Thursday, April 18, 2019

Review - It (1927)

April 18, 2019

It – U.S.., 1927

An existential question: What came first: the concept of It or the article defining It? I ask this because the answer actually changes what would naturally follow the publishing of Elinor Glyn’s article in the movie It, which was based on Mrs. Glyn novel of the same name. In Mrs. Glyn’s words (she appears in the film as herself), “With It, you win all men if you are a woman, and all women if you are a man. It can be a quality of the mind as well as a physical attraction.” Now, if this is a new concept that no one has thought of, then all over the United States, people would have a reaction similar to that of the character Monty (William Austin). He clearly has never thought that such a thing as It existed, so naturally he goes and looks for proof of it, staring at the faces of both men and woman, as if searching for evidence of an attraction of such might that resistance is futile. However, if It has always existed, then Monty’s reaction is peculiar. When a term or concept conforms to or substantiates something we have sensed but not been able to put into words, one’s reaction is more likely to be that of acknowledgement or relief that you can finally say what you have long had an inclination to be true.

And what about someone with It? Do they know they have a quality that others do not, or is It something they have to be told they have? Do they notice the stares and envious looks and smile, or do they spend their days in ignorance, never realizing the power that they have over the opposite sex? Is having It a blessing or a curse? After all, how many times do we read reviews that seem to suggest that a stunningly beautiful actress is somehow not believable as a scientist or doctor?

Those looking for answers to questions such as these would, perhaps, be better off not watching Clarence G. Badger’s 1927 film It, for, truth be told, I’m not sure that anyone involved in the film had a clear concept of what It was. Perhaps that is why the film gives us an amalgamation of the above ideas. It is undeniable unless you choose to deny it; it is irresistible provided that you are not strong enough to resist it; and it has always existed, yet had to be defined for people to have any notion of its existence – and this apparently includes people who have It.

The film begins just after the publishing of an article on It, In an early scene, Monty, one of those people I can only assume was born wealthy and has never worked a day in his life, surprises his wealthy friend Cyrus Waltham (Antonio Moreno), the new boss at the “world’s largest store.” Monty comes across Mrs. Glyn’s article and becomes obsessed with proving its veracity. First, he studies Cyrus’s face and comes to the quick summation that he doesn’t have It, a conclusion the film will eventually abandon. Then he begins, almost like a judge at a beauty pageant, to size up the female employees of the department store. Soon, he sees Betty Lou Spence (Clara Bow), and just like that, he has found his first authentic example of It.

So, just who is Betty Lou? If you expected her to be the city’s most popular socialite, you’re mistaken. Instead, she is an ordinary person - single, employed, not economically secure, and, to her credit, nothing she does reveals any awareness that she has It. Perhaps I should add a caveat to that last sentences – nothing she does reveals any awareness that she has it yet, for just as Cyrus’s It status fluctuates, so too does Betty Lou’s. More on that later. Her first look at Cyrus is enough for her to wish that she’d get him for Christmas, and she exclaims, “Hot socks – the new boss.” (No, really.) From there, the film is really about her pursuits of him – the first to get him to notice her and the second to break his heart.

I suppose your level of interest in the film depends on whether you accept scenarios in which two people are said to be in love with little or no time devoted to developing this attachment. If the film is to be believed, It is all that is necessary for two people to fall in love, and it justifies all of the eccentricity that follows. I found it a stretch, and my mind began to contemplate other reasons for Betty Lou’s instant attraction, such as the economic security that landing him would get her. After all, if Cyrus really has It, why is Betty Lou the only one of his employees or work acquaintances pursuing him? At least, Betty Lou has two admirers, although even that number seems a bit low for someone with It. Interestingly, as strong as It is in the film, it is no match for social constraints.

There’s a nice bit toward the middle of the film involving Molly (Priscilla Bonner), a friend of Betty Lou’s whose recovering from giving birth and staying with her for economic reasons. There is no mention of the baby’s father, and a later scene may remind viewers of the end of Chaplin’s The Kid. Personally it made me reflect on the powerlessness of single mothers and the prejudice that society had for those that broke long-standing taboos concerning sex and pregnancy. I wanted more of this storyline, and I was pleased to see it used as Betty Lou’s motivation in the second half of the film. Does it negate the film’s central theme of It? Slightly, yet it also realistically points out the obstacles that class and traditional views have historically put in front of love.

The heart of the film is of course Betty Lou, and it is obvious why the role gave Clara Bow the status of It-girl. She is every bit the picture of a 20th century woman – feisty, determined, independent, principled, and uncompromising. She knows what she wants, and she won’t be deterred by setbacks. As for Bow, she was every bit as talented as you’ve heard. There’s an ease to her performance, a naturalness that draws the viewer in. Watching the film, I marveled over the joy she seemed to be having playing particular scenes, only to then remember that many of these blissful moments were close-ups and likely to have been played to the camera and not a cast member. A good example of this is when Betty Lou is interacting with Molly’s baby. Another occurs at the Ritz, when Betty Lou is trying to get noticed by her oblivious knight in shining armor. I look forward to seeing more of her films.

So, I liked It. I even got a kick out of Monty’s quirkiness, yet part of me can’t shake the notion that the film has more in common with How to Marry a Millionaire than Paul Fejos’s Lonesome. By playing fast and loose with the concept of It, the film weakens its central notion of It existing in the first place. Thongs of men should be fawning over Betty Lou, and Cyrus should be flirted with constantly. I suspect the times didn’t allow this. However, by focusing so much on the question of will they or won’t they, a key character gets lost. I refer of course to Adela Van Norman (Jacqueline Gadsden), the woman Cyrus may or may not intend to marry at the beginning of the film (the movie only tells us of her interest in tying the knot with him), and if we think about it, most of us are a lot more like her than Betty Lou. Adela has known and stood by Cyrus for most of his life, and she has grown fond of him. But she’s traditional and safe. She would never think of throwing herself at Cyrus or making him jealous by dating his best friend. She’s the kind of people whom men often overlook in pursuit of what’s exciting and new. However, isn’t that the type that we often look back on as the one that got away? (on DVD)

3 stars

*The DVD of It that I watched was released by a company called Mr. FAT-W Video. Other than slight cropping during the opening credits, the quality is quite good, and I have no hesitation recommending it.

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