Monday, January 19, 2015

On Borrowed Time (1939)

Sometimes a film comes into your life at the exact moment you need it. And other times it's inconvenient or painful. My grandfather passed away Friday night. When I woke up Saturday morning I turned on the TV to watch TCM. Classic film as emotional therapy has always been a way for me to cope with what life throws at me, both good and bad. What I didn’t expect to see on TCM is exactly what appeared: a movie about a dying grandfather. It was the last 30 minutes of the movie and I wasn’t sure if I should watch it. In fact, I was pretty sure watching it was a bad idea. I watched it nonetheless and found a new set of tears streaming down my face. It helped me work through some more of my emotions and appreciate the meaning of “family”. After watching the ending, I went to Watch TCM to watch the whole thing. And I'm very glad I did.

On Borrowed Time (1939) stars Lionel Barrymore as Gramps (Julian Northrup). He's a lovable old curmudgeon who is taking care of his newly orphaned grandson Pud (Bobs Watson). What he doesn't know is that Mr. Brink (Cedric Hardwicke) is coming for the Northrup family. First he took Gramps' son and his daughter-in-law and Gramps is next on his list. Mr. Brink's name is a play on the term "brink of death". He's the personification of death and only people who are close to death or whose time to die has come can see him and hear him. You might ask, what's the difference? Some folks who are very ill can see Mr. Brink even though it's not their time to go. An example is given very early on when a coughing man stops to give Mr. Brink a ride in his car. He thought Mr. Brink was waving to him. This encounter is the personification of a near-death experience.

Mr. Brink's arrival is incredibly inconvenient for Gramps who is in the middle of sorting out things for his grandson Pud. Pud and Gramps are as thick as thieves. Despite the age difference, they both have youthful spirits and find much in common. Pud idolizes Gramps and his devotion to Gramps and Gramps' undying love for his grandson heightens the emotional drama of the story.  Things become even more painful when Aunt Demetria (Eily Malyon) threatens to take Pud away from invalid Gramps and Mr. Brink threatens to take Gramps away from them all.

Gramps recently made a magical wish that comes true: anyone who climbs up Gramps' apple tree won't be able to come down until he gives them permission to do so. This scenario adds a bit of magical realism to the story and a way for Gramps' to fend off death. He tricks Mr. Brink into climbing the tree. Anyone who touches the tree will die instantly however as long as Mr. Brink is stuck there he can't come for Gramps. This gives Gramps an opportunity to spend more time with Pud and to settle some issues.

Bobs Watson and Lionel Barrymore in a promotional photo for On Borrowed Time (1939)

A death always shakes up family dynamics. The true nature of certain family members comes to light and their actions betray underlying motivations. The best example of this is Aunt Demetria as played by Eily Malyon. She's Pud's aunt and the Northrup's in-law. Her motivations for taking Pud away from Gramps are selfish and dishonest. It's clear she's after her brother-in-law's inheritance. Gramps couldn't care less about money and only wants to protect young Pud. Demetria and Gramps are polar opposite and she serves to highlight Gramps' good character and genuine motivations.

Lionel Barrymore's performance is the best part of this film. Barrymore was quite ill at the time and confined to his wheelchair. Yet his physical hindrances did not affect his performance. Barrymore is simply charming and the Gramps character is the grandfather we all wish we could have.

Cedric Hardwicke, Lionel Barrymore and Bobs Watson in On Borrowed Time (1939)

Spoiler alert

In the end, Gramps can only keep death away for so long. Dr. Evans (Henry Travers) becomes the voice of reason and convinces Gramps that death is necessary for life to go on. It takes Gramps quite a while to convince others that he death is really stuck up in his apple tree. They think he's crazy and plan to take him away to the loony bin and put Pud into the care of Aunt Demetria. The film suffers at this point. Three-quarters of the way in, the plot line loses steam and doesn't pick up until events escalate in the last 20 minutes or so.

