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.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

"Call Her Savage," or Texas Hold 'Em

The personal, private, top, top super-secret diary of Nasa Springer

No boys allowed! (tee-hee)

June 12, 1932

Dear Diary:

Just got back from riding my horses across our vast Texas estate. We stopped for a water break at Dallas and then got as far as Amarillo before we turned back. Oh, and I savagely killed a rattlesnake with a whip. No wonder that whenever people refer to me, they say, "Call Her Savage"!






June 13, 1932

Dear Diary:

Did I mention I love horses? I love their smooth skin, their tight hindquarters, their bulging muscles, their sinewy legs ... and did I mention I also like boys? Oh, and also today my temper got the best of me again and I crashed a guitar over someone's head.







June 14, 1932

Dear Diary:

Father is mad at me again! All I did was bring a family of rabid possums into the house and interrupt some silly cotillion or something. Oh, and I forgot to put on underwear. The babies were so cute! The possums, I mean. But daddy was having none of it. He just gave me an angry look the way he always does, and said, "She's no daughter of mine!" And mother gave him a funny look and said, "You don't know how right you are!" Wonder what she means by that?


June 15, 1932

Dear Diary:

Well, now I'm in Chicago attending finishing school. I've been on my very best behavior, which means I have reduced my fighting to once a week. Oh, and I've met the most wonderful man! He looks just like that actor in the movies, Monroe Owsley. Except that in the movies Monroe Owsley always plays rotten cads, and this man seems great! I'm sure things will work out perfectly! P.S. I have learned enough in finishing school to know that you don't put an apostrophe in "kayos," silly Daily Express! P.P.S. I am wearing underwear more often.



June 16, 1932

Dear Diary:

I've found out that married life has its challenges, especially when your husband turns out to be a congenitally unfaithful sociopath whose brain is being eaten by syphilis. But nobody's perfect. Oh, and I am pregnant.







June 17, 1932

Dear Diary:

My baby is sick and my husband has deserted me, so in order to afford medicine I must walk the streets. I really don't have any other choice -- the only things I know how to do are ride horses and get into fights. So I went out and pretended to be very interested in a Bromo-Seltzer sign and one thing led to another. Oh, and while I was out my apartment building burned down.




June 18, 1932

Dear Diary:

You'll never believe this, but I'm wealthy again! My grandfather or whatever left me a lot of money, so I've been going out with very handsome men. I've learned to control my hot-blooded nature and I'm down to fighting only once a month. Or maybe twice. Oh, and under police orders I am allowed to eat off of only paper plates.





June 19, 1932

Dear Diary:

I have begun to seriously re-evaluate my relationships with men. What makes me such a savage around them? Why was I such a disappointment to my father? Why has my mother always had such an interest in Native American culture? What happened to those rabid possums? So many questions, diary, and so few mirrors!





June 20, 1932

Dear Diary:

What a crazy month! It's been as tempestuous as my very nature! But now I am home again in Texas because my mother has passed away. In her final words, she pointed to my father and said, "He's not your real -- " and that was it! I'll never figure out what she meant! But my lifelong friend Moonglow is here, and today we went together to the wooded glen where I have so many happy memories of whipping rattlesnakes to death. And there, diary, I asked Moonglow the question that has long been on my mind ...