Charles and I ended the evening watching a really bizarre movie I’d just ordered from the Turner Classic Movies Web site: The Idle Rich, a 1929 weirdie from MGM directed by William C. DeMille (Cecil B. DeMille’s older brother — Cecil had got involved in the movie business because he wanted to do something that would match brother William’s success as a Broadway stage director; once Cecil became a hugely successful film director, William came out to Hollywood and managed to win a reputation and some success, mostly for drawing-room comedies rather than the audacious sex movies and period spectacles with which Cecil was identified) from a script which began life as a story by E. F. Stearns that was adapted into a 1925 play by Edith Ellis called White Collars, one of the first literary works to use that term as a metaphor for what’s called in the film’s dialogue the “Great Middle Class,” people who functioned in offices and assisted the managers of the economy instead of actually being on construction sites or shop floors making things. The film begins in the office of multimillionaire William Van Luyn (Conrad Nagel, top-billed — this was during that era in which Nagel was getting so many roles on the strength of having established that he had a recordable voice that he complained he and his wife could no longer go to the movies for their own entertainment since they couldn’t find a movie to see that he wasn’t in), who makes a rather crude grab for his secretary, Joan Thayer (Leila Hyams) — she’s on the floor looking for something and he grips her arm, then pulls her up and passionately kisses her. In a movie made today, a scene like that would be the start of a huge lawsuit against him for sexual harassment, but in 1929 what that led to was mutual passion and ultimately a marriage proposal.
What makes this film — scripted by Clara Beranger, whose most famous credit was the 1920 Paramount adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with John Barrymore — interesting is that instead of following the clichéd path of having Van Luyn’s snooty upper-class relatives look down their noses at his white-collar bride (indeed, we get the impression from this film that William is the only Van Luyn left!), it follows the not-quite-so-clichéd path of having the other Thayers look down their noses at the snot-nosed rich kid who’s just married into their clan. William moves into their apartment (a fascinating set whose furnishings and accessories indicate what people who weren’t rich themselves but had just as bad taste as the rich of their day did for décor: they bought hideous couches, chairs, dishes and the like and tried to be as “stylish” as their budgets could afford), refuses to sleep in his wife’s bed and curls up on one of those hideously ugly (as well as way too small for him) couches, and when he’s not at the office lets himself get lectured by the other Thayers: the parents (James Neill and Edythe Chapman), Joan’s sister Helen (Bessie Love, who out-acts the two leads), their brother Frank (Kenneth Gibson) and their nephew Henry (Robert Ober), who makes vaguely radical political pronouncements and seems to be the only one of the Thayers without a job. (The script is sloppy enough that it’s only about two-thirds into the film that we realize Henry is a nephew and not another Thayer sibling.)
The movie rather drones on from there, perched uneasily between comedy and drama and not working all that well as either, and one misses either the sort of all-out comedic approach Chaplin or Keaton would have brought to a story like this or the genuine sentiment Frank Capra could have supplied if he’d been directing this. Then the third act begins — the film is divided by intertitles and it’s clear they fall where the original intermission curtains of the play did — and Van Luyn announces that Henry has talked him into giving away his entire fortune and living the rest of his life as a member of the Great Middle Class himself. Just then Thayer père announces that he’s been fired because his employer wants to bring in a younger man. Along the way Van Luyn is accosted by Helen’s boyfriend, truckdriver Tom Gibney (Paul Kruger, a tall, lanky actor who looks like an unformed beta version of Clark Gable but hardly has anything resembling Gable’s charisma or talent), who challenges him to a fight — which Van Luyn wins easily, presumably through boxing moves he learned in prep school. Van Luyn eventually reveals that he had no intention of giving all his money away — he just said that in order to get the Thayers to allow him to move them into a new house he’s going to build for his new extended clan
The Idle Rich is an odd movie not only because it’s uncertainly perched between Left and Right message-wise — the moral, to the extent there is one, is that once you latch onto a rich guy make sure he stays rich so he can lavish the benefits of a fortune on your and your family, and above all don’t him get any damned-fool notions about philanthropy — but for a 1929 talkie it’s technically crude in some ways and highly sophisticated in others. There is no background music, other than a phonograph supposedly belonging to one of the Thayers’ neighbors that plays a really old and scratchy pop record about true love (the first time we hear it it’s clearly supposed to be an ironic contrast with what we’ve just seen before it, which is Joan Thayer seeing William Van Luyn into his voluntary exile from her bedroom), not even under the opening credits, and there are several parts of the movie in which the sound stops altogether and other parts in which the actors make audible slips in their lines and Big Brother DeMille didn’t stop to retake. But for a 1929 talkie the staging of the dialogue scenes is surprisingly naturalistic and modern: there are none of the long … dreary … pauses between lines that make a lot of early talkies virtually unwatchable today; the actors speak in normal tones of voice, phrase their conversations as they would in real life, and even interrupt each other and talk at once when they’re playing people having an argument. (Watching a movie like Behind That Curtain, a virtual compendium of everything that could go wrong in an early talkie, one can readily see why some critics of the time actually thought sound films were less, not more, realistic than silent ones.)
My big problem with The Idle Rich is that I have a hard time with movies whose makers couldn’t decide whether they were comedy or drama, so they tried to make them both and succeed only in making them neither; for much of the first two acts I was wishing MGM had gone all-out for comedy and cast Buster Keaton in Nagel’s role, not only because Beranger’s script obliges Nagel to do some rather wimpy-looking pratfalls and a slapstick master like Keaton could have made these scenes uproarious, but because with Keaton in the lead this film would have been a worthy successor to The Navigator, Battling Butler and the other Keaton silents in which (in what I’ve long thought was a deliberate attempt to differentiate himself from Chaplin’s “Tramp” by setting himself up clear at the other end of the socioeconomic scale) he played upper-class twits brought down to earth by the love of a good but much less affluent woman. But Keaton would have had a much harder time playing Act III — and Nagel, as overly made up, pasty-faced and whiny as he is (in the 1931 film The Right of Way he was clearly miscast in a potentially powerful role that cried out for John Barrymore), actually works for this part: a stuck-up man who’s trying to get himself un-stuck but isn’t always getting the best advice from the people he’s around.