May 3, 2016
The light comedy The Man and the Moment (1929) was considered lost until a dupe negative was recently discovered at Cineteca Italiana di Milano. This part-talkie from First National Pictures was restored in 2K by Warner Bros. at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in Bologna, and was released on Warner Archive DVD last month. A charming proto-screwball comedy, it’s about a marriage of convenience between a rich playboy and an impetuous adventuress that ends up destroying planes, boats and nightclub aquariums. Made during the transition to sound, it exemplifies the stereotype of that era’s stiff, static line readings. It has snap and vigor in the silent sequences, and grinds to a halt for dialogue. This is not aided by leading man Rod la Rocque, who is a debonair charmer in the silent sequences and a wooden statue during dialogue. His co-star Billie Love is more of a natural, and she waltzes away with the film.
Adapted from an Elinor Glyn best-seller, The Man and the Moment finds Jane (Billie Love) and Michael (La Rocque) at a personal impasse. Jane has a passion for flying, but her strict guardian forbids her to continue her training in the air. Michael, a rich bachelor, is being blackmailed into marriage by the slinky Viola (Gwen Lee). They meet when Jane crash lands her plane into one of Michael’s “Polo Boats” (he plays polo with sea crafts rather than horses – as he is super rich and super bored). They realize that they can solve both of their problems with a quickie marriage. Jane will gain independence from her guardian and Michael can undermine Viola’s scheme. So together they agree to wed, with the understanding it is purely a business arrangement, and that they will divorce soon after. Nothing goes as planned, of course, as Michael instantly falls in love with Jane, and Jane skedaddles, sick of his advances. Jane ends up at Viola’s house, where the various strands of the plot converge and tangle in a wildly convoluted finale.
Variety wrote that director George Fitzmaurice, “has diluted the Glyn molasses so that the screen version avoids most of the love licorice and dwells on the comedy situations.” Agnes Christine Johnston adapted the story into a script, while the spoken dialogue is credited to Paul Perez. The inter-titles set the tone of the decadent milieu, one reads that Michael’s yacht was “lit by electricity – the guests by noon.” Michael is introduced playing “boat polo”, driving a motorboat with a woman on the stern trying to hit a beach ball towards a goal. It looks insanely dangerous, and Fitzmaurice anchors a camera to the back of a speeding polo boat to emphasize the needless danger of the enterprise. The opening inter-title of the film states: “No person ever dashed their brains out playing Polo Boat – because no person with brains every played polo boat.” Michael is thus introduced as a self-destructive decadent frittering away his wealth on near-death experiences.
Jane is something more of a mystery. Johnston’s script cuts out any explanatory backstory, so what we are left with is a stuffy guardian (the status of her parents is unknown) and her love of flight. Despite this lack of characterization Billie Dove invests Jane with a winsome ebullience. She is fearsomely independent and lonesome because of it. Most of her identity is wrapped up in her plane. In one telling sequence she blows off Michael by manipulating elements of her plane, knocking him down with wing flaps and blowing him into the water with the engine. She feels strongest when in control of the machine. She loses control of herself when she is accepted into Viola’s circle, and is invited to an “Under the Sea”-themed party (from “8pm – Blotto”, per the invite), complete with giant human aquarium. There she tests out her flirtation skills against Viola’s (impossible, for Gwen Lee is a superb vamp, a sinuous haughty cigarette smoking machine aimed at rich bachelors), and ends up in the tank with a fellow inebriate. Michael can only get her out by smashing the whole thing to smithereens, depicted through the use of endearingly fake miniatures.
Michael and Jane’s jealousy is now destroying private property, and they need to work things out on their own. Unfortunately this means more dialogue, which Fitzmaurice and his team are ill-equipped to handle. The film’s audio was shot on Vitagraph disc, providing sound effects for the entire feature, and dialogue for a select few. The surviving source was re-cut for silent exhibition, and, as the stated before the feature, “some of the dialogue sequences were truncated. Inter-title cards in place of the missing footage have been inserted into the feature.” This means the inter-titles appear during the dialogue sequences, a disorienting necessity to maintain synchronization. Regardless, La Rocque is audibly uncomfortable with the dialogue, speaking in monotone as if reading the phone book. Fitzmaurice keeps the dialogue scenes almost exclusively in long, static two-shots, with no sound editing to massage the rhythm. I’ve always found the “static” early sound film to be a canard, as there was intense experimentation going on with the new sound technology at the time, audible in how Von Sternberg uses off-screen space in his contemporaneous film Thunderbolt (1929). But The Man and the Moment is just trying to get the sound-on-disc and move on as quickly as possible. Billie Dove comes off the best in the dialogue sequences, as she has an inviting, conversational tone. Though working with flimsy material, Dove conveys an appealingly clumsy flirtatiousness while La Rocque barely sounds present.
But even with the technical drawbacks, The Man in the Moment provides a diverting evening at the movies, mainly due to Billie Dove and some outrageous set-pieces. How much you enjoy it may depend on your enjoyment of late ’20s/early ’30s fantasies of wealth (I have a high tolerance). The New York Times reviewed it and wrote: “The Man and the Moment seems designed for those who do not think Mrs. Glyn’s plots fatuous; who like love in airplanes, in yachts and among the members of high society; who would prefer thinking themselves on the beach at Monte Carlo, and who believe that the Four Hundred go to cocktail parties in silk pajamas.” If you check off all those boxes like I do, do give The Man and the Moment a spin.