'Polly with a Past' is a frothy little comedy, dealing largely with subjects that nobody cares about any more. The chief interest of this film is that it stars Ina Claire, an actress who starred in many Broadway plays but made only a handful of films. Also at hand in a supporting role is Clifton Webb, whose career as a character actor in films of the 1950s has eclipsed his early silent-film career. (Webb was already a theatre name at this point, starring on Broadway at the time of the Equity strike in 1919.)
Ina Claire plays Polly Shannon, the demure daughter of a clergyman from East Gilead, Ohio. She has come east, hoping to study at a conservatory so she can become a concert singer. To pay her tuition, she takes a job as housemaid for the wealthy Van Ziles of Northampton, Long Island.
Rex Van Zile's chum is idle playboy Clay Cullum. He has a 'pash' for neighbour Myrtle Davis, daughter of a respectable family. But Myrtle has no time for pleasure-seeking. She's a do-gooder, who is only interested in saving fallen souls.
Rex Van Zile's other chum Harry Richardson cooks up a scheme to get Myrtle interested in Clay. The three lads persuade demure Polly to pass herself off as Paulette Baudy (geddit? 'bawdy'?), a notorious trollop from Paris. Polly, as Paulette, will vamp Clay, who will pretend to fall into the clutches of this scarlet harlot. If the plan works (some hope!), Myrtle will devote herself to rescuing Clay from the sinful clutches of Paulette. The payoff for all this is painfully obvious.
Ina Claire is quite pretty in her maid's uniform as Polly, and very convincing as the virginal small-town girl. When she glams up as the French ma'm'selle, she's much less convincing. In 1920, it was probably necessary for audiences to be informed that Polly's 'bad girl' act is all a pretense. By modern standards, this movie is so quaint it's painful. There is some excruciating Jazz Age slang in the inter titles, as when one character asserts that Polly is not a 'jitney Jezebel'. (A jitney was a coin-operated hire car.)
Clifton Webb's performance is so desultory that, from the evidence here, you would never know he was destined for big things. Ralph Graves is brash and virile, but to no great effect. The elaborate sets and photography are impressive. I'll rate this movie 2 points out of 10.
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