One of the great joys of classic DVD/Blu-Ray collecting is being able to finally see restored/recovered movies I’ve only heard about, sometimes dreamt about. Better yet is the ability to share them with fellow buffs and friends, turning them on to long-forgotten stars, directors and Vitaphone. Yep, Vitaphone, the process with those cumbersome discs that synched up to the film and provided mucho laffs during sequences in Singin’ in the Rain. All of that techno-gremlin stuff really happened during that tumultuous transition period from silent to sound, and, to this day, one of my favorite subgenres is the hybrid picture, part-silent/part-talkie. A supreme and royally entertaining example of this can be savored via the recent made-to-order DVD-R Warner Archive release of 1929’s THE MAN AND THE MOMENT.
A risqué romantic comedy, MATM stems from the salacious quill of the notorious Elinor Glyn. Glyn rocked the 1920s with her sexy stories, one of which, It, became the culture-shock clarion call for all adventurous flappers. It became a mammoth bestseller and a blockbuster movie, putting the word, Glyn and star Clara Bow on the Jazz Age map. Of course, this sent the studios clamoring for more Glyn, and MATM famously rose to the occasion.
The plot revolves around a rich SOB rake, Michael Towne (Rod La Rocque), who is sort of engaged to hot but malevolently vicious vamp Viola (Gwen Lee). She’s not only a masterful witch (and all other rhyming names) of the first order; she even comes complete with her own human flying monkey (Robert Schable). She’s out to snare Towne, and it looks like that horror will be his fate. Wealthy bastard that he is, most folks (like me) are apt to wring our mitts with a cackling, “Good! You deserve it. And who cares?” Well, that is until one fateful, pre-Depression day, when the American affluent were otherwise engaged in that mercifully extinct display of asininity known as the yacht party. During an excruciating round of water Polo Boat (prefaced by the great title card: “No person ever dashed his brains out playing Polo Boat – because no person with any brains ever played Polo Boat.”), a sputtering sound is heard from above. And before you can say, “the Lindy Hop,” a private plane crashes into the ocean. The pilot, unhurt but dazed, emerges and, while members of the pampered 400 debate whether to rescue the poor wretch, we discover that the flyer is none other than a lady. And not just a lady, but a gorgeous one (while not a Howard Hawks movie, this scene is one of those Hawksian “Hey, you’re a girl!” moments). It’s ravishing Billie Dove as Joan Winslow.
Instantly, the males dive in to save the woman; sadly, I imagine this includes the clucks who can’t swim. Michael is the winner, and soon, we learn that, like himself, Joan is in her own persecuted cage, being perilously guarded by a dastardly guardian (Charles Sellon, forever endeared to us Bijou addicts as It’s a Gift’s Mr. Muckle). Mostly because it’s Billie Dove (who looks amazing in her leather aviatrix togs), Mikey boldly suggests a marriage of convenience, a union that will get them both off the hook with their respective clawing predators. Dove agrees, but, as any hormonal teen will tell you, lecherous Towne’s ulterior motives comprise moving from platonic to play-tonic. Will the tempted Dove stop biting her lips and give in? Won’t tell ya, ‘cept that it IS a pre-Code movie. Oh, yeah, and vampy-trampy Viola hasn’t been sitting on the sidelines; she’s planning some sinister designs that even the Lifetime Movie folks have yet to conceive. With that patented, naughty Glyn touch, poor little rich Michael is in one helluva a sexual tug of war, the object being to see who will get Rod’s La Rocques off (or vice versa); in any event, it’s only a matter of time before the “it” hits the fan.
Smoothly directed by George Fitzmaurice and ably scripted by Agnes Christine Johnson (with dialog by Paul Perez), MATM is a clever adult fairy tale that notably avoids the creakiness of many of its contemporary talkers and/or part-talkers. While one would expect the silent portions to move quickly, viewers will be pleasantly surprised by the slick fluidity of the verbal sequences (of which, I am happy to report, there are many). The use of sound is extremely creative, and, as a veteran film collector, who was around during dem days, revealed to me over forty years ago, the audio replications of planes, motorboats, telephone rings and, prominently in this pic, champagne corks a-popping, brought applause and joyous laughter from the delighted audience. There’s also some nifty dialog. A wrong phone number being addressed with a flippant, “No, I don’t want Finklestein’s Irish Linen Shoppe!” But there’s more. A skanky society dame, jettisoning her cuckolded spouse, proudly states that she’s “…divorcing her husband so I can make a moral man out of my boyfriend.”
As for the performances themselves, they’re overall quite good, with the women beating out the men. Both Dove and Lee are exceptional, Dove so good that one familiar with her earlier work will be amazed at how seamlessly and effortlessly she made the changeover to sound. Rod La Rocque, eternally a Rocky and Bullwinkle punchline, does not fare as well. Sometimes he’s adequate, but often he sounds too much like Liberace, which sorta puts a crimp in his great lover style (I’ve always held it against La Roque for playing a fascist in Capra’s Meet John Doe, but, giving the devil his due, I suppose he deserves kudos for his believable portrayal).
THE MAN AND THE MOMENT DVD-R is spectacular. Its history provides hope that we may one day be treated to the discovery of a complete Greed, The Devil’s Passkey, Four Devils, London After Midnight, Convention City and others. Why? Because for decades MATM has been listed as a lost movie. All that remained were production documentation, stills and the Vitaphone discs.
Then, like Dove’s character, from seemingly out of the blue, a complete 35MM print surfaced in Italy, and the job of synching the nitrate to the wax began. I’ve never seen this before, but in MATM, one often gets both the audio and a title card. I don’t know if this was a standard embryonic hybrid technique, or, if it was necessary to properly synch up the sound to the picture from what might have been a silent print (I assume that the movie may have been released in alternate silent/sound editions, particularly if not especially, overseas). No matter, I love it. And the quality itself? As indicated, generally sensational (with Warner’s reliable d.p. Sol Polito in top form), completely intact and as presented in July of 1929 with the exception of some replaced main credits. The sound is remarkably clean, clear and dynamic (including the original music by Paul Brunelli and a song, “Just a Lucky Moment,” by Ray Perkins and Herman Ruby). Go, Vitaphone!
I recommend THE MAN AND THE MOMENT to all classic movie devotees. I suspect it will make a Billie Dove groupie out of you (if you haven’t already been seduced by her considerable charms). I hope it does well for Warner Archive, thereby prompting further Vitaphone releases, such as Synthetic Sin, since their Why Be Good? was another unexpected DVD perk.
THE MAN AND THE MOMENT. Black and White. Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio. Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video. CAT # 1000601552. SRP: $21.99.
Available exclusively from the Warner Archive Collection: warnerarchive.com.