Movie. Spite Marriage, 1929.

Posted by T on September 08, 2006
By Title, Movies

This was the last silent movie by Buster Keaton. Talkies were already being produced, but the sound stages were a scarce resource: there was overlap in the production of both types, until capitalization permitted talkies to drive the silents out for good.

Nevertheless, sophisticated sound effects were added and put into synchronization using a technique called the Vitaphone. We are way beyond the theatre organ here.

Southern belle Dorothy Sebastian plays the leading lady. In addition, a bit of faux-Southern sub-text is created, then tied back in at the end, by use of a play-within-a-play of a Southern melodrama, apparently based on an actual David Belasco play of three decades earlier.

One of the raucous scenes takes place in a speak-easy and involves, I am quite sure, a take-off on Act 2 of the Opera La Boheme (the name of the cafe gives a big hint), with Buster playing a hybridized role of both Alcindoro and Marcello. Recall also that other of Belasco’s work was the basis for Puccini operas Madama Butterfly and Fanciulla del West. This is trivia, to be sure. It shows, however, how cultural “vocabulary” was in the air, and could be borrowed and reworked without strain.

The bridal bed-scene (don’t worry, nothing happens) shows Dorothy Sebastian performing physical comedy equal to anything pulled off by Keaton.

Numerous stunts are pulled off of terrifying realism, most not using stuntmen.

On the cautionary side, with this movie I detect the first major shift toward erotic titillation that reached a crescendo going into the early thirties. There is a surprising forwardness in male-female interaction, extended kissing, and the hint of groping in the play-within-the-play; subliminal messages as in the background billboard “Fires of Desire,” and women smoking and getting drunk in public.

It is all PG-13 and less than PG-13 by today’s standards. But it is a wakeup call for those that think we need to get back to the “good old days.” The good old days set the stage for today, and this is very evident.

Nevertheless, we are jaded, and I can recommend transcending it to some extent and relishing the very good comedy. Perhaps it is just barely in the gray zone of ribaldry that we accept in Shakespeare.


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