An actor I’ve never heard of, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a film I’ve never heard of? Can such a man exist? Yes — Warner Baxter for In Old Arizona [Irving Cummings, 1929]; George Arliss for Disraeli [Alfred E. Green, 1930], and José Ferrer [the unloved and now public-domain 1950 Cyrano de Bergerac]. Before I achieved access to TCM in July 2008, the list included, at the very least, Cliff Robertson, Paul Lukas, and Victor McLaglen.
When I recorded The Informer [John Ford, 1935], all I knew was it starred the big galoot from Broadway Limited [McLaglen] and was about the Irish Republican Army of 1922. When the film started, its milieu of expressionist lighting, dystopian levels of fog, and tense overwrought women seemed familiar. When it was over, I looked it up and realized it was the subject of one of the best Self-Styled Siren pieces, done for the great John Ford blogathon of aught seven. Here’s another appreciation by Blake Lucas. What more can be said?
Well, there’s the music. The first 10 minutes of are virtually wordless, and you get accustomed to following Gypo Nolan’s wanderings accompanied only by Max Steiner‘s music and the occasional exclamation. From the opening credits, which summarize each stage of the plot using a silhouette with Gypo’s trademark hat alignment, the score is fantastic. The Informer has some nice turns of phrase, like when Gypo’s sidekick is leading him around to spend all his money — but like some of Steiner’s music for King Kong , it makes you wish there’d been a period when feature films were distributed without audible actors, but with specially-composed soundtracks. Is there a version of Alexander Nevsky available with just Prokofiev’s score?
Early sound films like M  and The Man Who Knew Too Much  have long stretches of silence that just seem unnatural [to me anyway, eighty years later] in something that’s intended as a gripping tale of suspense and roiling emotions. If only Albert Glasser could have taken trips back in time to score all these classics instead of War of the Colossal Beast and Port Sinister.
Max Steiner in the New York Times [thank you Jim Lochner]:
[E]very character should have a theme. In The Informer we used a theme to identify Victor McLaglen. A blind man could have sat in a theater and known when Gypo was on the screen.”
I note that a piece praising The Informer tends to be phrased as “redeeming” it, or acknowledge that “few will defend” it. Is this because of the maudlin ending? Gypo Nolan isn’t just “tired and emotional”, he’s actually tired, and emotional, and so is everyone he meets. He’s been kicked out of his resistance chapter for making some dumb mistake, he can’t get a job, he’s spent a crazy night being reminded that people would go from scorning him to loving him if he had money. I think McLaglen’s performance is excellent. Rarely do you see a character who’s basically drunk throughout a movie, and gives so many shades to the drunkenness depending on who else is in the scene and what they think of him.
Maybe the film’s grab-bag of Irish accents make it hard to take seriously. As the ruthless but fair IRA commandant, Preston Foster looks and sounds like he’s telling Philip Marlowe to stop interfering in police business. As his vicious henchman, Joe Sawyer looks and sounds like one of Rico Bandello‘s sidekicks. Everyone else sounds fine. Every character, large or small, is distinct. Impressive for a story that follows one man’s rise and fall in the terms of a classical tragedy, over the course of about 9 hours of his life.
The Informer marks the first time since The Scarlet Pimpernel four months earlier that my wife has seen me watching a 70-year-old movie, sat down next to me, and been captivated throughout. Our only complaint was about the bathetic romance between Preston Foster and Heather Angel. And if we presume that that needed to be part of the story, it wouldn’t be possible to downplay it any more than Ford did.
In the long era between The Informer and his resurgence in much later Ford movies like Rio Grande, McLaglen served as a character actor [that character being “William Bendix with a mean streak”] in Broadway Limited [Gordon Douglas, 1941]. He threatens people, he shows the boxer’s dexterity by building a house of toothpicks, he easily makes people like him or fear him, and he reaches 100% lovable-lug status when he starts getting taunted by children and he realizes his trivial kidnapping foible might get him 177 years in prison.
