Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Retrieving the not quite as unfashionable as first thought - Barrie Pattison on William Wyler (Pt 2)

Editor’s note: This is the second post by Barrie Pattison pondering the early career of William Wyler. The previous contribution can be found if you click here.

Also bubbling up into YouTube land is the rather better 1933 The Gay Deception illustrating Wyler’s steep learning curve.

We find Frances Dee, part of a squad of typists in an office with a “No Loafing” sign on the wall. She wins big ($5000) in the sweepstakes, quits and, when told by banker Spencer Charters that prudently invested this will provide her with three dollars forty five a week for life, she decides to splurge the lot on a month’s luxury at the Waldorf Plaza Hotel. “I want cash, cars, clothes!”

Among Captain Paul Hurst’s bellboys is the ubiquitous Francis Lederer who re-designs her $19.45 hat to her indignation - it really does look better on her after he finishes. Manager Ferdinand Gottschalk fires him but he’s re-instated, actually being a foreign prince there to learn the hotel trade. Local nationalists, a wasted Akim Tamiroff and Lionel Stander, mustn’t find out.

Lederer tells Frances that the reason she’s not having any fun is that she is going to the wrong places and squires her to Agostino Borgato’s little Italian restaurant, where she tries to order the manager’s name from the foreign language menu. (is this the origin of that care worn gag?) Akim and Lionel’s agents kidnap Francis from the table.

Frances limps back to the Waldorf, after settling the bill, and our hero, back in bellhop gear, gathers waiter Luis Alberni’s studded dress shirt, Alan Mowbray’s tux and a guest’s shoes put out for cleaning  to turn himself out as the royal guest at the Charity Ball that has been arranged to honour him. He plans a big reveal to wow Frances but (best section) his scheme goes pear shaped and he lands in Sgt. Wade Boteler’s cells.

For a while it looked like the familiar escapist plot devices will dissolve this one into fluffiness but the ball room climax is clever and funny - maybe even a little bit touching as Dee sees her dreams come true only to have them snatched away again.

This early Wyler, late William Fox, is impeccably presented - striking photography, crisp editing, and gleaming decors giving the impression of luxury to back up a half celebrity cast. Dee is presented gorgeous and Lederer trades on his imagined charm and comedic skill neither of which are as effective as his ability to look good in uniform - either prince or bellhop.

It’s an enjoyable and curious antecedent to Wyler’s Roman Holiday. These films are frequently a first run for distinctive material in Wyler’s later films -  La Plante like Streisand in Funny Girl showing her own dance step to the choreographer. (“If any of you do it like that, you’ll be fired too”) It’s better here. We get shots with characters defocused on the stairs in the background and in a mirror like Little Foxes, or Neil Hamilton’s line of taxis not all that far away from the agents disgorged from the plane in Roman Holiday. The fight in the dust in The Shakedown prefigures The WesternerThe House Divided saloon melee evokes Come & Get It.

The most arresting piece of anticipation is Walter Huston dominating the scene in House Divided though stretched on the floor, even more striking than Bette Davis up-staging poor Margaret Lindsay in the climax of Jezebel though Lindsay is given the dominant eye line standing on the stairs above her.

It’s agreeable to discover that, by the time sound had arrived. William Wyler was already a talent to follow.

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