It feels weird to plead on behalf of William Wyler, who is certainly celebrated and respected and even known by a few people outside hardcore cinephilia. But his most famed works, like The Best Years of Our Lives or Ben Hur, are adored along with movies like Casablanca and It's a Wonderful Life: popular classics. A pop. class. is a film that's widely known and loved but not necessarily respected by those in the know. Where exactly Curtiz and Capra belong on the Hollywood pantheon is another debate, but I do think it's reductive to look at Wyler merely as a populist entertainer who won Oscars.
One place to start, conceivably, is the silent era, when the Universal errand boy known as "Worthless Willie" started making short westerns (lying awake nights thinking of new ways to film a man getting off a horse) and quickly rose in the ranks to bigger projects, such as 1929's The Shakedown. This vigorous minor work won't by itself convert doubters, but it carries food for thought, illustrates many of Wyler's robust strengths, and anyway, a lot of people seem to forget Wyler even made silent films (they're infuriatingly hard to see). In fact, The Shakedown is not really a silent, it's an example of even more forgotten form, the part-talkie. Universal, unable to obtain Fox's Movietone sound system on a long-term basis, used it to pep up largely silent features with gusts of audio, and scored the films with recorded music tracks in order to be able to advertise them as talkies. Wyler's The Love Nest, from this period, begins as a slick and fluid silent romantic comedy, before a screech of brakes brings us into the creak and crackle of early talking cinema, where the wonderfully natural Laura La Plante suddenly stiffens into a stage-frightened kid at a school play.
The version of The Shakedown I managed to see (an Italian off-air recording) has only one synch-sound moment, and a fabulously eerie one it is. Our boxer/con-man hero James Murray has just floored an enemy outside his lodging-room, and his orphan sidekick Clem (Jack Hanlon, a minor child star in his debut role) places a bunch of flowers in the fallen thug's hand, before walking off singing wordlessly to the tune of Chopin's Funeral March. It's disconcerting to hear a human voice serenade you so abruptly from a silent movie, especially when that voice is singing a death march. Kind of kills the joke, to be honest.
But even if some of the film's fascinating effects bypass their intended result to end up in the realms of the uncanny, the movie has enough fascination and energy to intrigue. A clear precursor to crowd-pleasing melodramas like The Champ, it charts the relationship of confidence man Murray and orphan Clem. A nicely etched opening shows Murray's standard scam: establishing himself in a small town as an itinerant worker, he gets into a street-fight with a visiting boxer, and publicly defeats him with ease. The boxer's manager, also part of the hustle, challenges Murray to enter the ring with the champ. The locals all bet on their pal, Murray takes a fall, and the team divide their winnings.
Coming to a new town (Boonton!), Murray—as likable as he was in Vidor's The Crowd, with a little added muscle—takes a job in the oilfields, which allows Wyler to take some stunning shots of his lead actor riding a cable up to the peak of an oil derrick, meets a nice girl (Barbara Kent, best known for Lonesome), and then catches young Clem stealing a pie.
Fleeing the scene of the crime, young Clem executes some athletic stunts, falling, rolling, rising and continuing without dropping the precious dish, then falls while crossing the railway tracks and is knocked unconscious. Wyler unhesitatingly reaches for a silent movie technique—under-cranking the camera—to show his hero dragging the limp lad from the rails moments before a hurtling locomotive, all fire and iron, bears down upon them and then, topping the topper, has Murray roll onto the neighbouring track and have to roll back again to escape another steam-powered colossus. The speeded-up effect is noticeable, but the stunt is still nerve-wrenching.
Hanlon proves to be an attractive co-star, pugnacious and prone to mugging, but without losing believability. His surly boyishness is comparable to the child stars of Ozu's I Was Born... But. He's a recognisable precursor to the Jackie Cooper brand of two-fisted moppet, but he's less sugary.
There's also a weird quality to the relationship. Man and boy room together, undress together, and at one point kiss full on the lips. Poor Barbara Kent often feels like a third wheel, or a beard. I think it's fair to say no homosexual angle was intended, it's just a measure of how audience minds have dirtied in the intervening eighty years.
Anyway, Murray reforms the boy thief, and the boy reforms him, so that he can't go through with his planned confidence trick, which has already been set in motion. So the stage is set for the fight of the young century, as Murray resolves to win at all costs against his terrifyingly burly opponent, who looks to belong to a whole different weight class, and possibly species.
Under-cranking being a versatile tool, Wyler can also use it for the fight, and use it he does, making his figures dart about the ring like angry locusts, their fists flailing in a frenzy of stroboscopic battery. Editing patterns are accelerated at the same time, as normal-speed shots of crowd members interpolate the violence at high speed. No fat lady eating an apple, harpy shrilling abuse or fat man with a hot dog here: the 1929 fashion in audience grotesquerie is largely facial hair based, for some reason. Perhaps something to do with the stock market.
The speed is dizzying. This montage isn't as organised as an Eisenstein, but it's as fast, and the element of chaos makes it even more exciting. It's as fragmented and explosive as a jigsaw puzzle shot from a cannon. At one point Wyler flashes up a shot of a news photographer, then his camera's POV: upside-down, of course.
Through it all, as Wyler mercilessly ramps up the emotion with cutaways of the frenzied cheerleading of Hanlon and the saintly watching-from-a-distance of Kent (always with a beacon glowing by her), but the task of caving in the other fellow's dome is presented chiefly as an arduous physical task rather than a spiritual or emotional triumph. Needless to say, the movie is sentimental as all hell, but this slight restraint by the director keeps things from getting eggy. In this director's hands, good taste is a weapon, clean as a knife.
Barbara Kent is still alive today, but refuses to be interviewed about her movie career. Little Jack Hanlon's credits need sorting out, but he may have appeared in some Little Rascals films and also in Buster Keaton's The General, as Buster's young "fan" at the beginning. James Murray was swiftly forgotten by the film business, and died homeless.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.