What's the solution to keep Pud and Gramps together forever? To have them both die. Mr. Brink tricks Pud into climbing the fence that protects the now poisonous apple tree. Pud suffers a fall and a near-death experience. He's paralyzed and in a lot of pain. Gramps takes Pud out to the tree and asks Mr. Brink to bring both of them to heaven. We see both Gramps and Pud come out of their paralysis and walk with Mr. Brink. A double was used for some of the shots of Gramps walking since Barrymore couldn't in real life. In one side shot of Barrymore, he seems to be walking but he's really just standing, propped up by something hidden his jacket with a moving background simulating motion.

In this story, death is seen as the reliever of pain. Mr. Brink is feared because he separates people from their loved ones. However, he's also seen as merciful, only after death though, because he relieves their physical and emotional pain and reunites them with lost loved ones. It's a tricky topic to cover. For those of us, like myself, who don't believe in an afterlife, the thought of death is especially grim. Why take Pud with Gramps? No matter what Gramps did in life, it was inevitable that Pud and Gramps would be separated. By dying together and going off to heaven, they'll be together for ever. This is a rather satisfying ending even though Pud is so young and hasn't experienced life yet. However, the accident he has qualifies the ending because we know if he had lived on it would have been a life filled with pain, suffering and lost opportunities.

Spoiler ends

On Borrowed Time was based on a novel and successful Broadway play by the same name. The opening credits refers to Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. The Pardoner's Tale, a story about the battle with death, is most likely the inspiration for the story.

Even with the main theme of death, the film is filled with funny and heart-warming moments. Gramps has some great lines, my favorite one is:

 "Well, I'll be dipped in gravy."

The film has a wonderful supporting cast including Beulah Bondi as Nellie (Granny), Una Merkel as Marcia Giles (the local girl they hire to help around the house), Nat Pendleton (Mr. Grimes, a representative from the state insane asylum) and Henry Travers, of It's a Wonderful Life fame, as Dr. Evans. However, none of these actors are given roles sufficient enough for their talents. For example, the normally spunky Una Merkel plays a quiet and meek character. She has one glorious moment in the film when she stands up for Gramps, however her talents are mostly wasted in the film. Cedric Hardwicke as Mr. Brink and Eily Malyon as Aunt Demetria are the only characters who have significant screen time, interesting story lines and several moments to shine.

On Borrowed Time is truly a Barrymore-Watson vehicle. You can tell there is a great bond between the Pud and Gramps characters. The more curmudgeonly Barrymore's representation of Gramps is, the more we know much Pud means to him because the child is truly his soft spot. Also, Bobs Watson, a child actor known for effectively turning on the water works, was meant for the role of Pud. He has all the enthusiasm and emotion necessary for such a role.

Beulah Bondi, Eily Maylon, Lionel Barrymore and Bobs Watson in On Borrowed Time (1939)

I really enjoyed watching On Borrowed Time. It was difficult at first because of what had happened in my life. My relationship with my grandfather wasn't as close or endearing as the one Gramps and Pud have with each other but it was still very painful to lose him.

The film reminded me of two similar stories: Make Way For Tomorrow and Punky Brewster. In Make Way for Tomorrow, an aging couple is forced apart because of family dynamics and in Punky Brewster, Punky is abandoned by her parents and taken in by an elderly man, Henry Warnimont. Both stories meant a lot to me. Punky Brewster was an important part of my childhood. Make Way For Tomorrow traumatized me. I've always thought one of the greatest injustices in life is when two people who love each other are kept apart; whether it be a familial love like Gramps and Pud, or a platonic love or a romantic love. All of these stories remind me of that injustice and the importance of valuing relationships.

On Borrowed Time is a new treasure for me and I'm so glad I gave it a chance. It's a delightful film which imparts to viewers the importance of family, to treasure your loved ones and the time you have on earth.

I watched On Borrowed Time on TCM and Watch TCM. It's also available on DVD-MOD through Warner Archive.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Silent Screen by Ruth Barton

Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Silent Screen
by Ruth Barton
Hardcover, 262 pages
ISBN: 9780813147093
October 2014
University Press of Kentucky

Barnes and Noble

Rex Ingram was once a famous director from the silent film era and today is virtually unknown. His name was eclipsed in fame by another Rex Ingram, the actor and some of his films eclipsed in fame by remakes. According to legend, Rex Ingram, whose real name was Rex Hitchcock, once suggested to a young Alfred Hitchcock that a name change was crucial for future success.

