Monday, December 10, 2012

Thumbnail Reviews: A Lyle Talbot Double Feature

We've been on a bit of a Lyle Talbot kick here at the Monkey lately, reviewing (and recommending) his daughter Margaret's very fine book The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father's Twentieth Century, and driving down to the AFI-Silver last weekend to see Three on a Match, the best of Talbot's pre-Code movies.

With another Lyle Talbot double feature on tap this weekend, Katie-Bar-The-Door and I returned to the AFI, this time for a pair of films in which he co-starred with the great Barbara Stanwyck.

The Purchase Price was the second of three movies Talbot made for director Wild Bill Wellman, who as much as anybody championed Talbot's early career in Hollywood. In this one, Talbot is a bootlegger who has been "playing house" with nightclub chanteuse Stanwyck. She's had enough, he hasn't, and with his hired underlings hot on her trail, she hides out by selling herself as a mail-order bride. When she gets off the train in North Dakota or Wyoming or wherever, she finds farmer George Brent waiting for her, and bang-o, they're married. Only they get off on the wrong foot and even though she's soon enough eager to climb into his bed, Brent spends all his time sleeping on the floor.

Complications ensue in the form of snow, sleazy bank managers and a randy local string-puller who proves that no matter how small the pond is, there's always a bigger fish eager to eat the small fry.

With plenty of Wellmanesque touches—drunks, rough humor, and fist fights—it's all fun enough and fast enough to smooth over the abrupt about-faces in character motivations this 68-minute Warner Brothers feature treats us to.

Less comprehensible are Stanwyck's feelings in the bottom half of the double bill, Ladies They Talk About.

The story is simple enough. Stanwyck gets caught helping boyfriend Lyle pull a bank job and winds up serving two-to-five in San Quentin, but the twists and turns in the subsequent love story—"I love you I hate you I love you I shot you let's get married!"—happen so fast and for no apparent reason that even filmgoers as forgiving as Katie and I found ourselves looking at each other in bemused befuddlement.

Warner movies of this era were very short, typically clocking in around 65 minutes and moving at such a breakneck pace that even studio executives worried they were shortchanging their audience. In this case, co-directors Howard Bretherton and William Keighley stripped away every ounce of context and exposition, leaving nothing for the audience to hang its emotional hat on. Add in a women's prison that's more fun than a college sorority house and the goofiest prison break in movie history and you've got yourself a drama that inadvertently veers into camp.

Of the two films, The Purchase Price is the better showcase for Lyle Talbot's talents. For a would-be gangster/stalker, he's friendly, forgiving and generous to a fault, and quite frankly, I thought he was a better match for Stanwyck than George Brent was. Pity Wellman didn't think to swap the roles, but this was only Talbot's third movie at Warners and Brent was the more established of the two.

That's the way it always seemed to go in Talbot's career—a missed chance here, a bit of typecasting there, and his star was falling almost before it had had a chance to rise. The road to journeyman actor is inevitably paved with coulda shoulda woulda's. But hey, he worked with Barbara Stanwyck, not once but twice. That puts him way up on the rest of us.


Jan Willis said...

Great column on Talbot & Stanwyck!

They actually worked together three times.
Add 1934's A Lost Lady to the mix.

Mythical Monkey said...

Hey, you're right! A new movie to track down and see.

FFNA said...

He'll always be "Joe Randolph" to me!

Mythical Monkey said...

He'll always be "Joe Randolph" to me!

You know, somebody was saying that to me at lunch just the other day!

By the way, I looked up the acronym "FFNA" -- "former friend, now acquaintance." Rest assured, a pal of the Monkey is a pal for life, it's just that those pals inevitably cotton onto the fact that the Monkey is a jackass and stop talking to him.

There should be an acronym for that ...

FFNA said...

Sorry MM, FFNA is for Former Federal Narcotics Agent; and classic movie enthusiast, as well. Very much enjoy your commentary.

Mythical Monkey said...

Ah, even better -- I hate to think of any of my friends as being former ones!