26 March 2005 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Barthelmess is barely "tol'able" as this David.
The movie 'Drag' has nothing to do with cross-dressing, although there are some elaborate theatrical costumes seen in the later reels. The title reflects the fact that this story's protagonist -- I can't quite call him the hero -- is dragged down by his wife and his in-laws.
'Drag' is yet another of the many, many movies which somebody decided to describe as 'lost' without bothering to look for it. Last time I checked, this film definitely exists. But it's easy to see how 'Drag' was permitted to fade into obscurity, because this film is so very bad: even as an historic artefact, it's nearly worthless. Frankly, many (perhaps even most) of Hollywood's so-called 'lost' films have vanished precisely because they weren't much good in the first place, and therefore weren't much worth preserving. For every genuine cinematic masterpiece that appears to be gone forever, such as Murnau's '4 Devils', there are a hundred or more reels of drivel such as 'Drag' that might exist in somebody's attic but aren't worth tracking down.
'Drag' is an early talkie, and -- like several other films from the beginning of the sound era -- its most creaking flaw is the underscripted dialogue. Silent films were made from scenarios rather than fully-fledged screenplays: the scenarist would indicate the actions and the emotional states of the characters, but wouldn't write extensive dialogue. One or two lines of dialogue might be included, to convey the content of an entire sequence. Dialogue-writing was considered a separate skill, entrusted to title-card writers *after* the actors' footage was completed. Many of the early sound films were made in this same way, with scenarios rather than scripts ... leaving the actors with insufficient dialogue to carry their scenes. The most notorious example of this was 'His Glorious Night', with John Gilbert desperately improvising variations on 'I love you' through an entire romantic sequence. Several scenes in 'Drag' feature actors speaking generic dialogue and then repeating the same lines a bit more desperately, clearly unable to improvise beyond the meagre lines of the scenario. Matters are made worse in 'Drag' by extremely poor sound recording, as well as the fact that some of these actors seem to have no experience with dialogue at all. (This too was a hazard of the early talkie era.)
SPOILERS AHEAD. Richard Barthelmess plays David Carroll, the publisher of a small-town newspaper. The small town is Paris, Vermont ... and there are some painful attempts to wring humour out of the fact that this hick town is named Paris. David is married to Allie ... but the marriage is a package deal, because her in-laws are living with David too and cadging off him. The in-laws are Ma and Pa Parker and their son Charlie Parker, who doesn't seem to realise he has the same name as a jazz saxophonist. David feuds constantly with his in-laws, but his wife always takes their side.
The only sympathetic citizen of Paris (the one in Vermont) is Dot, a vivacious and artistic young lady who doesn't seem to be a native of this hick burg, although it's hard to believe she voluntarily came here from elsewhere. Dot moves to New York City, inspiring Dave to do the same. He walks out on his wife and her relations, and he moves to Manhattan. With laughable ease, David writes a play and gets it produced on Broadway! Conveniently, Dot is the costume designer for the play, so she and David will be spending lots of time together. (Actually, I've been peripherally involved in a couple of Broadway productions, and I've never seen the playwright and the costume designer working together: each has plenty of work to do in his or her separate craft without impinging on the other's.)
From this point, the most obvious plot twist would be for David to sever all ties with his wife and the Parkers, and start a new life with Dot. 'Drag' does something more surprising here, but that's not really a point in its favour. Feeling tempted to dally with Dot, David sends for his wife Allie to join him in New York so that he'll remain faithful to her. Even though Dot is a dilly, he'd rather dally with Allie. What happens next is no surprise: Allie's brother and parents show up too, and once again they all move in with David. The payoff is quite dull.
Despite the terrible script -- really not much more than a scenario -- I'll give the makers of this film some credit for attempting a story about a protagonist in an atypical situation. In the real world, someone in David Carroll's situation would either stick with his wife or abandon her altogether. Richard Barthelmess (showing more acting ability than this story deserves) plausibly portrays David as a married man who is attracted to an exciting 'other woman' yet who still feels some love for (and loyalty to) his dull familiar wife. Barthelmess's attempt to balance his character's conflicting emotions is the only major point of interest in this film.
Veteran character actor Lucien Littlefield is briefly impressive as David's father-in-law, and Lila Lee is attractive and intelligent as Dot. All the other supporting actors are wooden and dull here. I was especially disappointed with Tom Dugan as David's brother-in-law. Dugan would later achieve a solid career as a dependable character actor (notably as the Hitler lookalike in 'To Be or Not to Be'), but here he's barely recognisable and shows no glimmer of his later ability.
'Drag' isn't the worst film I've ever seen, but it's well down there. I'll rate this movie 2 points out of 10, mostly for Barthelmess's creditable attempt to navigate the pitfalls of a difficult role that's badly written. I'll make some allowance for the fact that this very poor talking picture was made at a time when *nobody* was an expert at making talkies.