Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Two from Pat O'Brien

Today I'm going to talk about another pre-code star, Pat O'Brien. Don't worry, I promise this won't turn into Pat-athon. Though he may be best remembered for playing the coach in the iconic Ronald Reagan film, "Knute Rockne," O'Brien had a career of playing fast-talking, street-wise types in the early thirties. After playing Hildy Johnson in the 1931 production of The Front Page, O'Brien was cast as another newspaper man in The Final Edition (1932). Sam Bradshaw (O'Brien) is a tough-minded editor who wants to clean up the city and get all the headlines for his rag and he uses the feminine charms of his star reporter, Anne Woodman, (Mae Clark), to seduce the guy who murdered a crusading lawyer and stole the evidence against a crime syndicate. Is this sounding to anyone like His Girl Friday, yet? Yeah, well it gets better. Woodman and Bradshaw have a stormy, on again off again romance that is damaged by his devotion to his paper and his failure to commit. I can't help but think that Howard Hawks saw this movie and thought that with a bit less drama and more farce it would make a great screwball comedy.

Final Edition, however is nowhere near the caliber of that later, greater film. There is lots of snappy patter between O'Brien and Clark, but most of it fizzles out. Clark just can't seem to hold her own on screen with O'Brien. She is adorable and effective in the scenes where she's seducing the murderer, and in this section the film actually is quite tense and well-put together. To compare it again to His Girl Friday: imagine if the Earl Williams scenes at the jail with Rosalind Russell were the best part of the movie. What if you couldn't wait for Hildy and Walter to quit fighting so you could get back to the plot? It's unthinkable, but that's what's going on in Final Edition. Mae Clark isn't a bad actress, she just isn't right for this part. She needs a moxy transfusion, STAT.

Moxy is not at all lacking in Virtue (1932) also starring O'Brien and Carole Lombard. This woman invented the saavy, wise-cracking comic heroine and Virtue is a great example of how she did it. The second half of the film is a somewhat tedious melodrama, but the first half when O'Brien and Lombard meet just crackles the way I wished Final Edition would. Mae (Lombard) is a prostitute being run out of town, when she gets off the train and hijacks Jimmy Doyle's (O'Brien) cab. Doyle believes he is a street-wise fella who has women all figured out. He proceeds to imagine that Mae is a stenographer out of work and that she really wants a pack of cigarettes when she asks him to pull over at the corner drugstore. The situation is ripe for comic reversal and Mae ditches out on paying the fare. She later tries to make reparations and the pair fall in love trading insults. It's a match made in heaven till Doyle finds out about her former career. Things take a gradual turn into soap opera and the rest of the film is as forgettable as the first half is great. As a showcase on which to hang acting talent, I suppose Virtue has it's er, virtues. Given the wide range of emotions required by the leads, if nothing else, it proved that this pair could really act.


Anne said...

Moxy transfusion? Sign me up!

Cliff Aliperti said...

Haven't gotten to Virtue yet, but the one thing that stood out about Final Edition was Mae Clarke -- she was terrible! I really had the impression she wanted to be somewhere else, whether she was in a scene with Pat O'Brien or not. Though if she has a best scene I'd say you nailed it.

Would have liked to have seen a young Ginger Rogers in her part.

Jennythenipper said...

I thought Mae Clark was reasonably good in the dramatic parts of Three Wise Girls. She fell flat there in the comedy as well. Some of the Pre-code actors are really lost gems, others you can see why they are forgotten!

AbbyNormal said...

I am disappointed to hear about Mae Clarke's poor performance! I recently watched "Lady Killer" with the famous James Cagney dragging her by her hair scene and I thought she was good with her role. I haven't seen her in many movies yet though.