Short Ends and Leader

'Man to Man' is an Early Talkie that's Not Stagey at All

Style makes sincerity


Man to Man

Director: Allan Dwan
Cast: Phillips Holmes, Grant Mitchell
Distributor: Warner Archives
Rated: Not rated
Year: 1930
USDVD release date: 2012-3-1

Phillips Holmes, an uncommonly beautiful leading man of early talkies, got killed in a plane during WWII and today is largely forgotten. He's very good in this bit of small-town Americana as Mike Bolton, the freshly graduated son of the town barber. The father (quietly masterful character actor Grant Mitchell) has just been paroled from prison after 18 years for killing a man. "He was right to kill him," says one of the father's friends, for the man had killed the barber's brother in a drunken fight. Be that as it may, the son bursts with confidence and sauvity when nobody knows who he is, but turns bashful and self-conscious in his home town. He's especially awkward and strained around the father he's never known. This will be tested during the crisis over two thousand dollars that goes missing from the bank where Mike works.

Early talkies have a reputation for stagey-ness that's unfair, at least with certain directors. Veteran Allan Dwan and photographer Ira Morgan use what I'd call a sophisticated simplicity, generating visual interest with a variety of angles, traveling shots, and deep compositions, with at least half the movie occurring outdoors in picturesque, even lovely locations. There's an excellent early moment when Mike is "parking" with his college girl by a railroad bridge and tells her about his father's murder conviction, the rumor of which is scotching his chance at being class president. Shocked, she pulls away and says of course it won't make any difference to her, and then Dwan cuts to a longshot of the train rushing above them, visually crushing them. In the next scene, Mike rides inside that train looking out upon the passing image of the girl parked with another boy in another car.

The supporting townspeople include Mike's clever girlfriend (Lucille Powers) who solves the case, Mike's sneaky colleague at the bank (Dwight Frye, best known as Renfield in Dracula), and bunch of comic characters with bits of schtick, including Negro stereotypes who are at least integrated into the community in some fashion. Several scenes have continuous background music, not an easy or common effect in 1930. Scripted by Joseph Jackson from a story by forgotten novelist Ben Ames Williams, this movie may be nothing much in the grand scheme of Hollywood, but its well-imagined world, small-scale drama and restrained sentiments make it very good at faking sincerity.

This Warner Archive made-on-demand disc uses a print with all manner of minor problems of wear, yet through that the contrasts are clear and the depth of field is quite sharp.

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