27 September 2002 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Orange juice sorry
"The Secret Hour" is the first film version of Sidney Howard's 1925 play "They Knew what They Wanted", which was remade twice and later became the basis for Frank Loesser's most ambitious Broadway musical, "The Most Happy Fella", which - criminally - has never been filmed at all.
This silent version - spiced up with an irrelevant new title - features some interesting changes from Howard's play, apparently to make it less earthy. As the play is well known, I'll just state the premise. Jean Hersholt plays Tony, the coarse and ugly Italian immigrant owner of a successful orange ranch in California. In a visit to a lunchroom, he spots a simple and very beautiful waitress named Annie (Pola Negri). Tony is infatuated instantly, but he senses that such a beautiful and refined-looking girl would never be attracted to him. Tony is a hard-working man but he's barely literate and can hardly speak English. (Some of Hersholt's "mama mia" dialogue is quite painful to read off the title cards.) Apparently inspired by Cyrano de Bergerac, Tony asks his handsome and well-spoken young foreman Joe to write a letter to Annie, proposing marriage, and signing Tony's name. Tony intends to slip a snapshot of himself into the envelope. But, at the last moment, he glances at his ugly face in the mirror and has a sudden failure of nerve. He puts a photo of Joe into the envelope instead, and mails it off ... hoping that Annie will correspond with him by post, rather than come to see him in person. Of course, Annie shows up in person. Of course, Joe and Annie fall in love. The plot thickens. The oranges ripen. (They were grapes in the original play.)
Pola Negri is remembered as one of the dark-eyed vamps of the silent era, usually mentioned in the same breath as Theda Bara. She's utterly fascinating here, in a good-girl role, without the slinky costumes and vampy make-up that she usually wore. Rowland V. Lee, an under-rated director, does one of his better jobs here. Well done all round, but Howard's play worked better as a sound film ... and best of all as Frank Loesser's delightfully operatic musical.