Until now, I had only seen Ramon Novarro as a handsome temptation for leading ladies like Myrna Loy (The Barbarian ) or Greta Garbo (Mata Hari ). While he could hold his own with these goddesses of 1920s and 1930s cinema, he was clearly not the main attraction. As I recently watched a trio of his musicals, now available from Warner Archive, I finally had the chance to appreciate what a warm, appealing star he was in his own right. These films are part of an impressive seven disc release of the actor's talkie output.
Devil-May-Care (1929), In Gay Madrid (1930) and The Night is Young (1934) were interesting to view together, because the three films capture the beginning, middle and end of Novarro's brief, but fruitful musical career. With a few good songs, and the star's light-hearted charm, these productions are remarkably free of the lumbering gawkiness that plagued many early movie musicals.
There's a sturdy formula employed by them all: set the action in the past, give Novarro costumes that make him look a little, but not too much like a storybook prince, add romantic tension. It is all very pretty, and in some ways sterile, but he is so relaxed, playful, and at ease with his place before the microphone, that it elevates just about everything around him.
Novarro is at his most charming in Devil-May-Care. It is both his talkie and film musical debut, and you don't get the impression he's a novice at any of it. With his expressive singing and lively personality, the actor cuts through that static early talkie feeling that made so many musical productions that year feel uncomfortable and sometimes unwatchable.
As Novarro sings happily while shining boots it feels organic. The number isn't rolled out like a big production; it unfolds naturally and you are as charmed as the women near him who listen in. It is the kind of performance that makes you hope that it isn't all acting, that he was really full of that sense of fun and didn't simply wheel it out when there was an audience. He plays a Napoleonic soldier wooing a lady with opposing political interests, and it's a bit silly that this supposed Frenchman has a strong Spanish accent, but perhaps at the time it mattered most that he sounded appropriately foreign.
In Gay Madrid has a slower start, probably because Novarro is absent from too many early scenes and the supporting cast lacks his magnetism. As a wealthy playboy who can't stay away from fast women, he knows that all romance has its price, literally. When his taste is criticized he proclaims, "There are no cheap women. They are all very expensive." That is unfortunately the most clever thing he is given to say, but once the action picks up, there are a handful of charming scenes that keep things moving.
Novarro plays a sort of Cyrano de Bergerac trick in a silly serenade scene, but he's no martyr. Soon he reveals himself to the studiously haughty beauty on the balcony, giddily destroying the romantic prospects of his admittedly hapless rival. During yet another serenade that night, he is bolder and sexier, but still more flirtatious than smoldering. This is the sort of romancing that you'd think would have died out in the silents, but Novarro makes it work because he discards the serious tone, and builds up the fun and playful feel of a new love. He doesn't drown himself in solemnity as John Gilbert sometimes did.
The Night is Young is the most impressive production of the three, and while it doesn't have the simple charms of Devil-May-Care, it is interesting to see how much the art of filming musicals had progressed in five years. Novarro has a stronger supporting cast this time, with the always-reliable Charles Butterworth, Una Merkel, Edward Everett Horton and Rosalind Russell. These are the kind of actors that would built the template for 1930s movies. While Novarro was on his way out, they were developing their chops and burnishing the personas that would bring them success.
While Devil-May-Care works the best of the three as a showcase for his talents, Novarro's appeal has not diminished here. It is more that the cast of characters around him is more worthy of attention. The production itself is also more polished, with dreamily romantic sets and costumes. Songs like The Night is Young and When I Grow Too Old to Dream from the Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein II score are more memorable and lushly produced than in his previous musicals.
The Night is Young is a refreshing break from formula, because Novarro and his leading lady British light opera star Evelyn Laye never have to pretend they hate each other. He is an archduke looking for a fake affair to hide his liaison with the less socially-desirable Countess Rafay (Russell). She is a ballerina who is willing enough to be recruited to win a few opportunities for her friends and her boyfriend (Donald Cook). From the beginning they like each other, and it's fun to watch the joy they feel in each other's company. Of course you know they will fall in love, but it's so nice to see them having fun together from the night they meet.
While they do have their troubles, for the most part it is the forces around them that conspire keep them apart, and the result is an enjoyable bit of escapism, with just enough heartbreak to keep it level. Scene stealing second leads Butterworth and Merkel have their own romance and lend more comic zest than in Novarro's previous musicals.
With a cascade of scenes featuring people singing, dancing and enjoying each other's company, it is easy to see how this could have been an escape for Depression-era audiences. I relished for those reasons myself.
Other titles among the new Ramon Novarro releases include Daybreak (1931), Son of India (1931), The Son-Daughter (1932), Laughing Boy (1934). These titles are different genres: drama, romance and one attempt at a western.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
Give Away Details
Ready to see some Ramon Novarro flicks? I've got copies of Devil-May-Care (1929), In Gay Madrid (1930), and the Night is Young (1934) from Warner Archive for one lucky reader.
To enter, leave me a note in the comments and, for fun, also let me know the title of the last movie you watched. You have until Friday, 12/11 to enter. Then I will draw a name out of the top hat that is my Christmas tree topper this year.
Good luck all!
As promised, I have borrowed the hat from Mr. Christmas Tree...
... to use in the drawing. And the lucky winner is:
Thank you all for entering. I loved learning what you have all been watching (Gudupapa, I feel for you. It took me three nights to get through the original Solaris.Loved it, but so sleepy).
And never fear, there will be more Warner Archive giveaways to come!
Mike please send your mailing address to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send your movies. Congratulations!