Tuesday 16 January 2018

Streaming on YouTube - Barrie Pattison unearths the little seen THE MATING CALL (James Cruze, USA, 1928)

James Cruze
Director James Cruze remains a shadowy presence like several other silent Hollywood big names. Include Albert Vignola, Herbert Brenon or Roy William Neill.  Cruze made over seventy feature films most of which appear to be lost or at least in hiding. The examples of his sound work which we can access - The Great Gabbo, Salvation Nell, The Wrong Road, even I Cover the Waterfront, are pretty ropey by comparison to his silents, though it would be nice to see his 1938 Gangs of New York with Charles Bickford in a double role and a script by Sam Fuller.

The films that followed Cruze’s 1923 break-out success with The Covered Wagon - his Merton of the Movies, Hollywood or Beggar on Horseback - were written up as peak works of film making sophistication. Watching Cruze’s 1924 The Fighting Coward with Cullen Landis supports that view, particularly if you compare it with Mississippi, Eddy Sutherland’s sound remake with Bing Crosby no less in the Landis role. That’s grotesque in its attempt to repeat the Cruze film’s nice balance between action movie and comedy.

Title Card, The Mating Call
So finding Cruze’s 1928 The Mating Call buried on YouTube with removal Spanish subtitles in a passable copy is an event. This one is a major Howard Hughes production from a piece by then celebrity author Rex Beach. Even though it was restored for Turner in 2004 with a functional Robert Israel score, I’m not aware of it surfacing here on pay-for and of course the festivals are a write off. Short comings and all, The Mating Call is fascinating.

The Order meets, The Mating Call
To start there’s the depiction of “The Order”, a secret organisation that takes upon itself maintaining rural community morality, members showing up in black hoods at night to intimidate the “spineless, drunken reprobate” who isn’t looking after his mum and lashing the defiant wife beater on the cross form whipping post in front of a bonfire, on the instruction of their satin-robed Grand Wizard. The film drew criticism from both supporters and opponents of the Ku Klux Klan whose influence was coming under attack at the time it was made. While the KKK victims were mainly black men, this film shows its organisation busying itself with the morals of whites, which apparently in some areas the historical record supports.

Archie L. Mayo’s excellent 1937 Bogart film Black Legion similarly refused to name the KKK. It wasn’t till the Richard Brooks & Daniel Fuchs scripted 1951 Storm Warning and Ted V. Mikels 1966 I Crossed the Color Line that American movies came down on that issue.

Thomas Meighan, Renee Adoree,The Mating Call
As notable is an extra-ordinary, attention grabbing central performance in Evelyn Brent’s man hungry sophisticate who is determined to land ex-husband Thomas Meighan, now that her current spouse is cheating on her with a young girl. The scene where she pours the washing up dish over her so that she has to change her clothes in Meighan’s bedroom and then continues her embraces as he carries her out to dump her into her car, is as physical as Betty Amman winding herself round Gustav Fröhlich so memorably in Asphalt a year later.

Thomas Meighan
We start on the train (cf. Wings & John Cromwell's excellent 1930 The Mighty) bringing back WW1 Captain Meighan to the small town where he has a farm. His fellow card players know he’s fixated on wife Brent whom he married when he received a hero’s welcome on a wartime trip home. Now the only people who turn out to greet him are toothpick chewing young Gardner James and white bearded judge Luke Cosgrave with his teenage daughter Helen Foster. They tell him that Brent isn’t there because, when he went back to the war, the marriage was annulled by her rich parents and now she’s married to more successful realtor Alan Roscoe.

When Meighan gets back to his farm, his trudging the living room is dissolved to his plowing on foot but Brent shows up, sitting there with her back to him, (“You look like hell!”) her hand with the smoking cigarette raised. She comes on like a cavalry charge, and taunts him about being afraid of The Order when he doesn’t respond.

Though it is too big an ask to believe she was under age for her first marriage, hers is astounding performance even for those who are familiar with Brent’s other appearances. She was nowhere near as animated, as seductive, in her Sternberg films.

Back at her home, Brent finds Foster’s hankie in her husband’s car and makes a point of dangling it when the girl and her dad show up. Roscoe takes a dim view of Meighan but Tom has no trouble taking his revolver away from him, so a black hood guy comes knocking and tacks a warning on the door. Cosgrave tells maligned Meighan that he is no longer welcome to take tea with him and his innocent daughter.

