[24 July 2012]
Freshly available on demand from Warner Archive are two RKO productions from David O. Selznick, both buddy pictures in which gruff, beefy William Gargan plays the buddy who doesn’t get the girl.
In The Sport Parade, Joel McCrea and Gargan play Dartmouth buddies in various sports, especially football. After graduation, Gargan buckles down as a newspaper’s sports editor while McCrea falls in with an unscrupulous promoter called Shifty (Walter Catlett). Then they team up again, only to be broken apart by a pretty woman (Marian Marsh) who loves McCrea. He then becomes a phony wrestler until the big bout. Robert Benchley shows up as an incompetent radio announcer who has no idea what plays he’s calling; he could do this scatterbrained delivery in his sleep, and part of the joke is that he almost is.
So much for story. The primary attraction is McCrea, who hasn’t offered this much eye candy this side of Bird of Paradise. An eye-opening team shower scene offers glimpses of backal nudity among faceless extras (the guys are wearing jock straps) as Gargan whips a wet towel at McCrea. “That reminds me,” says the latter about his prospective date, “maybe one of the girls is named Fanny”. There are other saucy remarks. Many pre-Code movies don’t offer much eyebrow-raising content, but this one has its share.
At the first wrestling match, there’s a totally gratuitous appearance by two highly swishy types in the stands. They utter something about disgusting brutes and make their exits, waving their wrists and tossing their long hair. There’s always a reason for gratuitous details, so why are they here? It may be an ironic comment on the fact that we’re spending all this time watching nearly naked guys manhandle each other, or perhaps it’s meant as contrast. Certainly director Dudley Murphy stages these bouts in weird combination of documentary and artifice that constantly throws rears and crotches at the camera, as if this is 3D.
Murphy was an odd cat in Hollywood; biographer Susan Delson has called him “Hollywood’s wild card”. He’s famous for his avant-garde silent shorts, especiallly Ballet Mecanique, co-directed with Fernand Leger. His attention to visual gimmicks is scattered throughout this picture, especially when the camera adopts the viewpoint of drunken characters that make the image woozy or kaleidoscopic. A prominent example occurs during a Harlem “jungle” nightclub sequence so gratuitous, it can only be explained by Murphy’s personal interests; he’d directed musical shorts of Bessie Smith’s St. Louis Blues and Duke Ellington’s Black and Tan Fantasy. The stage acts and the audience seem to be in separate universes and certainly weren’t on the same set at the same time.
The much-too-brief highlight of this scene is a couple of tuxedo’d tap-dancers, one of whom is only a boy. Could this actually be the famous Nicholas Brothers? It sure looks like them, but I can’t find confirmation in IMDB or other sources. However, Wikipedia says they debuted at the Cotton Club in 1932 when Harold was 11 and Fayard was 18, and this 1932 movie did film several scenes in New York.
Further, Harold had a part in Murphy’s next film, The Emperor Jones (1933), so this earlier project could have been how they met. Finally, the brothers’ earliest listed credit is a 1932 short, the same year as this feature. It seems to add up. If only Murphy had put down that kaleidoscope and given us a clear, uninterrupted view of the act for five minutes! Someone more knowledgeable than I will have to freeze the image and confirm it for the world.
Gargan’s next turn as the celibate buddy is Lucky Devils, in which he and William Boyd (both stocky non-leading-man types) play members of a gang of Hollywood stuntmen who congregate in a bar on Mulholland Drive (looking over a cliff) and sing their own theme song (“We’re the stuntmen of Hollywo-o-o-od!”). Boyd gets married to a discouraged starlet they save from suicide (Dorothy Wilson) and this seems to curse his daredeviltry until a bunch of stuff happens.
Leonard Maltin says this movie opens with a great scene, and he’s right: an incredible explosion of violence of the type you’d never actually see in a regular movie, not even Howard Hawks’ Scarface. A completely non-credible story is littered with stunt setpieces that are obviously done with devices never mentioned: false glass, rear projection, toy models. We’re asked to believe it’s all somehow real, just as we’re presented with scenes that needed 50 set-ups as if it were all captured in one.
Perhaps the most incredible part is that when Boyd quits his stunt job, he walks all over Los Angeles getting doors slammed in his face without ever thinking to work elsewhere in the movie industry—and this is after he saved the woman’s life because she couldn’t get a job until he helped her find work as an extra!
Director Ralph Ince is good, staging even ordinary scenes gracefully. He’d been a silent pioneer during the teens (like his more famous brother Thomas), and he hadn’t forgotten how to make a picture smoothly, even though the story is nothing special. He soon moved to the British industry and died a few years later.
Neither movie fits anybody’s definition of an essential classic, yet both remain watchable after 80 years and both have those curious little details in the corners that are more interesting than the main event.