Monday, December 9, 2013

Warner Instant Archive (1920's Movies on Streaming!)

Good morning!

I hope you had a good weekend! I'm here today to spread the good word about Warner Instant Archive. Brother, have you heard the news?

I was looking over some Clark Gable tribute page on Facebook (like you do) and ran across a posting that mentioned several CG movies were up on the Warner page. Nerts to that, I thought-- while Warner Archive has a slew of old movies that either never reached DVD or VHS and are made up on an on demand basis at their warehouse, at $24.99 a pop, the prices are a little too high to indulge my curiosity in career highlights and footnotes of stars I've read about. Even if it makes my little heart sad. HOWEVER! Warner now has a streaming service that allows you, for $9.99 a month, to watch hundreds of old movies under two kingpin classic Hollywood studios, as Warner acquired the MGM back catalog along with their own motion picture releases. WHAT. WHAT. I signed up immediately and can't keep my eyes off the screen in my idle moments. What have I been watching? WHAT HAVEN'T I BEEN WATCHING. I started with the twenties', and have been working my way through. Here are some highlights from my jolly spree:

1) Untamed (1929), starring Joan Crawford and Robert Montgomery

In Untamed, Joan Crawford's talking picture debut (!!), she plays "Bingo", a wildcat of a girl brought up in the jungles of South America alongside her oilman father. When the pater familias passes in the first reel, Joan is left in the hands of one of her dad's old pals, who is determined to turn the now very rich Bingo into the kind of lady her station in life behooves her to be. They set sail for America, but unfortunately, run into the very young, very louche Robert Montgomery (popular costar of many early thirties' "women" pictures, usually with Norma Shearer, and later father of Elizabeth Montgomery, tv's Samantha from Bewitched) on the boat over. She arrives in the States and makes an overnight transformation into a lady of great taste and elegant restraint, but the one thing she can't change is her feelings for Robert Montgomery... various squabbles about fidelity, money, and matrimony ensue, but Bingo gets her guy by the last title card.

What's interesting to see in this movie is Joan at the very, very beginning of her forty year career. She'd notched something like twenty-five movies in the silent era, but this is really the make-or-break moment for whether or not the popular, saucer-eyed dancer would make it in the new era of the movie industry. And does she even look like herself, yet? No! The picture opens with Joan playing a song on the ukuele, as if the producers are saying "Look! We have sound, people!", and a wild flapper dance in what is essentially a tropical mini-dress that gives her plenty of free reign to show off the moves that won her a closetful of Charleston trophies in her teens (you can see the whole scene here). Still, the lithe-bodied, harsh mouthed girl on the screen is still somehow a light year away from the shopgirl's idol she would become in just two or three years later. She's not "there" yet, but she's on her way. And isn't that exciting to watch? YES. YES IT IS. Thank you, Warner Archives!!

2) Show People (1928), starring Marion Davies and William Haines

Show People is a FAN.TASTIC. silent movie about the motion picture industry...if you ever wanted a backstage pass to MGM circa 1928 (me, sir! Please, sir, me sir!), here's your ticket. King Vidor (the filmmaker behind The Crowd, which was also released that year) helms a light comedy about Miss Peggy Pepper of Georgia (Marion Davies), who arrives in Hollywood in an open touring car with her father, the Colonel, and the intention of breaking into the movie business. At the studio commissary, Billy (William Haines) barges in and makes a seat at the Peppers table, all gangly good looks and likeability. A Keystone-cop-style comedian himself, he offers Peggy a leg up in the business by promising to get her on set in a slapstick one-reeler being made the very next day. After some pretty hilarious hiccoughs (Peggy thinks she's going into a drama, so her reaction when she is hit in the face with a pie, sprayed with seltzer, etc, is completely real rather than the inspired comedic acting the director thinks he's seeing), Peggy's star begins to rise, and you have to watch to see if she goes all A Star is Born on poor Billy (spoiler alert: she does, then she doesn't)...there are some really sweet moments in between the slapstick.

Marion Davies, if you weren't familiar with the name, was a Ziegfield Follies girl who became the longtime mistress of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. She moved to Hollywood with him in 1919 to build one of America's own "castles", San Simeon, as a west coast love nest, and make a break for herself in movies. Hearst bankrolled a number of historical romances starring Davies and gave them the FULL publicity treatment in his many newspapers-- some film critics say that she might have done all right for herself just on the strength of her acting, but having that "someone else's money" pall cast across her career made her talent seem a lot weaker than her lover's belief in it. Citizen Kane (you might have heard of it) was biographically based on WRH, and having the nightclub singer turned would be opera star character of Susan Alexander Kane parallel Davies's role in Hearst's life might have been the last word in the "was she or wasn't she talented" argument-- yet Show People is directly refutes Davies detractors. You're wrong, boys! Marion Davies is adorable as Peggy Pepper, and is a real canny comedienne-- she makes faces and mimics stars of the day (an imitation of Mae Murray's bee-stung lips slash overbite is the focus in a particularly hilarious scene) and generally endears herself to the viewer from the first scene.

