Wednesday, September 17, 2014

On the Grapevine: Clara Bow Double Feature - Free to Love (1925)/My Lady of Whims (1925)


Every now and then, the Mom-and-Pop joint known as Grapevine Video sends out an e-mail offering 25% off any of the DVDs in their massive inventory (with the exception of their latest releases).  And because my money seems to be soaked in gasoline (because you’ve never seen anything go so fast in all your life) I always pony up a few gitas and grab a few titles not available in the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives.  Grapevine has a nice selection of sound and silent films—and while you’re likely to hear as much praise for along with complaints about the company, I’m a repeat customer because in many instances they’re one of the most reliable sources for these great rare films.

One of the releases I bought in the 25%-off is a double feature presentation (released in 2007) featuring Roaring Twenties sex symbol Clara Bow, and the first film is a short-but-sweet mellerdrammer entitled Free to Love (1925).  Clara plays Marie Anthony, a girl of the streets who’s just finished a two-year hitch in the reformatory, put there by a judge (Winter Hall) who was convinced she was guilty of a crime.  She was innocent, of course, and she visits him in his palatial manse for the purposes of popping a cap in him…but she’s unable to pull the trigger.  The remorseful Judge Orr wants to make amends, and offers to take Marie in as his ward.  (Just like Dick Grayson.)

Marie is also romanced in the film by the Rev. James Crawford (Donald Keith), a parson who starts a union mission in town attending to the needs of ex-convicts…and Marie very much wants to help him make the place a success.  But trouble rears its ugly head in the form of master thief Jack Garner (Hallam Cooley), whose base of operations is described in a title card as “an incubator of crime.”  (I love that.)  Garner has got a nice little stolen jewelry racket going on there (and he’s taken a shine to Clara’s Marie as well, asserting in a title card that he wants to be “her pal”), but that set-up is threatened by a hunchbacked lackey named Tony (Raymond McKee), who gives the gendarmes an earful about Garner and his activities.  The problem is: the man fencing the jewelry is none other than Crawford’s pop (Charles Hill Mailes), and in the course of helping him escape before the police arrive, Marie is arrested for Garner’s murder (which was actually committed by Tony).

Will Marie confess what she knows in order to save herself?  Or will she make the noble sacrifice to protect the Crawford family name?  I’ll let you hunt down your own copy of Free to Love for the answers, but I will say that while the movie is certainly no classic it’s a pretty entertaining showcase for “The It Girl”, released during a year when fifteen features spotlighting Bow were released to theaters.  Clara was not an actress, but a presence: you couldn’t (and still can’t today) take your eyes off her whenever she’s onscreen.  (She’s at her vivacious best in a short sequence after she’s been adopted by the Judge and she watches as her benefactor practices some rod-and-reel casting in an indoor pond.)  The narrative of the movie is a bit hard to follow, however—I don’t know if it’s due to editing or they set out to make it confusing in the first place.

Donald Keith is pretty average as Bow’s paramour in Free; he co-starred with her in a total of five films including the better-known Bow vehicles Parisian Love (1925) and The Plastic Age (1925), and he also supports her in My Lady of Whims (1925)—the second feature on the Grapevine disc.  Clara’s a flighty Bohemian who’s run off to Greenwich Village to become an artist, and her father (John Cossar) hires tough guy Bartley Greer (Keith)—I know…how tough can a guy be with a name like “Bartley”?—to fetch her back.  Bartley winds up the third side in a triangle that includes Bow and her fiancé, a simp named Rolf (played by Francis McDonald, whom we last saw as John Wilkes Booth in The Prisoner of Shark Island).

My Lady of Whims also suffers from a few gaps in the narrative…but this film has an excuse; the only existing print in circulation is a five-reel Kodascope version (cut-down from seven reels)—Silent Era says that there is a print in the UCLA Film and Television Archive so it might be more complete than the one I watched.  I’ll admit that Free to Love is the better movie even though Whims has the better Bow performance; she really seems to be having a ball in this one, dancing with her trademark wild abandon.  Sadly, actress Carmelita Geraghty doesn’t get much to do as Clara’s roommate…though maybe some of her scenes wound up in the Kodascope floor.

I purchased a third Clara Bow film from the Grapevine folks…but you’ll have to return here next week to get the details on that.  Remember: movies are your best entertainment!

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