Buster Keaton, Alan Mowbray, Richard Cromwell, Anita Louise. Dir: Edward F. Cline
This entry is part of the First Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, hosted by Silentology.
This blog post serves to EDUCATE AND ENTERTAIN. You will learn of the EVILS that will befall you when you take to DRINK. You will understand the goodness of a VIRTUOUS WOMAN. You will have the opportunity to take a TEMPERANCE PLEDGE at the bottom of the post.
Please don’t let any of the above scare you away. It’s a parody of a temperance play poster, part of the history that precedes The Villain Still Pursued Her, which is a film version of the melodrama “The Drunkard”. Before I talk specifically of the film, I will talk specifically of the temperance movement, the original play, and the melodrama, which means something different in plays than it does in classic film (somewhat).
In the 1820’s there were those who thought that people drank entirely too much. Initially, they asked the pillars of society to drink beer and wine in moderation and to shun liquor entirely. They were hopeful that the “moral suasion” (I did not make that phrase up) of the upper-classes would induce the working classes to follow suit. It must have worked to some degree because the drinking of beer and wine increased in the working classes. That’s when the temperance folks decided that drinking of any kind was the scourge of civilization. The temperance movement went on for decades and several states banned the sale of alcohol altogether. There was all manner of propaganda produced throughout this time which included, but was not limited to, cartoons and plays which warned people about the tragedies that could happen if one takes that first drink. They said that one drink leads to another and another, and that, ultimately, that person would become a raging alcoholic and lose everything. There was at least one cartoon that indicated a drunk man would kill his wife, so best not to take that very first drink. (I recognize that alcoholism is a very real and very awful disease, but not everyone who drinks becomes an alcoholic. In fact, most people don’t. So extreme propaganda about drinking at all is, well, extreme.)
The plays of the temperance movement were called, and this may come as a bit of a shock so please prepare yourself, “temperance plays”. From this genre came a play called “The Drunkard”, written in 1844 by a theatre stage manager along with “a gentleman” thought most likely to be a Unitarian minister not wanting to be associated with the vulgarities of the stage. It was an instant hit, playing for 6 years before P.T. Barnum (yes, that P.T. Barnum), possibly the most famous proponent and follower of the temperance movement, began staging it with a slightly revised script. The full script from Barnum’s production can be found here, and many of the lines in The Villain Still Pursued Her are taken word-for-word from that script.
The Drunkard is the most famous of all of the temperance plays. It incorporated heavy drama with very brief bits of light comedy, you know, for levity when the tragedy of the story became too much to bear. Many plays of its style branched out to other areas of morality, still wishing to get the audience of the temperance plays, but also wanting to get the audience that did imbibe. These plays came to be known as melodramas.
Melodramas were acted with broad gestures and booming voices, and with actors speaking directly to the audience on occasion in what is called an “aside”. The aside is so named because the hand is placed aside the mouth so that the other characters on stage “cannot hear” the character speaking to the audience. They were most popular from the 1850’s (including the temperance plays) through the early 1900’s. Somewhere toward the end of their popularity as serious theatre, someone started laughing at them. I don’t know where or when, but the ridiculousness of it all set in and the melodrama, though still popular, somehow transformed from drama to comedy. The same plays which tugged at the heartstrings just a decade or two earlier were now inspiring howls of laughter. This very phenomenon is the subplot to the movie Chatterbox (1936) where a young woman who aspires to be an actress like her long-departed mother before her and has an opportunity to be in a revival of the play in which her mother achieved notoriety. When her mother did the play it was dramatic, but when she did the play, the audience was rolling in the aisles. She was mystified and misty-eyed.
Around the same time that melodramas were becoming comedies, Vaudeville was gaining popularity. A Vaudeville show was a variety show which incorporated acts of singing, dancing, magicians, juggling, what have you, into one nightly event. A Vaudeville show often included a play being performed interspersed with the other various acts, and often that play was a melodrama. The sets of a Vaudeville melodrama had to be portable, and the piano had to be moved. The piano was moved more often than it was tuned.
Though Vaudeville is essentially gone, but not forgotten, the melodrama is something that theatres still produce. I know this because I will be directing one this summer (yes, that’s a shameless plug). The greatest feature of the modern productions of melodramas is audience participation. We boo and hiss at the villain, we cheer the hero, we say “awww” to the heroine, and we throw popcorn. Lots of popcorn. It’s all great fun.
