12 September 2009 | AlsExGal
More fun than sitting on a tack...
... maybe. I try to view every early talking/late silent era film I can get my hands on since I am so interested in that era of film history. However, this one is just pure torture. The lifeless acting, the title card text converted to dialog, and the very predictable plot all add up to being an experience you have to really commit yourself to or else you'll never make it through the required 65 minutes.
The plot is something like "Broadway Melody of 1929" in the sense that it is about two sisters who love the same man. The older sister, Lee(Pauline Starke), has been kept by a rich sugar daddy, Howard, for an extended period of time when she decides she wants marriage. She thinks that wealthy young Kendall Phillips (Ben Lyon) loves her and wants marriage too, and she knows that Howard does not want to ever marry anyone. So she breaks it off with Howard and sets her sights on Kendall, but then her younger sister Babs (Barbara Kent) comes to town and captures Kendall's eye. Meanwhile the rejected sugar daddy Howard (Robert Ellis) has just finished producing a generous divorce settlement for his client Mabel (Carmelita Geraghty). For some reason that is never really divulged, Mabel delights in inserting herself into this love quadrangle. She doesn't push it any direction, she just sits around cattily and well-dressed and seems to enjoy everyone else's suffering.
It's hard to believe that this very pedestrian relic that is the embodiment of everything bad about early talking film was made a few months after the same studio made "All Quiet on the Western Front", one of the best films of all time, much less the early 1930's. The reason behind this, though, is one of the very few reasons to view this film.
Carl Laemmle ran Universal Studios in one capacity or another from 1912 until 1936, when the Laemmle family lost control of the studio due to bad debts and the Great Depression. Part of what led to this can be seen in this film. Carl Laemmle was a great believer in nepotism - one popular saying of the day was that "Carl Laemmle had a very large faemmle" - and he never let any of his relatives go hungry for lack of a job. Ernst Laemmle, Carl's nephew, was the director of this film. In the 1920's Ernst had directed a multitude of the B-Western silents that were the bread and butter of Universal from its founding up to the dawn of sound, and this was his first American talking film. The dismal result was too much for even uncle Carl and Ernst never directed again - for Universal or anyone else. He was washed up at the age of 30.
As for the cast, they're not related to Uncle Carl, but they are all holdovers from the silent era and just can't make that leap to sound. Pauline Starke had a good career in silents, even playing the lead in the excellent "The Viking" just two years earlier. However, here she comes across like cardboard. She'll make only three more appearances in B films over the next thirteen years. Carmelita Geraghty had a similar professional trajectory - star in the silent era, forgotten after sound. Although, I have to say that she and Barbara Kent show the most signs of life in the film and actually put in the best performances. It's odd that the film is entitled "what men want" but we actually see more of what women do to get men to think they want them than anything else.
At any rate, this one is still very much with us, although usually in badly duped DVD's from old VHS tapes, so if you think you've got the stomach for it, you might want to view it and see the uneven output and nepotism of the first incarnation of Universal Studios at work.