"Changing his name was another statement of intent, not just an homage to his mother [Ingram was her maiden name] but a firm break with his father's ambitions for him." - Ruth Barton

Ingram's legacy, or lack thereof, is a complicated matter author Ruth Barton tackles in this new biography. Barton makes the case that Ingram was a talented director with a unique vision but whose career was often sidetracked by his independence, rebelliousness, perfectionism and temper.

"Fired by the idea that the movies might just be the "seventh art," they determined to test the boundaries of this new medium to create films that would be artistic masterpieces of their generation." - Ruth Barton

Rex Ingram was famous Hollywood figure in his day. He was a visionary whose imagination and artistic skill helped sculpt an industry in its early years. He was known for his trademark of open and unexpected endings. Ingram's filmography includes The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), Scaramouche (1923), The Arab (1924), Mare Nostrum (1926) and The Garden of Allah (1927).   Most of his films were re-made in his lifetime.
 "Rex was torn between the lure of mass entertainment... his own suspicion of mainstream culture, coupled with an embedded reluctance to conform." - Ruth Barton 
Ingram helped launch the careers of legendary actors Rudolph Valentino and Ramon Novarro (note: it's stressed in the book that he didn't discover Valentino). The actress Alice Terry, who went on to become his second wife, was his muse, his leading lady and his travel companion. She was the most important person in his career and even co-directed Ingram's final film Love in Morocco (1933).

Alice Terry and Rex Ingram (Source)

Over the length of his career in film, Ingram bounced from studio to studio. Some of these include Biograph Studios, Vitagraph, Fox, Universal, Paralta Studios, MGM and more. He butted heads with movie moguls including Louis B. Mayer. He worked with D.W. Griffith, Carl Laemmle, Erich von Stroheim, Thomas Edison and was friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was particularly touched by an anecdote about how Ingram showed kindness to a yet unknown Merle Oberon. She was being neglected by the industry because of her ethnicity. Ingram thought her exotic look beautiful and hired her as an extra in one of his films.

"His refusal to kowtow to Louis B. Mayer or recognized the authority of MGM had made him powerful enemies and placed him outside the most influential film making system in the world." - Ruth Barton

Ingram was born in Ireland but once he left he never came back. Even though he made his home in the US, he fell in love with North Africa and the Middle East and converted to Islam. Ingram also loved the French Rivieria and made films at Victorine Studios. His distaste for Western culture grew over time. After retiring from film, Ingram concentrated on his passions for sculpting, writing and traveling.

Barton tries to rescue Rex Ingram from complete obscurity by piecing together his life story and sharing it with readers. Her book is not the first on Rex Ingram but is the only one in print and readily available. Barton also had access to Ingram's memoirs which gave her a lot of insight into his life and career.

I had difficulties both reading this book and writing the review. I didn't know much about Rex Ingram and I had only seen a couple of his films. Not knowing about a figure of film history has never been a barrier to prevent me from reading and enjoying a biography. However, in this case I felt that if I had more familiarity with Ingram's work I would have benefited from when reading the text. It's a double-edge sword because more familiarity with Rex Ingram will allow for his films to become more readily available to the public.

All fingers point to Ingram's story being interesting, especially since he was such a rebel, but it's really not. Ingram wanted to make art and film was just a medium for him. Had he real passion for film and continued to work in the field his story would have been a lot more interesting.

I recommend Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Silent Screen to serious film students and silent film buffs only. If you really want to dig deep and learn about early film history, this is a good pick. Otherwise, you may want to skip it.

Overview: A difficult read but worth the effort if your interest in the silent film era is strong.

Thank you to the University Press of Kentucky for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Lonesome (1928) at the Coolidge Corner Theatre with Alloy Orchestra

Coolidge Corner Theatre sign lit up at night is a beauty to behold.
Lonesome (1928) on the Coolidge Corner Theatre marquee.

