It is not only literary works, like those described by T.S. Eliot in his world-changing essay, which alter their predecessors. In these heydays of The Artist, Columbia’s small 1937 film Once a Hero makes topical observations about filmmaking, some of which the passage of time alters. Though sensitively directed by Harry Lachman and photographed by Joseph Walker with some striking and meaningful long shots that break up long takes of close-shot dialogue, the script overall appears at first to brim with Hollywood cliches.
Silent cowboy hero Tim Bart (Richard Dix perfectly cast) finds himself dated and tossed on the heap with the coming of sound. Like the sudden hasbeen George Valentin in The Artist , he has a successful actress-girlfriend trying to look out for him, though Fay Wray of the lovely eyes but limited skill is no Berenice Bejo. (Sorry, my keyboard lacks accents.) There is also a kid in a children’s hospital Tim Bart visits who we know from the start will break our hearts with his trusting hero worship (Bill Burrud). (Scotty Beckett is in the hospital scene.) And we also know that somehow our cowboy will triumph in the end though we early on watch him ride into the sunset of one of his movies and see him walk off the lot into the sunset of his career.
Once a Hero presents, in one long pan, an exaggerated, near-expressionist account of the bandwagoning for sound — the kind of bandwagoning to come eventually for 3-D, then CinemaScope, then general wide screen (adopting for the human form a shape inimical to it), wide screen even for rereleased classsics (just cut off their heads), then digital effects, now 3-D again.
But the most interesting scene in the photoplay comes at the end of this long pan when Tim Bart is assigned to make love to his longtime co-star Gloria Gay in a sound test, with Franklin Pangborn as Mr. Forsythe there to assist them. Tim finds that he cannot convincingly say the lines of the script. He is abruptly told by the producer that he paid a lot of money for “this play” and that they are going to use it.
What is intriguing is that the lines in question are just the kind of lines acceptable in a silent medium where audiences saw them written but never had to hear their heroes and heroines say them. So the hesitation by our cowboy, in a way, makes no sense; but Dix is thoroughly believable in his overall portrayal and in this scene. Besides, the creators of Once a Hero were not interested in my views of the difference between silents and talkies. (Cf. Rick’s Flicks blog, March 16.)
Tim Bart gives a party for Billy the kid, now out of the hospital and on the doorstep having taken seriously Tim’s invitation, when still a big star, to come and visit him. Tim and a kind neighbor round up all the stand-ins they can find and throw a party so the innocent Billy can believe he’s meeting lots of movie stars. The stand-ins are fun. Some of the look-alikes and impersonators are better than others. Marlene is probably the poorest. Mae West and Chaplin are okay. Victor McLaglen is by far the keenest (played by his brother Arthur).*
Spoiler Alert: The film cleverly concludes with Tim Bart being able heroically to foil a bank robbery because he had worked in just that bank on a location shoot.
The Director and writers (one of whom is Samuel Fuller, credited as Sam) could not have foreseen all the postmodern nuances you and I are reflecting on here; but the nuances are there, for the seeing and hearing. I am surprised by Halliwell’s/Walker’s dismissal: “Indifferent studio story.”
Robert Bresson once again: “The TALKIE opens its doors to theatre which occupies the place and surrounds it with barbed wire.” (Notes on the Cinematographer, Copenhagen, Green Integer, 1997.)
*I am indebted for information about Arthur McLaglen to F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre who wrote a user review of Once a Hero for imdb.
Once a Hero was subsequently titled It Happened in Hollywood — which, indeed, it did.
Once a Hero
It Happened in Hollywood
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How many of my readers are in Ohio or close by? Are you heading for CINEVENT in Columbus on Friday? NEXT POST June 6, postCINEVENT.
See you there or elsewhere at the movies,