So if he's had that all along, why live in poverty?

Upon dad's death, Murchison and Presley swear to protect Bingo and her right to be rich, rich, rich, and they become her guardians. "The sweetest flowers grow in the mud," Murchison says in a non-creepy way about Bingo.

Then before you can say "Sydenham's chorea," we are on a ship bound for New York City. The oil rights have come through, or been established, or whatever it is you do with oil rights, and Bingo and her guardians are flush with cash. On board the ship, Bingo locks peepers with Andy (Montgomery), who's squiring an older rich woman, and it's B-12 all over again.

Since this is an early talkie, it's required that both Crawford and Montgomery sing, which they do in a nice untrained way. Their theme song is "That Wonderful Something," a ditty that's just made for plinking on the ukelele:


The scenes between Andy and Bingo, when they aren't weighed down with drama, are actually nicely played. But they also offer vivid illustrations of each actor's style. Montgomery is nonchalant -- it's almost as if he doesn't care if he's in the picture or not. Crawford, on the other hand, acts like she'd kill you if you cut even one of her lines.

At first, the devil-may-care Andy doesn't know what to make of Bingo's guileless love for him. But it doesn't take him long to respond in kind. However, Uncle Murchison has a problem -- Andy is without funds. (Which seems weird, considering that he's on an ocean liner and has access to more than one tuxedo.) So Murchison, in his lumbering style -- speed was not an Ernest Torrance specialty -- suggests that Andy and Bingo cool it until she's been in New York for a few months, and then behind the scenes he works to sabotage the relationship.

This leads to lots of breakups and makeups between Bingo and Andy, climaxing with Uncle Murchison offering Andy a bribe to leave. A fed-up Andy gets drunk and confronts Bingo, which triggers her Acting reflux -- er, reflex -- again:


All in all, 1929 was a big year for Joan Crawford -- in June she had married Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and he supported her as she prepared for her talkie debut by reading English poetry into a Dictaphone. Unfortunately, no one at the time seemed to think about dancing lessons.

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