Last night was simply magical. I had the absolute pleasure of seeing Pál FejösLonesome (1928) on the big screen. This event took place at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, MA and was the grand finale of their Sounds of Silents repertory series. It included live musical accompaniment by the acclaimed Alloy Orchestra. I had seen the Alloy Orchestra before at the Somerville Armory back in 2009 for a Halloween screening of The Phantom of the Opera (1925). But that was so long ago and I was over due for another of their fine performances!  The combination of a great silent film and a wonderful musical performance all in a glorious Art Deco theater made for an unforgettable evening.

Before things got started, a contributor to the Sounds of Silents series, Dr. Martin Norman*, spoke briefly about the film. There were about 200 people in attendance but it was fairly certain that most of them were not aware of this hidden gem. In fact Dr. Norman asked the audience to raise their hands if they had either seen Lonesome (1928) before that night or had at least heard of it. My hand shot up proudly. I was one of maybe 7 others in the audience who did so. My good friend Jonas, who has been so instrumental in my education of the early history of film, introduced me to Lonesome. I enjoyed it when I saw it the first time but I fell in love with it deeply on this night.

Coolidge Corner Theatre and Alloy Orchestra's set-up

Lonesome (1928) was a perfect choice for musical accompaniment. The chaos of those first scenes with the hustle and bustle of a busy New York City and the manic hurly burly of the carnival just begged for music and sound effects. Lonesome is a part talkie. It was originally intended to be a silent movie but given the growing popularity of talkies and the major shift in the industry, it was decided to shoot and add three talking scenes to the picture.

Pre-screening talk.

The presenter noted that several critics feel like the talking scenes distract from the picture and he agreed with them. I don't agree. The shift felt strange to some and caused audience members to laugh, but the part talkie element of the film suits it so well in my opinion. 1928 was a time of transition in Hollywood. The industry was moving away from silents and to talkies but was still trying to figure out how to get there and what audiences wanted. It was also a time when the Roaring Twenties were fading away and the Great Depression was just on the horizon. It's my favorite time in movie history because it's so unique. There will never be a time of such change in film history ever again and this film is a beautiful example of that historic shift.

What I find fascinating about the three talking scenes is the fact that they are some of the quietest scenes in the picture. The silent scenes are manic and loud and the talking scenes are of quieter and more reflective moments. Quite the opposite of what you’d expect! Lonesome (1928) is probably the loudest silent film I’ve ever seen.

Alloy Orchestra at the Coolidge Corner Theatre

The Alloy Orchestra entertained the crowd with their magnificent accompaniment. The three man orchestra plays with a variety of instruments. I always enjoy the sound effects in particular the whistle used to accompany the high striker in one of the carnival scenes. Irving Berlin’s Always is integral to the plot of the story and is featured twice in the movie. In the final scene, one of the members of the Orchestra sings the song through a cone which gave his voice the effect of sounding like an old record. It was my favorite moment of the performance!

Lonesome (1928) is a timeless masterpiece that is unfairly overlooked. It’s message is still relevant today: if we don't take the time to connect with our fellow man we can be lonesome even when surrounded by many. It's message is still relevant to audiences more than 80 years later. The hectic hustle and bustle of 1928 as depicted in the film is very similar to the chaos of 2014. Our technologies are more advanced and our culture is very different but at the root of it all we still suffer from the same disconnect that is a result of a life frantically lived.

It’s a short film but it makes quite an impact on anyone who watches it. The film's stars Barbara Kent and Glenn Tryon are not big names but are perfectly suited for their roles. I particularly love the scenes of every day life. Jim and Mary getting ready in the morning, having breakfast, commuting to their jobs, working and clocking out at the end of the day. This movie is a time capsule of the late 1920s.

I went to see Lonesome (1928) all by my lonesome. I always used to always have a friend, or two or something 10 along with me to see a classic film on the big screen. Nowadays I'm lucky if I can drag my husband to a screening. Otherwise I just don't go. This made me think about reaching out to old friends, making new friends and also not being afraid to be lonesome. Being alone and putting yourself out there opens you up to the opportunity of meeting new people. And as we all know the new person dynamic is life changing.