I told you all of the above because you need to know all that to understand what the hell they were trying to do when they made The Villain Still Pursued Her.
Our film is an attempt at bringing live theatre to the screen. Given that I cannot find any reviews written at the time of its release, and none of the movie’s stars have it listed high up in their acting credits if it gets mentioned at all, I can only imagine that it failed miserably. The cast is pretty amazing though. Alan Mowbray as the villain (boo, hiss) Richard Cromwell as the hero (hooray!!), and Anita Louise as the heroine (awwww). Buster Keaton plays the best friend of the hero, a role which in most melodramas is a buffoon of sorts, but manages still to save the day.
The villain in all melodramas is greedy and lecherous. His goal is always to attain either fortune or the heroine, sometimes both, and he goes about it by besmirching the character of the heroine’s love, and driving him to ruin. There are usually bit characters who only step onstage for a scene or two, yet are extremely integral to driving the plot. In TVSPH, these characters are the heroine’s mother, played by Margaret Hamilton; the sister of the best friend, played by Joyce Compton; and the philanthropist, played by Hugh Herbert.
HEREIN LIE SPOILERS The plot is as follows: A young woman (the heroine) and her mother live in a country cottage owned by a man who just died. The man’s lawyer (the villain) convinces the women that their house is about to be foreclosed on by the man’s heir (the hero). He then goes about trying to convince the hero to foreclose on them, but the hero is too kind-hearted and when he sees the heroine, he decides to marry her. Having been foiled, the villain decides to make the non-drinking hero become a drunkard. The villain introduces the hero to alcohol at his wedding to the heroine, and gets him drunk before the end of the reception. He then goes about bringing him drink as often as possible. There is mention made of a will (uh oh). Eight years pass and the heroine’s mother dies. Wracked with shame, the hero leaves home and goes to the city to drink even more. The villain concocts a plan to get the hero thrown in prison, but the best friend comes along and ruins his plan, and enlists the help of the philanthropist and the police to bring the villain to justice. The hero takes a vow of temperance, the real will (uh oh) of his grandfather is discovered, and the villain is taken away in handcuffs. SPOILER HAZARD CLEARED
Let me first tell you why you should see this film, as that is much much more important than the list of what’s wrong with it. Bearing all of the above information of the history of this story and the situations surrounding it in mind, it’s pretty entertaining. The actors do just as they should, with hand gestures to match every sentence they utter. Margaret Hamilton does this best, and Richard Cromwell runs a close second. Alan Mowbray does the mustache twirling aptly, though not often enough, and Buster is good with the asides. Mostly, it’s very funny, particularly when taken in the spirit in which it is offered. It’s extremely silly, and silly is almost always good. There are penis jokes. Okay, it’s only one, but it’s said twice: once near the beginning and again later in the film.
Here’s where I tell you my individual assessments of the actors, many of whom worked in Vaudeville or theatre and were likely exposed to, if not involved in melodramas.
Buster Keaton- He’s fabulous. It’s probably his most coherently written role since he lost creative control of his movies. In many of his talkies, most notably The Passionate Plumber (ironically, my favorite of his talkies), his characters change sporadically from nincompoop, to sarcastic, to genius, and back to nincompoop. William Dalton is the same from beginning to end- slightly less intelligent but not stupid, always fearless, and ever faithful to his friends and family.
Alan Mowbray- Very entertaining. His gestures are not as grand as a live theatrical melodrama, but I think that’s why his characterization works well enough in the film. I think Mowbray knew what he was doing- a movie, not a play.
Margaret Hamilton- as stated earlier, Hamilton’s hand gestures during her dialog were pretty great. For those who are unfamiliar with melodrama, they might be slightly off-putting, but when you understand why she’s doing them, it’s quite humorous.
Richard Cromwell- Cromwell’s performance is amazing. He perfectly captures the ridiculousness of the character, the story, and the entire genre of melodrama. The only problem with him (and maybe I only notice this because I’ve watched it about 6 times just today, as well as countless times before) is that he stumbles over his words. Not a big deal when factored in with everything else.
Joyce Compton- I just love her. She has a beautiful voice and she plays a girl (Keaton’s character’s sister) who has lost her mind because she lost her intended on the day they were to be married. She’s the one who keeps bringing up the will (uh oh).
Anita Louise- as usual, the heroine doesn’t really get the acting accolades because the heroine character is nearly one dimensional. Louise is very good, but who really cares?
