As part of my easing back into work, I started watching some of the films I want to use for the next book. In the early evening, I headed over to Brooklyn to watch the Clara Bow early sound film, The Wild Party (1929) with Ashley, Brittan and Taso. It was really great (and fun to watch with other devotees) and will be at least a footnote to the female group film chapter. Watching it made me feel quite sad about the premature end of Bow's career--her voice was good as was her acting. While I know that most of the rumours about silent stars' voices not working for sound were just myths, designed to restock studio rosters with cheaper and less powerful newcomers in the midst of the Depression and the costs of converting production/exhibition, it is so sad to think that many charismatic performers suddenly were faced with the end of their careers while still in their 20s and 30s. Still, TWP was very much worth watching and, for me, was another useful piece of evidence of the importance of the female group trope in women's films, with its significance for the feminine, the relational and discourses on both youth and identification. It also had some great clothes.
Later that night, I watched another early sound film, Show Girl in Hollywood (1930). As a side note, these films always strike me as constituting a period of their own, one possibly owing more to silents than pre-Codes. Perhaps part of this is fashion--obviously sound films from 1928-30 look more like they belong with late silents, but there's more to it than that. Some of it, perhaps, is the occasional use of intertitles which in themselves remind you that sound is still new and in its transitional stages. But some of it the mores and cultural references of the time--even two or three years makes a huge difference in this period of film history and the issues, fashion, culture of 1932 seems quite distinct from that of 1930, and, of course, the sound technology is radically different. The films also seem very self-conscious of their position, aware of the question of history as what were just movies were in the process of being bracketed off into a silent past, their modernity suddenly questioned as their status suddenly transitions to that of relic.
Now an almost forgotten curio, Show Girl in Hollywood was evidently more of a significant release in its day--as evidenced by a final technicolor reel (now lost--the only prints are in black and white). Color was not infrequently paired with early sound--it's almost as if the studios figured they may as well flaunt all their new technologies, especially in the new musicals that took greatest advantage of sound. SGIH starred Alice White (pictured above)--often promoted as a blonde Clara Bow--another flapper star from the 1920s who did transition successfully to sound but then made some wrong decisions (temporarily leaving the screen for romantic reasons) only to mismanage her career after it was blighted by scandal. Like Bow, she certainly had the tough wise-cracking qualities that would have made her very suited to the pre-Code era, while also being a singer-dancer (with the kind of rough singing voice that clearly was popular at the time but doesn't really work today).
Ironically, SGIH deals with a young girl's rise to stardom in Hollywood, but in a less sentimental fashion that is the hallmark of so much late 1920s/early 30s cinema, contrasting again with the more Classical films that followed. Indeed, the film acknowledges the industrial and economic system that produces quick rises and falls, where all talent is replaceable, and where stars of 32 can find themselves washed up relics. Here the film is notable for a fascinating piece of casting--silent star Blanche Sweet plays the role of the slightly older actress who finds herself living in luxury off-screen in a retirement that is more involuntary than the public believes.
White's character, Dixie, brings her back into pictures, showing us that Sweet also has the voice, presence and skills to work very well in sound--almost as another Depression era sophisticate like Irene Dunne or Ruth Chatterton. Indeed, if she'd had Chatterton's stage pedigree rather than the baggage of being a Biograph star with Griffith, it's possible that her age--mid-30s--would not be a problem. But strange as it seems to me, the days of Biograph shorts were just 20 years before the early sound to pre-Code years--something that clearly seemed an eternity at the time. In many ways, this film documents how that history was experienced--the teen players of yore could only be seen as historical relics even as they were still relatively young women. It was not an issue of technology, how the camera registered their looks, or voice, but rather the need for novelty and cinema's own assertion of itself as always new that ruined these careers. The memory of this past was always attached to these pioneer actresses and not so easily resolved as in SGIH.