Thursday, May 14, 2015

Background: "The Squall"

The 1929 film "The Squall" is a notoriously bad early talkie with an over-the-top performance by Myrna Loy that I skewered in this post. If you're interested, here's a little background on the movie.

The arrival of "The Squall" in the nation’s theatres during the summer of 1929 provoked this response from moviegoers and critics alike:

You’re kidding, right?

“Two different audiences on viewing ‘The Squall’ laughed long and loud at its sexiest moments,” reported Motion Picture News. “This is one that you will want to keep away from your juvenile patronage. It is strong meat for most adults, who can take it either seriously or laughingly as they see fit.”

“The best that can be said for this production,” added Mordaunt Hall in The New York Times, “is that the atmospheric effects are sometimes very good. The dialogue and the acting, however, are so pathetic that they discount any minor virtues this offering may possess, for even the discussions concerning love and the hardy embracing are open to ridicule.”

“You remember that this was a fairly good stage play. You’re sure that the film version is pretty bad,” added Photoplay. “Something happened between the story conference and the cutting room. Myrna Loy is the stereotyped Nubi, the gypsy girl and the hot baby who disrupts homes, while Alice Joyce is the Hungarian mother and Carroll Nye is the son. This film just doesn’t click, that’s all. And it’s unconsciously funny.”

Based on a 1926 play that ran a year on Broadway, "The Squall," viewed through contemporary eyes, is melodramatic high camp that brings to mind the “Bad Playhouse” sketches from the early days of “Saturday Night Live.” It’s full to bursting with awkward dialogue, obvious plotting and performances that range from immobile to oblivious.

To state the plot, we turn to an advertisement for the film that ran in Variety:

Nubi – gypsy gale of passion! An ill wind that blows no man good when, whirlwind-wild, she rages untamed through peaceful lives … Born of the storm, this half-clad human hurricane takes love where she will – from old, from young; from father, from son. Cyclonic in her caresses … Venomous, voluptuous, super-vampire … The fury of her passion lays waste the souls of men!

Any questions?

Myrna Loy is Nubi, a Hungarian hottie with blazing eyes and razor-sharp cheekbones. She is a gypsy who has been catapulted from the caravan for her wanton ways. She seeks refuge at the peaceful, prosperous farm of the Lajos family because she is on the run from the gypsy leader. “He keel me,” she purrs.

The Lajos family is compassionate, and they give Nubi food and a place to live even as a storm brews outside and they speak dialogue that foreshadows trouble like crazy. Take this exchange, between the young Irma (Loretta Young, also receiving the worst notices of her career) and Grandfather Lajos (Knute Erickson):

Irma: Oh, I just hate squalls. They only make everyone so unhappy. I'd like someone to tell me why we have them.

Grandfather: Perhaps there's a reason, Irma. God gives us shadows that we may know light. He gives us sorrow that we may know joy. And perhaps he sends the squall that we may learn the beauty of a limpid sky.

Before you can say “the Gabor sisters,” Nubi is trying to seduce every guy in the joint – son Paul (Carroll Nye), farm hand Peter (Henry Cording) and father Josef (Richard Tucker, at left). (“I am keesing your shadow,” Nubi tells Josef.)

Longtime wife Maria (Alice Joyce) is watching from the shadows. What's a wife to do? "My husband -- half of my life," she says. "My son -- the other half." It falls to Maria to get rid of Nubi, courtesy of a convenient return of the caravan. The Lajos family can return to a life of prosperous complacency, thanks to the family matriarch.

Nubi is one of Loy’s most notorious turns as an exotic temptress – similar, if less melodramatic, characterizations would follow in films such as “Thirteen Women” and “The Mask of Fu Manchu."

"They built me up as someone with a knife in her teeth," she recalled in a 1987 interview.

Although ad copy for “The Squall” billed her as a “sensational overnight star,” the reality was the Loy’s career dated to 1926, and she had appeared two years earlier in the first talkie, “The Jazz Singer.”

Fortunately, Loy’s career would survive her turn as the nubile Nubi – it would be another few years, and several more ethnic villainess roles, before Loy would be cast as Nora Charles in “The Thin Man” and begin a career as one of Hollywood’s most endearing leading ladies. And despite a review in Variety that characterized her voice as being “identical with commencement exercises in a grammar school,” Loretta Young also went on to have a long, successful career.

Others in the cast weren’t as fortunate.

After a twenty-year career in silent films, Alice Joyce’s speaking style was condemned by several critics and she only made a few more films. After playing the father, Richard Tucker, despite being a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild, went on to a sporadic career in B movies.

Loy’s spicy performance as Nubi ensured that “The Squall” would run into censor trouble – in Chicago, in particular, the movie was heavily edited. But shrewd theatre operators turned this to their advantage. Said one in Motion Picture News: “In prominent place in ad feature: ‘This picture is adult entertainment. Children will not enjoy or understand it,’ and you’ll have everyone coming from high school age and over.”

Sources:

Motion Picture News, May 18, 1929, p. 1717
Motion Picture News, June 8, 1929, p. 1963
The New York Times, May 10, 1929
The New York Times, Myrna Loy Receives a Tribute, November 7, 1987
Photoplay, July 1929, p. 56
Variety, May 8, 1929, p. 12
Variety, May 15, 1929, p. 20
Variety, May 15, 1929, p. 30
Variety, June 26, 1929, p. 9


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