Monday, November 17, 2008

Very early Stanwyck

TCM is airing a curiosity from the career of Barbara Stanwyck at 7:00 AM ET on November 18: The Locked Door. It's the first talkie in Stanwyck's long career, having been made in 1929, and that early provenance shows

Stanwyck plays a young woman who, at the start of the movie is dating the boss' son (Rod LaRocque). They're on a gambling boat, that's legal and able to sell booze only because it's in international waters. But two bad things happen for Stanwyck on the cruise. First, LaRocque comes on to her more than she'd like, and second, the ship drifts back into American waters, resulting in a raid. Fortunately for Stanwyck, she's able to jump bail.

Fast forward about 18 months. Stanwyck has gotten maried to a respectable man, and it's their first anniversary. He's got a kid sister (about 18 years old) living with them, an into their lives walks -- you guessed it: the aforementioned Mr. LaRocque. He's having an illicit affair with the kid sister, and she's thinking about eloping with him, although for obvious reasons, Stanwyck thinks this is a bad idea. So, she goes to LaRocque's wonderful Spanish-style apartment (this set design is probably the highlight of the movie), trying to convince him not to marry her. However, her husband knows some other secrets about LaRocque, and he too is about to confront LaRocque with those secrets. Stanwyck natuarlly doesn't want her husband to see the two of them together, so she hides in a bedroom as her husband walks in. LaRocque, being a jerk, pulls out a gun, and accidentally gets shot with it in the scuffle. Worse, poor Stanwyck has been locked in the apartment with the dead man by her husband.

Boy is it melodramatic stuff. Stanwyck would go on to say later in her career that she considered it one of the worse movies she made. To be honest, it's not really her fault. First, the plot is cringe-worthy, full of overworked devices, and twists that are outrageous, to say the least. Second, in 1929, almost nobody knew how to act for the sound camera. The Hollywood actors of the day were either silent screen stars, who were used to using gestures instead of words to display emotion; or, like Stanwyck, they were imports from the stage, used to having to make certain people at the back of the theater could hear and follow the action. You don't need to do these things when a camera can get a close-up shot of you, but this lesson hadn't been learned yet by the stage actors. The result is something that looks hammy, and would probably have been consigned to the dustbin of history if it weren't for Stanwyck's presence.

This is another movie that's not available on DVD. But for anybody interested in Stanwyck, or anybody interested in learning the technical aspects of film-making (or how not to do it), there are some good lessons in here.

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