Monday, March 17, 2008

Ramon Novarro

Ramon Novarro in Ben-Hur,
Ramon Novarro in Ben-Hur (1927)

So I got up early this morning to watch TCM's showing of Across to Singapore. Unfortunately, it's not available on DVD and, since it's a silent, it's not so likely to show up soon on TCM. Ramon Novarro stars as Joel, the youngest of the four Shore brothers, the oldest three of whom are seamen. Joel's in love with Priscilla Crowninshield (Joan Crawford), but so is his older brother Mark, played by Ernest Torrence, who in real life was 21 years older than Novarro -- but more on that later. Older brother Mark is betrothed to Priscilla, much to the chagrin of both her and Joel.

Things change, though, when Joel too becomes a seaman and goes off on Mark's next voyage. Mark sees him as immature, and when they get to Singapore, Mark orders Joel out of a bar and back to the ship, just before Mark gets stabbed by a gang led by a sailor overlooked by Mark for first mate in favor Joel. The new captain has Joel put in irons for the voyage home, and here's where we have to congratulate the make-up department: despite having spent several months at sea in harsh weather, followed by several months in irons below decks in the brig, when the ship returns home, Novarro is impossibly photogenic, as though he's just come from the set of the 1920s equivalent of Dawson's Creek. Novarro was 28 at the time, and since his age isn't actually given in the movie, we can be generous and suggest that MGM weren't too egregious in their casting. Torrence, on the other hand, was 49 when Across to Singapore was made, and looks every day of his 49 years, and then some, with a winswept, craggy, and totally unappealing face. It's easy to see why Crawford's Priscilla wouldn't want this man.

Eventually, Joel proves that his ending up in irons was an injustice, and he and Priscilla end up together courtesy of an unbelievably melodramatic ending. Joel has the good fortune to retain his boyish good looks, despite having spent several more months at sea, and getting punched around in a fight.

As I mentioned, Across to Singapore isn't available on DVD, probably in part because the print isn't all that good, really showing wear from its 80 years. If you'd like to watch Novarro on DVD, your best bet would be Novarro's best-known movie, the 1927 silent version of Ben Hur.

One final note about Across to Singapore: it's based on the novel "All the Brothers Were Valiant", and under that title, the movie was made earlier as a silent, and then in the 1950s. The novel was written by Ben Ames Williams, the same man who wrote Leave Her to Heaven

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