Broadway Limited is about an unfulfilled Hollywood star taking a train to New York with her pretentious director who wears a monogrammed bathrobe, it’s a screwball farce with a bunch of funny supporting actors, and the confusing title is the name of the train that provides the setting. As such, it was taken by some nitpicking critics as an imitation of the great Twentieth Century, as described by the TCM.com article that is the internet’s only source of information about this film. The similarities are legion, but there are differences.
- First of all, it should be obvious just from the title that Broadway Limited has nothing to do with Broadway. The train line is called “Broadway” because of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s broad right of way.
- Second, the unfulfilled actress is totally different. Lily Garland [Carole Lombard] was a diva who couldn’t be reasoned with. Her personality provided most of the film’s conflict. April Tremaine [Marjorie Woodworth] is an average small-town girl who’s become glamorous and famous somehow, much as Hal Roach hoped would happen to Woodworth herself .
- Third, there are comic character actresses. In Twentieth Century the funny people running around in the wake of the arrogant stars were all men [Roscoe Karns and Walter Connolly, plus the weirdos they encounter on the train]. Lily Garland’s assistant [would she have been an “assistant” back then? Maidservant?] was a cipher. The funniest person in Broadway Limited is Patsy Kelly as the all-purpose assistant to April Tremaine and Ivan Ivanski [Leonid Kinskey]. This is the only opportunity to see Kelly together with Zasu Pitts, the woman she replaced as Thelma Todd’s partner in Roach’s comedy shorts, and they have a fine rapport as the working-class no-crap-taker and the repressed movie buff. Dennis Cozzalio and Charles Stumpf have written nice appreciations of Patsy Kelly, who in 1941 would soon be blacklisted for a while for being too boisterous of a lesbian.
- Fourth, we don’t see the actress or director acting or directing. It’s all set on the train and the audience is unlikely to care about these people’s efforts to get publicity for whatever they’re doing.
- Fifth, the small man creeping around in this film is not a wealthy eccentric. He’s a person who seems to be a blackmailer, and basically provides all the movie’s tension by having McLaglen think he’s a blackmailer, and then [SPOILER ALERT] turns out to not be a blackmailer. I’ve seen some unsatisfying displays of deus ex machina, but that is one of the most infuriating twists in the history of happy endings. He actually threatened McLagen at one point, doesn’t he? I mean, why was he doing that? And who are those guys with him? Maybe he’s a wealthy eccentric too, who likes to toy with people. The Sir Guy Grand of 1941.
- Sixth, in Twentieth Century the bland and naïve young fellow who wants Lily Garland to settle down was an arrogant Princeton man, while in this movie the bland and naïve young fellow who wants April Tremaine to settle down is her former high-school sweetheart, who says things like “But on a staff doctor’s salary?”. And she runs into him by chance while travelling with her director, instead of running into the director by chance while travelling with her sweetheart.
- Seventh, the whole baby plot is idiotic. Or you could just say the plot is idiotic. A promising starlet suddenly has a baby? With no known father? This is a good publicity stunt? Publicity for what? And am I wrong to think Ivanski is being unrealistic by ordering that a baby be found, on the double, for this stunt, and then being horrified to see that the baby his assistant has managed to generate is a stolen baby?
- Eighth… if you’re like me, you’ll think you’ve spotted a monumental continuity error when Zasu Pitts’s beauty mark disappears. Well, the movie is clever about that. The explanation makes no sense, but the very fact of an explanation made me laugh.
- Finally — although Twentieth Century may contain thirty one-liners better than anything in this film — Broadway Limited matches its satire of theater people with a parody of radio people, in an extended spoof of Renfrew of the Mounted, a real show [sponsored by Wonder Bread!] that the Zasu Pitts character loves to an unholy extent. But before we get to our world-exclusive Renfrew parody transcript, a discussion of leading lady Marjorie Woodworth.