William Haines, Davies's Show People costar, was a popular leading man of the silent era, always the cheery collegiate or nattily dressed gadabout quick with a boyish smile or a good natured hi-jink. Haines's refusal, in the 1930's, to enter into a "sham" marriage with an actress on the lot to camouflage his homosexuality led to his being ousted from the motion picture community. However, he and his partner Jimmie Shields, with the help of old friend and co-star (you guessed it!) Joan Crawford, launched his second and just as successful career as an interior designer to-the-stars. He's GREAT as Billy as in the movie, 110% charm. I hope they add some more of his movies to the streaming service (West Point was up long enough for me to see it, but has been removed now-- fickle, fickle Warners!).

Something to watch for? The twenty-or-so-strong cameos in the movie! At one point, this tiny guy (below) comes up to ask Marion Davies for her autograph after her first successful preview screening, and she shoos him away. Billy, recognizing the bantam movieman, signs his signature book and waves as the stranger gets into a very, very expensive town car. "Who was that little man?" she asks in a title card. "Charlie Chaplin!" replies Billy in the next card. Marion, relatably, falls out. And it is! Real life friend (possible paramour?) of Marion Davies and the Little Tramp himself...I've seen plenty of pictures of him out of makeup and with various Hollywood stars, but I will say it was jarring to see how actually tiny he is when in civilian clothes rather than his trademark, ill-fitting tramp clothes.

At a dinner with other Hollywood types, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., John Gilbert and wife Leatrice Joy, Anita Page, and  Karl Dane all make uncredited guest appearances (cue me shrieking, "Look! Look, it's John Gilbert! That's his wife!" with unchecked glee), and at one point, Peggy Pepper runs into Marion Davies on her way to a tennis match! Talk about meta, people. Here's the dolled up, feminine Peggy watching the much more casual, boyishly blonde bobbed Davies take off across the studio lot.

A first rate flicker, folks! Go check it out!

3) The Show (1927), John Gilbert and Renée Adorée

The Show is a horror (ish?) movie by Freaks director Tod Browning, and knowing his reputation for making movies that are a little sinister, a little "off", I was super excited when this was added to the streaming site just this weekend. Dreamy John Gilbert is the carny barker in a Bavarian traveling show, Renée Adorée plays the title role in the skit production of Salome which features as the main attraction in their set-up. The sketch follows the story of dancing girl Salome demanding the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter when she is offered "anything she desires" by King Herod...there's a thrilling part where a bearded, be-wigged Gilbert is involved in a fool-the-eye trick where he is apparently "beheaded" on stage. Lionel Barrymore (great-uncle of Drew, brother of John and Ethel, you might remember him as the heartless bank owner Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life) plays a gangster type who might be part of a triangle between Gilbert and Adorée. Barrymore make good use of the theatrical "trick" in the Salome sketch to try and economically dispatch his rival. That doesn't work, so the plot plods on with Gilbert having stolen some money from an overly trusting orphaned shepherdess and hiding out in Adorée's attic.

Do you blame her for being a sap? Look at this man:

John Gilbert and Clara Bow share those same exclamation point eyes, particularly suited to the silents. I can't get over how vivid and alive he looks onscreen. I might not have done a good job grabbing stills, but trust me, this is no "ironically handsome" crush, he's really the real-deal heartbreaker when you see him in action. Usually, John Gilbert plays, at worst, a somewhat debauched or less than angelic bachelor, an irresponsible but irrepressible romantic interest...but almost never someone with an actual current of negative energy running through him. This role is that, kids! Cock Robin (seriously, that is the dude's name in the movie) enjoys a pitch black characterization by Gilbert, redeemed only in the last twenty minutes or so by his softening at Adorée's continual "goodness". And when he melts, people, he melts! It really just feeds my sentimental heart to see these bold-print emotions play across the screen.

Here's Adorée, fragile and wet-eyed throughout. She also starred with John Gilbert in The Big Parade (a WWI movie with real punch, even almost a hundred years later) and La Bohème (with Lillian Gish). Isn't she darling?

Last but not least the iguana below serves as the bad guy in the picture-- really, he gets bad rap, as iguanas aren't poisonous, and that's the whole point on which the plot is predicated, but suspension of disbelief is kind of a given in these scenarios. Look how sinister he looks crawling out of Barrymore's suitcase!

Anyway, I've gone on WAY TOO LONG FOR TODAY, but I was just that excited about getting to see these early motion picture gems! Check them out if you get a chance- Warners' offers a two week trial period risk free! Think of how many movies like this you could watch in two weeks!

How about you? Seen any good old movies lately? Have any favorites of the silent screen? Which of these would you most want to see or what are some things you've always heard about but never gotten a chance to watch? Let's talk! 

That's all for today, but I'll see you back here tomorrow. Have a great Monday! Til then.


  1. I am so glad you saw Untamed! I saw it for the first time months ago on TCM-and I think it is one of my favorite Crawford movies. She is such a firecracker in this movie-and you realize what a natural actress she is, especially at the beginning. This is the movie of hers I saw, where it hit home to me how very tiny she actually was. She has such a large presence, I thought she was taller-but she is a little itty bitty thing.

    1. Isn't it crazy when you go "What do you MEAN she's not 8 feet tall!" All that personality reads as "larger than life" across the silver screen! I'm glad you saw it and liked it too! I kept thinking "That's her but how is that her?"...such a thrill to see her right at the beginning of her REAL movie career stardom.



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