Alloy Orchestra takes a bow.
Thank you to the Coolidge Corner Theatre and the Alloy Orchestra for a magical night!

*I'm not 100% of the presenter's name as I didn't write it down. If it's wrong, please let me know.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Why Be Good? (1929) by Jonas Nordin

Why Be Good? from Warner Bros.

The late silent film Why Be Good? (1929) was considered lost for many years. Not only has it been found but also restored and released on DVD much to the delight of classic film fans across the globe. The film stars Colleen Moore as Pert Kelly. She’s a shopgirl by day and a wild flapper by night. Pert’s reputation as as partier is all smoke and mirrors. She’s a good girl at heart and only wants the appeal the flapper lifestyle provides. Pert has caught the eye of Winthrop Peabody Jr. (Neil Hamilton). He’s mesmerized by her vivacity and beauty but equally perplexed by her reputation. Winthrop is now the head of staff at his father’s department store. Little do the pair know that Pert is a shop girl at the same store and it’s against the rules for him to date the staff. With added pressure from his father to seek out a virtuous girl, Winthrop sets a trap to find out of Pert is virtuous or if she’s just like all the other flappers.

The film is a morality tale but also a showcase of all the fun excesses of the flapper era. Fans of the 1920s will delight at all the party scenes, the dancing, the booze and the flapper dresses. Why Be Good? (1929) is in a very awkward spot in history. The film industry is transitioning to talkies and silent films are falling out of favor with the public. However, the silent films of the late 1920s have become more sophisticated in their story telling and their use of sound effects and music. It’s an often overlooked era in film but one that should be given plenty of attention. Also, the movie was released in early 1929 and serves as one big party before the stock market crash later that same year which sets off the Great Depression.

Below is a wonderful article by Jonas Nordin of All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!. He'll be posting it on his site but is giving me the pleasure of sharing it here first! His article gives a lot of background about actress Colleen Moore's career just before she made Why Be Good?, the making and critical reception of the film, details of the once lost film's discovery and restoration.

Why Be Good? (1929) by Jonas Nordin

On February 28, 1928 Colleen Moore signed what was going to be her last contract with First National. Moore had been the company’s prime money maker since her big break in Flaming Youth back in 1923. Her previous contract had included four films made 1927-28, Her Wild Oat, Happiness Ahead, Oh Kay!, and the blockbuster Lilac Time.

The Swedish poster for Lilac Time

Early 1928 Colleen Moore was in a very good position to renegotiate her contract. One could say that the contract she was to sign was quite favorable. It stipulated that Colleen was to have final say over scripts, continuity, directors, photographers, male leads and cutting. She was obliged to make four photoplays and receive $150,000 per film. This made her just about the best paid actress in Hollywood at the time. Her husband and producer John McCormick who also was included in her contract didn’t believe in the coming of talking pictures so there was no mention of any singing or talking in the contract. One must also keep in mind that in February of 1928 talking pictures were just The Jazz Singer and some vaudeville shorts, nothing else.

The first film to be produced within her new contract was Synthetic Sin, a script which she approved of in March 1928. The script itself had been under development for over six months and Colleen was eager to shoot it. She still had to finish work on the last two films in the old contract first, Happiness Ahead and the silent version of the Gershwin musical Oh Kay!. Both were made during spring 1928 and opened in May and August respectively. Lilac Time was already finished and waited for the fall season with an August premiere and a general release in October. With its enormous sets and multitude of extras, Lilac Time had cost more than the other three films together, so it was crucial it became a hit. By the end of its lengthy run it turned out to become the second most grossing film during the 1920’s. The biggest money maker until 1939 was The Singing Fool which coincidentally went up side by side with Lilac Time in the fall season of 1928.
Work on Synthetic Sin started in September 1928 but the other three films in the new contract were not yet decided. Normally the studio had a fair amount of forward planning, and when a four picture deal was settled it was often known which films were to be produced. Scripts were usually approved and directors appointed well in advance. Sometimes things didn't run as smoothly. McCormick had a script called The Richest Girl in the World which he thought suitable as Colleen’s next offering. William A. Seiter was to direct it. Even a starting date for it was set to November 5th.

