Tuesday, January 17, 2017

One-hit wonders

TCM's Spotlight on prison movies continues to night with an early talkie: Weary River, at 9:45 PM.

Richard Barthlemess plays Jerry, a gangster with a heart of gold, at least to his girlfriend Alice (Betty Compson). He likes to play piano sing to her. But of course being a gangster he's got enemies, and some of them have Jerry framed and sent to prison. The warden, however, has a heart of gold too, and he tries to imrpove the lives of his prisoners by letting them perform in the prison band, and even inviting a radio network to do live broadcasts of the prison's concerts. Since it's already been foreshadowed that Jerry can sing, we know he's going to sing backed up by his fellow prisoners; he even writes his own song to sing, one called "Weary River", hence the title of the movie.

The song, of course, becomes a hit on the outside. That, combined with the likelihood that Jerry was framed, causes the warden (played by a silent-era actor named William Holden who is, as far as I can ascertain, no relation of the Holden of Sunset Blvd. fame) to give Jerry another chance on the outside. Jerry even has an obvious life outside of crime to pursue, that of a singer.

Now, you'd think this hook, of the guy who gained his stardom in prison, would be just the thing to jump-start a career. But we wouldn't have much of a plot that way. So instead, Jerry is hounded by his criminal past everywhere he goes. He's also enough of a dipshit that he can't write another song, simply singing "Weary River" again and again wherever he goes. Of course the public wants something new! But Jerry's professional failure is almost enough to send him back to a life of crime. Perhaps Alice -- helped by the warden -- can save him.

Weary River is interesting as an early talkie, but for more modern audiences, a lot of the plot is going to seem not only old-fashioned, but maddening. Some of the reasons for that, I've already alluded to. The two stars, however, carry themselves off well in spite of the material. They were both making the transition from the silents, not particularly successfully as it turned out. Weary River is worth one watch, but there were better movies even in 1929.

Weary River having been released by Warner Bros./First National, has been accorded a DVD release thanks to the Warner Archive, but as far as I can tell it's not part of any of the cheaper box sets Warner Home Video has been putting out.

No comments: