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Nigel De Brulier
On board a train en route to Los Angeles, runaway bride Remember Steddon, believing now that she married in haste, abandons her husband, Owen Scudder, not knowing at the time that Scudder had previously married and murdered solely for money. Unprepared to be on her own, Mem, as she is known to her friends, accidentally stumbles across the outdoor set of a Hollywood movie directed by Frank Claymore. Mem is welcomed onto the set by the cast and crew. But as the shooting moves on, Mem decides to pursue other avenues, as she had been taught by her conservative parents that movie acting was a disreputable occupation. But needing work, Mem decides to try her hand at being an actress. This task is easier said than done, until she runs across Claymore again, he who is determined to make her a star. As her movie stardom does indeed rise, so does the admiration of adoration of legions, including her director Claymore, and her leading man Tom Holby. A further consequence of her stardom is that ... Written by
A truly enjoyable romp down Hollywood's memory lane comes to us courtesy, really, of Turner Classic Movies' "Young Film Composers Competition." The latest winner, Marcus Sjowall, was given the opportunity to provide a score to a silent film that had lost its own, and a very fine job Mr Sjowall did, too.
In 1923, Rupert Hughes directed this production of his eponymous novel. The scandals of the very early 1920s had evidently been on his mind, and Hughes wanted to counteract all that bad publicity. He acknowledges the scandals, then sets out to surmount them with title-card after title-card describing the long hours and hard work of Hollywood's employees, going so far at one point as to describe the work as "factory-hard," which must have been startling to young girls slaving away in sweatshops for pennies a day.
The story that conveys this message of virtuousness in Babylon concerns one Remember "Mem" Stodden, the daughter of a reverend who denounces Hollywood from his pulpit. Mem has married Owen Scudder in haste, but does not plan to repent at leisure--she hops from their train on the honeymoon trip. Stumbling through the desert, Mem collapses on the location set of a sheikh film (just as Eddie Cantor would do 14 years later, in "Ali Baba Goes to Town"), where she attracts the attention of the leading man. She shuns the film folk, though, and goes to work at a small hotel, but is laid off at the end of the season.
She decides to try her hand at the movies after all, and this begins perhaps the oddest part of the film. Successive scenes show movie people at work--directors, actors, cameramen, extras--and clearly this is Hughes at work, rehabilitating his coworkers. This is neither about the Glamour Factory nor an industry expose; it's more of a big infomercial for the movie business. It's fascinating to note which real-life stars are still recognizable today, and which prompt a confused, "Who??" Which isn't to say that Hughes doesn't get his digs in here and there. The vamp, the sheikh, the publicity shots that create a myth, the national screen sweetheart who's maybe just a little bit catty in real life--Hughes captures it all. My favorite set piece of this kind is Mem's screen test: she watches in the screening room in horror as she mugs and prances about on-screen, just as many silent actors of her era did: "Has anyone ever been so terrible on film"? Another nice one is Reverend Steddon's stunned reaction when he runs up to Mem on a circus picture set only to find a stunt man dressed in aerialist drag.
These scenes of Hollywood life are intercut with the travels of Owen Scudder, who is, it turns out, a wanted man, a Bluebeard who marries then kills. We see him court another victim, and later get very satisfactorily hoist with his own petard. Eventually, he reads about his wife's success, and comes to Hollywood to cash in.
This creates a kind of love rectangle, made up of Mem, her director, her leading man, and her no-good husband, all of which is satisfactorily settled in the dramatic closing scenes.
The film has had a lot of work done--many of its title cards seem to have gone missing, and the ones that are substituted often have modern-sounding phrasing, which led me to wonder if we were getting the same story as was originally told. The score is superb: evocative and subtle. The print is choppy; at one point a brief scene is inserted of one of Scudder's victims without context or explanation, and that can get a little disconcerting.
But it's an interesting film, funny and touching in many places, and a wonderful evocation of time and place.
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