I've been enjoying checking out a few of the early talkie rarities recently released by Warner Archives. Last week I wrote about Bette Davis' breakout role in The Man Who Played God (1932). While that film helped launch an actress at the beginning of a legendary career, One Night at Susie's (1930) and Five and Ten (1931) feature two stars in the final years of screen stardom, in addition to a scene stealing turn from a formidable character actress.
Marion Davies and Billie Dove were both popular actresses of the silent age. When talkies came along, they each made a fairly smooth transition, though neither of them would act in films for much longer. It was the beginning of a decline in popularity for Davies though, while Dove, though still popular, was ready to retire from the screen. Helen Ware, a busy supporting player in silents and early sound features never had the glamour girl image of co-star Dove, but she dominates One Night at Susie's with a soulful, powerful performance.
In this pair of dramas, you get a pleasing glimpse of how these ladies navigated early talkies.
In One Night at Susie's (1930), Mary (Billie Dove) is a showgirl who kills a predatory producer to save her virtue. Boyfriend and press writer Dick (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) insists on taking the rap, much to the dismay of his foster mother, the titular Susie, played by Ware.
Susie runs a boarding house, where she serves as a sort of den mother to reformed mobsters. She's got the respect of these thugs, even arranging a ceasefire between two warring gangs in the opening scenes.
Dick is the orphaned son of a convict and Susie has essentially raised him, making sure he doesn't turn out like her boarders. When her young ward becomes engaged to Mary, she is wary, but eventually comes to understand that the showgirl is loyal, and just as devoted to Dick's happiness as Susie.
It's a smooth little drama, with an odd mixture of charm, sleaze and tension. At just over an hour (contrary to the 92 minute time listing on the DVD case), it wraps up just before the action becomes a bit too creaky.
Dove is cute in her sleek cloche hats and Fairbanks is charming, though unfortunately slathered with a distracting amount of dark eye make-up in his prison scenes. Ware really does steal the film though. She's the only truly relatable character, because she makes you feel her dilemma and the depths of her motherly love for Dick.
I was also impressed by the set design in Dick's trial scene. The strange hybrid of art deco and expressionist styles, minimalist furniture and tall ceilings gave the proceedings a aptly nightmarish feel. It was startling, and fascinating, to see something so artfully executed in the midst of film that was for the most part rather run-of-the-mill.
Though Marion Davies is characteristically charming in Five and Ten, you get the sense that she feels weary of the whole acting thing. She stars opposite handpicked Hollywood newbie Leslie Howard as a nouveau riche heiress trying to find her place in high society.
While Davies attempts to charm Howard away from his predictably cold and connected fiancée, the rest of her family struggles to find happiness as wealthy outcasts. Her father is a five-and-ten store merchant who has worked his way from Kansas to Park Avenue. He willfully ignores the unhappiness of her lonely mother, who finds solace in a steamy affair. Her brother is expected to work in the family business, but also feels abandoned by his father and concerned about his mother.
It all adds up to an hour and a half of wincing and discomfort, with Davies suffering slights from snobby society dames and Howard playing a version of his familiar gentle tease role. I've never been able to understand what women see in him. He never seems worth the tears to me.
Davies elevates Howard though. She somehow makes him more attractive with her love, if still not entirely admirable. Even in the midst of torment, there is a lovely lightness about her. She has a beautifully expressive face and a natural air, but at the same time she shimmers with movie star glamour.
As painful as it can be to watch lovely Marion struggle, she's always enjoyable and here she is nicely supported by her cast.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.