Colleen Moore in Synthetic Sin (1929) - Film Poster

Hollywood movie making was quickly changing and with the thundering success of Warner’s second talkie, The Singing Fool in late September 1928, the other studios quickly had to reconsider their shooting schedules. First National decided that it would be favorable if Colleen agreed to do a talking picture since that was the new thing everyone was talking about. Colleen was the biggest star of the studio but her contract also granted her complete control and the possibility to refuse to talk on film if she felt like it, she had at least no contractual obligation to comply with this request. The studio cancelled The Richest Girl In The World because the script wasn't sufficiently developed (it was later revised into a 1934 Miriam Hopkins talkie, still with William A. Seiter directing it). First National suggested several titles to replace it, including When Irish Eyes Are Smiling, Funny Face and Dangerous Nan McGrew, and it had to be a talkie. That was if Colleen would agree to renegotiate her contract.

In October 1928 Warner Brothers bought two thirds of First National and since Warner’s was the leading studio of the talkie craze the demand to release talking pictures grew day by day. Before renegotiating Colleen’s contract the studio wanted to make sure she had a voice. She recited the nursery rhyme Little Bo Peep as her voice test. Colleen’s voice recorded just fine and was indeed considered suitable for talkies. However, she still had to go to a voice coach and even take singing lessons like everyone else who wanted to be a star of talking pictures. The coming of talkies was clearly a way of the studios to clean out all sorts of disadvantages and put pressure on their stars.

By this time Synthetic Sin was almost finished and a script for a second silent comedy was quickly decided, probably to buy some time to prepare for Colleen’s first talkie. The script was initially called That’s A Bad Girl but the studio finally settled on Why Be Good? as the title. Mid November, just as shooting of Synthetic Sin wrapped, Colleen and McCormick took a week off and went through the heaps of suggested scripts to find the next film, Colleen’s first talkie. The choice fell on When Irish Eyes Are Smiling later renamed Smiling Irish Eyes, but it needed a lot of work to be turned into a working talking picture. Well home again, work on Why Be Good? started immediately. With the success of MGM’s Our Dancing Daughters that had been running since September, First National wanted a similar vehicle to cash in on the youthful shop girl movie fad.

In January 1929 Colleen agreed to renegotiate her contract with First National. The revision consisted in that the final two films left on her February 1928 contract were to be all-talking. She would get an additional $25,000 for each talking picture which meant she would get $175,000 per movie. McCormick who still was included in his wife’s contract was to get $35,000 per movie, a raise with $2,500. The contract more or less settled that the last silent picture Colleen was to appear in was Why Be Good?.

Magazine ad for Synthetic Sin

Magazine ad for Why Be Good?

Magazine ad for Why Be Good?

Synthetic Sin opened January 6th 1929 but wasn't a big success according to period reviews. However it wasn't exactly a bomb either as the public quite liked it, even more so with Why Be Good? that opened two months later. It was clearly considered the better of the two. Why Be Good? was basically an updated remake of Flaming Youth and was marketed as such. The press called it “peppy and entertaining”. None of the two films were seen as remarkable or outstanding by any sense, just typical Colleen Moore comedies.

Synthetic Sin and Why Be Good? were shot almost back to back late autumn 1928, both had a synchronized score and sound effects but no dialogue. They were no high budget melodramas but quickly produced rapid paced comedies. Like so many other of Colleen’s comedies they were directed by William A. Seiter. As silent pictures quickly were falling out of fashion, the fan magazines and the press in general mostly neglected this type of movies in favor of bigger productions and all talking extravaganzas. We should be grateful that these two films have survived at all. Both actually did very well at the box office, each earning more than $750,000 against an initial cost of about $325,000, which was outstanding for silents in 1929, especially considering not very favorable reviews.