She starred in many Hal Roach films of less than an hour’s duration, and had supporting roles in a couple higher-profile features [Decoy, Salty O’Rourke]. This was her one starring role. According to TCM:
Hal Roach tried to launch a new star with his 1941 farce Broadway Limited only to discover what most of Hollywood already knew: Stars aren’t made, they’re born. But he still came up with a spirited comedy that provided a nice showcase for some of Hollywood’s best comic sidekicks. He even launched another Hollywood stalwart, though it wasn’t a human one.
The star Roach tried to create was Marjorie Woodworth, a blonde beauty he was grooming to become the next Jean Harlow.
Woodworth’s career never took off. The Times critic noted, “For the record, this film marks the emergence of the widely-heralded Miss Marjorie Woodworth as a leading lady. For the record only; no other reason.” Although praised for her figure, which was amply displayed in various degrees of undress, Woodworth did not make a strong impression on moviegoers.
Well, you know, that wasn’t her fault, you know. The movie is funny, but she’s like Allan Jones in A Night at the Opera. Other characters’ madcap mischief alternate with her wringing her hands in uncertainty or swooning in the boring arms of Dennis O’Keefe. That’s all she’s given to do! And every audience member is justified in wanting to skip past the bland romantic stuff to see more of McLaglen getting insulted by small children or Pitts falling out of bed. Maybe if she’d been in the real Twentieth Century instead of Carole Lombard, the diva’s narcissistic acting out would just seem like whining, but there’s no way of telling, based on this.
When you give your would-be star one of two non-funny roles in a big ensemble comedy, you may be saying “She rises above this base and coarse silliness”, but you also say “She is not capable of being funny”. She doesn’t seem funny, at least after the initial scene when she pleads, “I’ve done everything you wanted me to for two years. I’ve posed in bathing suits in the middle of December, I’ve ridden wild horses, I’ve collected Russian wolfhounds, and I’ve even been the sweetheart of the orange growers’ association. But I’m telling you right now, Ivan, I’m not going to have a baby!” Once the baby appears, she prevents the action from descending into the heedless craziness that would make us ignore our “baby in danger!” concerns.
So it’s bad that she grounds the movie in reality, that she’s the only person in it who seems perceptive and honest? Yes, because the film has a nonsensical baby-kidnapping plot. I don’t know if this was really an attempt to launch her as a star, because by now Hal Roach Studios had started making movies that were more ambitious than the usual slapstick, and one might think that the Next Jean Harlow would be put in something with aspirations to seriousness, or at least given ten different things to do like Joan Bennett in The Housekeeper’s Daughter. Or maybe her limitations became clear during filming.
- [note: all characters speak in an emotionless monotone]
- Melinda: It’s Renfrew. Oh, thank goodness.
- Renfrew: You’re right. It is Renfrew. Stand where you are, Jack Dalton. And you’d better reach for the sky.
- Dalton: No you don’t, Renfrew. I’ve been savin’ this .45 slug just for you.
- [bang bang]
- Melinda: [squeals] Oh, Renfrew, are you hurt?
- Renfrew: It never touched me.
- Melinda: Oh, Renfrew, darling, you saved me from a fate too horrible to think about. I don’t know how to reward you.
- Renfrew: Ridding the country of a skunk like that is reward enough, Melinda.
- Melinda: But surely —
- Renfrew: That, and the soft light I see dancing in your eyes.
- Melinda: Renfrew, darling. You may kiss me.
- Announcer: Will Renfrew kiss Melinda? Listen at the same time tomorrow night, ladies and gentlemen, for the further adventures of Renfrew of the Mounted, presented each weekday everning by the makers of…
- [radio shuts off, everyone gratefully returns to their conversations]
Based on Broadway Limited as well as Niagara Falls (Gordon Douglas, 1941), one of Hal Roach’s unique “Streamliners”, Marjorie Woodworth has a predominant mood and facial expression, and it’s not a spectacularly appealing one. She’s annoyed all the time. Now, there are limited roles for a “pretty girl” in the sort of comedy that we now associate with Warner Brothers cartoons. The funny girl is going to be a woman who looks a bit off-kilter. But the pretty girl — if she’s not the vamp who leads men astray, she’s likely to be the good girl whose life gets disrupted by the wackiness.
