Thursday, September 1, 2011

Review – The Spoilers

September 1, 2011

The Spoilers – US, 1942

There’s a moment early on in The Spoilers when a maid named Idabelle laments over the dearth of African-Americans in Alaska at the turn of the twentieth century. She’s got a point, too because apparently she’s the only African-American in Nome. Idabelle’s remarks sets up what I can only imagine was intended as a joke, and perhaps audiences in 1942 were able to laugh at it. It will most likely fill present-day audiences with a sharp pang in the stomach, something akin to indigestion. However, look closer, and you might just see something a bit revolutionary. In the scene, a man named Roy Glennister (John Wayne) enters his girlfriend’s room, and because he has black polish on his face, Idabelle mistakes him for an African-American. She flirts with him openly, and for a fleeting moment, Glennister flirts right back, albeit in slightly less grammatically correct English than he uses during the rest of the film. Idabelle quickly realizes who it is, and the two of them share a brief moment of levity. I didn’t laugh during the scene. However, nor was I greatly disturbed by it either. The reason for this is simple: The scene has an air of sweetness to it. Idabelle, lonely and homesick, is looking for companionship. Glennister, who has known Idabelle for some time, recognizes this and responds playfully, just as one would expect an old friend to do if they were in costumes at a Halloween party. Looked at in this way, the scene is slightly ahead of its time, for it depicts two characters whose familiarity with each other – I won’t call them friends – transcends race and makes moments like this completely harmless. It could easily have gone the other way.

Much of the credit for the scene playing as well as it does belongs to Marietta Canty. Playing the maid of Glennister’s girlfriend, Cherry, Canty is a rather fun to watch. In every scene she’s in, she fills the screen with so much wide-eyed vitality and cheerfulness that it’s easy to lose sight of just how stereotypical her role in the film really is. While I was scrolling down Canty’s filmography on IMDB, it became sadly apparent that this was the role she was cast in again and again. Such was Hollywood at that time, and I can’t help wondering what she thought about it. According to IMDB, she appeared in forty feature films in just fifteen years, the last being 1955’s Rebel without a Cause, and then apparently left Hollywood. She passed away thirty-six years later in 1986. Interestingly, her family home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, largely because of its association with her.

The Spoilers takes place in Nome, Alaska, in 1900 soon after the discovery of gold in Alaska brought an influx of miners and settlers to the area. All of them hoped to strike it rich. According to the film’s opening scroll, it was a rather lawless time, a time when people disputed others’ mining claims and would often scare people off by showing them the barrel of a gun. Early on in the film, we hear about a group that is going around contesting people’s claims and seizing land, often with the approval of a claims commissioner named Alexander McNamera (Randolph Scott). It’s a development that concerns a local salon owner/performer named Cherry Malotte (Marlene Dietrich), for she helped Glennister make his claim and has an interest in making sure that he keeps it. Early in the film, she pays a visit to the claims office to get the affidavits for two claims when she meets McNamera. He immediately expresses an interest in her, and she does not give him any reason not to continue expressing that interest.

Some time later, a boat arrives bringing Glennister back to the land he has so much invested in. However, with him is a young woman named Helen Chester (Margaret Lindsay). This is obviously the beginning of a love triangle, and it is not the only one in the film. Cherry is pursued by at least three men: McNamera, Glennister, and Cherry’s business partner, Bronco Kid Farrow (Richard Barthelmess), who is about as tough as they come. Ms. Chester is the niece of Judge Horace Stillman, who we learn is coming on a later boat. His presence is meant to indicate that law and order will finally come to Nome, Alaska. It hasn’t, of course.

The Spoilers would be a better film if writers Lawrence Hazard and Tom Reed had emphasized the film’s dramatic elements more and edited out its numerous attempts at humor. The jokes don’t work, and they steal precious screen time from the other far more interesting story lines. Another problem is that director Ray Enright chose to speed up certain moments of the film in what I can only surmise was an ill-fated attempt at making certain action sequences look more exciting. The technique has the opposite effect. I also found myself wishing the actors would slow down just a bit. Some of the characters, in particular Cherry and McNamera, speak so fast that it is occasionally difficult to understand them, which may have been intentional, for much of what they discuss could hardly be described as strictly adhering to the Hayes Code. At one point, Cherry says to McNamera, “Anything you can win, you can collect,” and I can’t imagine there was a single member of the audience in 1942 that thought she was referring to money.

Still, The Spoilers does enough right to make it worth watching, especially when it focuses on Glennister’s quest for justice after the deck is revealed to be stacked against him. Wayne is rather convincing as Glennister, and the scenes between him and Cherry cackle with energy and passion. Dietrich gives an impressive performance that would be even better if she didn’t slip ever so often into a slightly more German accent. Margaret Lindsay also does well as Cherry’s chief competition for Glennister’s affections. She would be the safe choice. It’s unfortunate that a rather pivotal scene between the two ladies is as poorly thought out as it is. It’s even more unfortunate that the film’s two biggest scenes are made to look amateurish by the constant use of a faster running speed. There’s a reason why silent films were sped up. It made them look foolish. Obviously, someone didn’t get the memo. (on DVD)

3 stars

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