At the time when Why Be Good? was released there were rumors running that Colleen would make one talkie and then end her career. This may very well have been her initial thought but to fulfill her contract she had to make two talkies before she could bow out. Smiling Irish Eyes and Footlights and Fools, shot during the spring and very hot summer of 1929. Both were lavish all-talking productions that included big production numbers and several Technicolor sequences. Sadly, neither of the two survives today. Colleen was not at all pleased with how she turned out in them. She later said that especially Smiling Irish Eyes was a frightfully dull film and she wasn't surprised it flopped. Looking back this may explain why both her 1929 talkies were unsuccessful. She was clearly uncomfortable with the new way of making movies even though she had a voice. After fulfilling the contract Colleen took a break from movie making concentrating on dollhouses, successful investments and personal matters. Her days as a movie star were over.

Colleen divorced John McCormick in 1930. She returned to the screen briefly in 1933 and made four films for four different studios of which the first film, The Power And The Glory (Fox) is the one she liked best according to her memoirs Silent Star (1968).

The Restoration
Until the late 1990s both Synthetic Sin and Why Be Good? were thought to be lost. There is an extremely high mortality rate for films released during the 1927-29 transition period. A large fire at Warner Bros. in the 1950s destroyed the then-known prints.

Fast forward to 2002 and New York's Film Forum. Prior to a screening, Ron Hutchinson of The Vitaphone Project updated the audience on the project’s latest activities. He casually mentioned that he recently acquired all the soundtrack disks for Colleen Moore's Why Be Good?, and said something to the effect that "unfortunately, this is a lost film."

Film historian Joe Yranski, who ran the film library at the Donnell Media Center, had been a longtime friend of Colleen Moore's and knew more about this film than probably anybody on the planet, yelled out "No it's not! I know where it is!" The full house at Film Forum cheered.

Ron Hutchinson of The Vitaphone Project

Ron immediately connected with Joe, and learned the sole known 35mm nitrate prints for both Why Be Good? and Synthetic Sin were in an Italian archive, donated to them decades before by actor Antonio Moreno. Thus began a decade long effort to negotiate the loan of both films for full restoration and synchronization with the existing Vitaphone disks. While the entire soundtrack to Why Be Good? survived in Ron’s collection, only the disk for the last reel and exit music was known for Synthetic Sin. Fortunately, a full list of Vitaphone music cues existed and was used to recreate the soundtrack.

Ned Price, Warner Bros. Chief Preservation Officer and the driving force behind the studio’s support of nearly 150 Vitaphone short restorations, personally interceded with the Cineteca di Bologna and negotiated a mutually agreeable arrangement to have both films restored and copies of both finished efforts given to the archive.

Work began late in 2012, with the professional transfer of Ron’s Why Be Good? disks and the lone disk for Synthetic Sin by sound engineer Seth Winner. The restoration effort represents a true partnership between Warner Bros., UCLA Film and Television Archive, Joe Yranski, and The Vitaphone Project, and was completed in June 2014.

Synthetic Sin and Why Be Good? were recently screened, for the first time in over 80 years, in 35mm and sound. The 2014 screenings in Bologna, Pordenone, London, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York were all literally packed to the last seat. One could assume that Colleen Moore's fan base is growing with these discoveries.

Seen today both films are definitely well budgeted, have strong First National art direction with a heavy art deco slant. In the case of Why Be Good?, there is the added attraction of Jean Harlow as a prominent dress extra (seen making out with a guy on a couch), and a super musical score with top jazz musicians of the period.

Jean Harlow in the background as an extra in Why Be Good? (1929)

Why Be Good? is available on DVD-MOD from Warner Archive Be sure to get a copy of it.

The preservation state of the movies discussed above:
Her Wild Oat (1927) - Survives complete
Happiness Ahead (1928) - Lost
Oh Kay! (1928) - Lost
Lilac Time (1928) – Survives complete

Synthetic Sin (1929) – Survives with sound fragment
Why Be Good (1929) – Survives complete
Smiling Irish Eyes (1929) – Lost, sound survives
Footlights And Fools (1929) - Lost, sound survives

Disclaimer: I received a copy of Why Be Good? (1929) from Warner Archive for review. I promptly mailed that copy off to Sweden to Jonas and bought a separate copy for myself. Thank you to Warner Archive for the review copy!


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