In Niagara Falls she’s the latter, and as such she’s frustrated and annoyed much of the time. This provides comic possibilities. But there’s no lightness to her tone, she doesn’t roll with the punches, she doesn’t look at other people much. She really makes it clear that she wants Tom Brown’s womanizing character to go away and she’s not going to play along. We follow these two mismatched non-lovebirds through a series of misunderstandings that coop them up in a honeymoon suite together. A busybody Oklahoma oilman threatens to plug Brown full of bullets if he doesn’t spend the entire night consummating his marriage, and eventually Woodworth gets the upper hand on Brown and changes her expression to a smile. At the end we leave this reverie and return to the suicide attempt.
From a Google image search, you can see a bunch of pinup shots and magazine ads Woodworth appeared in as a model. I’d say the closer they are to being film publicity stills, the more ill at ease she looks. There were successful starlets who looked awkward in photographs [Margaret Sullavan, Priscilla Lane, Jennifer Jones], but when acting, they looked animated. Not so much with Woodworth. It must be hard for a newcomer to fit in with an extensively drilled troupe of farceurs.
I thought about Marjorie Woodworth again when seeing Lucille Ball in Du Barry Was a Lady [Roy Del Ruth, 1943], an adaptation of Cole Porter’s musical without most of Cole Porter’s music. Ball was in several of MGM’s big-budget musicals, in roles that every starlet’s supposed to want — the inaccessible glamour girl who’s soon revealed to be the relatable good girl. I’ve never seen where the idea came from to make her the star of these movies, but her first one, Du Barry, was a success, so she was put in more of them. Du Barry is split into two parts that make it particularly clear what she’s good at and what she’s not good at. And yet what she’s not good at is what the studio kept having her do.
The first half is a madcap comedy in which she hardly has anything funny to say, as May Daly, star nightclub singer who’s forcing herself to seem like a mercenary gold-digger to get back at the guy she’s really in love with [Gene Kelly]. Lucille Ball as a self-loathing Sugarpuss O’Shea. What kind of casting is that? She was more appealing and interesting as the gritty girl detective in Lured. If the goal of this film were to make the audience fall in love with her, it would be a costly failure. Then you’ve got the second half, an extended dream in which Red Skelton imagines himself as XV, Lucille Ball as Madame du Barry, and Gene Kelly as a dashing anti-royalist agitator. Her humongous hairdo, and the nonstop puns and one-liners, turn this into the greatest sketch in Simpson Family Smile-Time Variety Hour history. Suddenly Ball comes to life, getting chased around on a trampoline bed and infiltrating a sans-culotte hangout. The dream sequence made up the bulk of the Broadway show; it takes up about 40% of the film, making Du Barry Was a Lady a plotless melange of entertainment, like Thousands Cheer.
In his first Technicolor starring role, Skelton is an intensely likable, overconfident Philip J. Fry type. Until he turns into Enjolras, Gene Kelly has nothing to do except play the piano and mope around being jealous and noble about May Daly’s principled refusal to entertain a non-rich man’s attentions. There are weird musical numbers: exactly at the halfway point is a multi-movement suite advertising Esquire pin-up calendars — and then there’s Virginia O’Brien applying her unique style to one of those pun-laden songs about hotties from history. There are plucky war references, like the hat-check guy who says they can’t find a girl to do his job because they’re all working in shipyards. But maybe the best reason to watch it is to see a young Zero Mostel, drawing on his nightclub comedy act as a swami who resembles Andy Kaufman. Like Bill Murray in Caddyshack, it’s hard to explain what he’s doing here, but who needs an explanation?