Wednesday, October 15, 2014

On the Grapevine: Miss Bluebeard (1925)

A title card describes the silent comedy Miss Bluebeard (1925) as “a story of love and nonsense,” and goes on further to say “of course, it begins in Paris.”  Popular Parisian actress Colette Girard (Bebe Daniels) has grown quite weary with the attention she receives from all the stage-door Johnnies—really, she’s disenchanted with men in general—and hopes to grab a little R&R visiting her friend Gloria Harding (Diana Kane) in London.  Also headed in that direction is composer Larry Charters (Robert Frazer), who receives the same amount of attention from which Colette suffers, only from the opposite sex.  Larry’s female fans are distracting him from his work, so he hits upon the bright idea of having one of his pals, Bob Hawley (Kenneth MacKenna), pretend to be him to allow him to continue writing his music.

On the train to London, Bob and Colette make one another’s acquaintance; while she feigns disinterest in him, she’s actually intrigued because she’s a fan of his music (keeping in mind she thinks he’s Charters).  The couple find themselves stranded in the town of Vailly, France after a misunderstanding at a newsstand…and since the next train won’t be coming along until morning, they’re forced to seek accommodations in the home of the town’s mayor.  The mayor, sad to say, is a bit fond of the old grape—and when Bob and Colette come around to see about getting a room for the night, he mistakes them for a couple who had planned to wed in Vailly that same day.  Signing a “hotel register,” the couple are then declared Mr. and Mrs. Larry Charters.  Quel catastrophe!

When they finally reach London, Bob has to find a delicate way to let his composer pal know he’s a newly married man…and from that embarkation point, a series of mix-ups and misunderstandings unfold that mark your typical romantical comedy farce.

Miss Bluebeard won’t appeal to anyone looking for some sort of hidden silent film masterpiece; it’s a bit of cinematic cotton candy, easily forgotten once the last reel has finished.  But that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining; I thoroughly enjoyed the film, which was adapted from a 1923 stage hit by Avery Hopwood (with a scenario by Townsend Martin) entitled Little Miss Bluebeard.  (Little Miss Bluebeard was an English language version of a French play, Der Gatte des Fräuleins.)  Directed by Frank Tuttle (This Gun for Hire), who was never going to be confused with a Griffith or Von Stroheim anytime soon, Miss Bluebeard does provide many an amusing moment despite a heavy reliance on title cards.

The opening sequence is quite funny; we find Daniels in an apartment, being made love to by an unidentified paramour…and suddenly, there’s a knock at the door.  “My husband!” Daniels cries out as she helps the lover hide under a divan…where another one of her gentleman callers is already camped out (the two men shake each other’s hands, which I guffawed at).  When Bebe’s husband finally makes himself to home, he romances her while she sits on the sofa…with one lover underneath tenderly holding her right hand, and the other kissing her left.  The camera then pulls back to reveal that this is all a play (a curtain closes on the scene); I saw the gag a mile away but that doesn’t mean I enjoyed it any less.

Bebe Daniels began her career in the “flickers” as a child actress and learned comedy from one of the masters—she was Harold Lloyd’s leading lady in many of his Hal Roach shorts before leaving to try her hand at dramatic parts in Cecil B. DeMille-directed vehicles like Male and Female (1919), Why Change Your Wife? (1920), and The Affairs of Anatol (1921).  By the mid-1920s, Daniels was one of Paramount’s most popular players, appearing in such features as Monsieur Beaucaire (1924) and Wild Wild Susan (1925).  Her movie career tapered off sometime with the advent of talking pictures, though she appeared in a number of well-known films like The Maltese Falcon (1931) and 42nd Street (1933); she decided to retire in 1935 and with her husband Ben Lyons the two of them became the “Ozzie and Harriet” of British radio and television with their appearances on Hi Gang! and Life with the Lyons.

Bebe’s a lot of fun in Miss Bluebeard, but admittedly my decision to purchase this movie was influenced by the presence of Raymond Griffith, one of the unsung comedians in silent cinema (Walter Kerr, in his book The Silent Clowns, ranked Griffith behind such immortals as Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon).  Because not much of Raymond’s work survived the ravages of time and neglect, a lot of his work is unavailable for reappraisal—his best known movie, the Civil War comedy Hands Up! (1926), was admitted to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2005…so anytime I come across one of his movies I’m curious to check it out.  (I’ll be looking at a couple more Griffith vehicles in this space in weeks to come, by the way.)

Griffith essays the role of (The Honorable) Bertie Bird, a pal of Larry’s who gets the lion’s share of the laughs in Miss Bluebeard.  He’s got a great pantomime bit in which he attempts to convey to Larry that he’s told Colette one of Larry’s visiting girlfriends was actually a housecat (Ray imitates the cat by arching his back and “cleaning himself” while perched on a piano bench) and his struggle with another one of Larry’s “inspirations” who’s fainted has distinct Keatonian overtones.  Griffith even winds up in bed with Bebe in one sequence, and the two of them going about their nighttime rituals while unaware of each other’s presence reminded me a lot of a similar routine in Charley Chase’s What Price Goofy? (1925).

Miss Bluebeard isn’t a perfect picture; the two leads, Frazer and MacKenna, are often difficult to tell apart and I wish Griffith’s part had been enlarged because as far as I’m concerned he stole the show.  (The Grapevine Video release advertises this film with a sixty-two minute running time; I clocked the presentation at fifty-four minutes so I don’t know if I was missing some additional footage—it all seemed coherent to me.)  Tuttle would later direct a sound remake of the film in 1930 as Her Wedding Night, starring the incomparable Clara Bow.  Ultimately, Miss Bluebeard meets expectations of being a frivolous but gratifying little romp and a chance to enjoy the charms of Bebe Daniels.  (Which I plan to do next time with one of her talkies—in a movie I’ve discussed on the blog before, but it’s paired with a feature that I have not seen and that was also obtained from Grapevine.)

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