Brent shows up again and is well on the way to overcoming Meighan’s resistance when there’s a knock at the door. The Brent situation getting out of hand, Tom announces to The Order guys that he’s already married with his wife on the way from France and high-tails it for the wire enclosures of Ellis Island. There the officer in charge wheels up would be immigrant Renée Adorée and her parents, who are on the point of being deported, and convinces her that marrying Tom is a good deal. Shot of the rites and flowers - another arranged marriage plot of the day like William Beaudine’s 1926 The Canadian with Meighan or Victor Sjöström’s 1928 The Wind and 1930 A Lady to Love, the first filming of Sidney Howard’s “They Got What they Wanted.”

Tom brings Renée back to the farm but she withholds her suspiciously well made up face framed in a peasant head scarf from his kiss and he ends up opening out the fold-up couch next to the family bed room. While her olds work in the fields, she gets to sit at table with husband Tom and she’s scrubbing his floors when Evelyn shows up again and dismisses her as “your servant”, getting water splashed over her nice shoes. Renée finds the ex-wife’s photo in Meighan’s old uniform pocket and isn’t re-assured when he rips it up.

Roscoe wants his (of course) incriminating letters back from Foster and she stalls. James shows up and proposes to her and she slips the letters into his pocket. The next time we see her is when Meighan spots a body under the shallow river surface.

The Order guys figure “A young girl doesn’t commit suicide without a good reason” and suspicion points at Tom after him finding the body.  He’s alerted and breaks out his service pistol, quickly looking for Renée, who is indignant that he saw her skinny dipping. He tries to lock the door but shot gun wielding Klansmen march him off and they are laying into him with the whip when James produces the letters. The hoodies apologize.

The plot is twisting out of expectation now but without Brent it's losing momentum.

This one cites the single standard but it’s disappointing to find it telling us there are two kinds of women - voracious sophisticates who smoke cigarettes and play about and sweet young things whose faces are scarf framed and help you scrub piglets.

Without reading the original (does anyone still read Rex Beach?)  I have the feeling that this has been imposed on his work. His two most famous pieces “The Block” and “The Spoilers” specifically contradict this notion. In the best surviving film adaptation of “The Spoilers” veteran prospector Harry Carey, as the voice of wisdom, points to dance hall chantoosie Cherry Malotte, played by Marlene Dietrich, rather than her modest home body rival Margaret Lindsay, observing "Cherry will weigh out better of the two in the long run.”  Intriguingly Brent played Cherry Malotte in The Silver Hoard, George Archainbaud’s routine 1930 filming of the “Spoilers” sequel.

The lead women both do partial nudity but Meighan retains his unmarked white shirt even when the Order guy is whipping him on the cross.  Their  performances are remarkable. Watching Frederic March do Meighan’s role in George Abott’s nice 1930 sound re-make of  DeMille’s 1922 Manslaughter underlines the comparison between the two screen personae, strong, stoic, reliable heroes like Richard Dix or Clive Brook but with a hint of Richard Barthlemess’ fallibility.  Like Brent, Meighan was then a major star. His lead performance in Lewis Milestone’s excellent The Racket is from the same year but Meighan’s star status didn’t survive sound. I have never heard his voice. 

Alan Roscoe, The Mating Call
Glowering Alan Roscoe holds his own with them. He’d been Maurice Tourneur’s 1920 Last of the Mohicans’ Uncas and regular Theda Bara leading man - Armand to her 1917 Lady of the Camelias. It’s uncomfortable to watch the film, knowing the miserable fates awaiting these talents in the sound period, as they spiralled into B movies.

The convincing settings don’t look like the rural environments in other movies of the day - poor farmer Meighan’s comfortable house with pumped water and fuel stove contrasted with the big Brent-Roscoe home. No designer is credited. The director’s technique is exceptionally unadorned, without camera movement or quick cuts, but his images are expert and frequently striking - the whistle stop rail station, glowing close-ups of Brent, the body under the surface of the river, the night time meetings of the Order - though it’s disturbing that Meighan doesn’t notice the menacing hooded men standing in clear view on several occasions. 

Several of Cruze’s regular associates appear in the film. Delmer Daves, who was Cruze’s propsman, and here title-writer Hernman Mankiewicz.

It’s amazing that something as substantial as The Mating Call has been swept under the carpet. It leaves you curious about Cruze’s other silent hits.
Evelyn Brent, Publicity shot 

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