Billy Gilbert- not a character in the plot, and I want to shake him and make him understand that he’s not funny. Sure, Gilbert sneezes funny, but he doesn’t sneeze in this film.
And now I will tell you what’s wrong with it, and please don’t let these things dissuade you from watching it. The good outweighs the bad and your one hour and six minutes will not be wasted by seeing it:
- Melodrama is meant for live theatre and does not translate well to the screen. The booing, hissing, and cheering just don’t work here. In a live arena, the actors can respond to the audience, and pause the action until the audience quiets down. Since every audience is different, that pause cannot be predicted from one performance to the next, and certainly can’t be anticipated on film. If the audience were to hiss and cheer in a film, they might miss something. “Fortunately” (the quotes denote sarcasm)
- the director must have foreseen this problem and attempted to fix it by making the pacing slow. But the other element of live theatre which makes the audience interaction an integral part of the experience is the
- adlibbing, which the characters do (particularly the villain) to engage the audience. This is the most fun part of the melodrama experience when performed in live theatre and is sorely missed in a movie.
- There’s a plot point about a will (uh oh) that is never fully explained. I have seen the film over and over, watched every scene that made even slightest mention of the will (uh oh), and I have to strain to tie it together. As it is not plainly stated, I will attempt to explain it. Apparently the villain took the hero’s grandfather’s will (uh oh) ten years earlier and buried it, then replaced it with one that named himself as one of the beneficiaries. It’s very vague and hard to catch, and I don’t like that. There is plot enough without it though, so I just go on with my life.
- The introduction at the beginning of the film, which is done by
Billy Gilbert in an effort to explain to the audience what their responsibilities are while watching the film, is dumb. Sure, it gets the point across- “hiss at the villain”, “cheer for the hero”, etc.- but standup acts in movies are always pretty awful when there’s no audience in the scene (and sometimes even when there is one), and this is an attempt at that.
- There’s not enough energy in it, except when Keaton’s onscreen, which isn’t nearly as often as any sane person would like. Even Mowbray, who occasionally helps a little with the energy, doesn’t bring it all the time.
- If it were a better film, it would be self-explanatory, and all of the history above would not be necessary to help you enjoy it.
- There is a pie-throwing scene that is particularly excruciating.
The Drunkard was made into a movie before, in 1935, but they made it a play within a movie, and I think they did this so that they could show an audience participating in the theatrical melodrama experience. It starred absolutely nobody. I have not seen the movie, so I can’t say with certainty, but I speculate someone decided that a real audience should have the opportunity to participate the way the audience in the movie did, and that’s why they remade it and added famous people.
Director Edward F. Cline started out performing in Vaudeville and moved on to film, usually behind the camera, in the Keystone Kops days. He worked with Chaplin and Sennett, he even worked with Keaton on around 20 films and W.C. Fields kept choosing him to direct his films as well. He was Keaton’s top gag man after Keaton started making his own films. Cline should have known how to make this a better film.
I’ve kept my commentary fairly general, but since this is for a Buster Keaton blogathon, I’m going to Buster it up. The story is about a guy who doesn’t drink, is introduced to drink, drinks heavily, loses his home and his family, and then the love of a good woman keeps him on track. That’s pretty much Buster’s life when you look at it from an acute angle. Buster’s father was an alcoholic and Buster didn’t like what it did to him. In fact, he left the family Vaudeville act because his father’s drunken shenanigans made it too dangerous. But he took to drinking occasionally, and then began drinking heavily while his problems with MGM and his marriage became enormous. He moved out of his home and started staying at a bungalow on the MGM lot, leaving his family behind (not just because of the drinking, mind you). I’m going to fast-forward a bit now. After a divorce, a new marriage, and another divorce, he gave up drinking almost entirely and, in the same year this movie was released, married the woman who would be his wife until he died in 1966. Watching the movie and drawing parallels between Buster Keaton and the hero is interesting. It’s also sad because, well, it just is. However, there was a happy ending for both. So, hooray!!!!
There is no Keaton film you shouldn’t see at least once, and there are those which you should see only that once (I’m looking at you, Lil Abner). This is one that you should see more than once, at least to catch all the subtle things, but also because it is entertaining. Especially when Buster says “chugga chug chugga chug chugga chug”. Also, if you watch it, you will understand why I keep saying “uh oh” after I mention the will (uh oh).
The Villain Still Pursued Her is available to watch on youtube on a few different people’s channels. I won’t provide a link, but you can do a search for it.
As promised earlier, here is a temperance pledge for you.