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"Alias Jimmy Valentine" is based on a popular stage play, which in turn was adapted from one of O. Henry's most famous stories. This film was already in production (as a silent) when MGM hastily added a few crude talkie sequences. All the major cast members were aware they would have to speak on screen eventually. This explains why Valentine's burly henchman, named "Red" in the original play, has been renamed "Swede" here; someone at MGM must have realised that the actor cast in this role (Karl Dane) would soon be typecast by his heavy Scandinavian accent. (A successful silent actor, Dane would tragically commit suicide during the early talkies era when his accent doomed him exclusively to Nordic roles.)
Charming rogue safecracker Jimmy Valentine (William Haines, in fine voice) has come to town, with his two accomplices Swede and Bill Avery, for the express purpose of heisting a payroll from bank president John Lane. But then Jimmy gets a look at fair Rose, the banker's daughter, and he falls instantly in love. (Leila Hyams is meltingly beautiful as Rose, but talkies would now reveal her hideous Noo Yawk accent. Unfortunately, despite Leila's incredible beauty, William Haines's performance completely fails to convey any interest in feminine charms. He handles his dialogue well, though.)
Changing his name to "Lee Randolph", Jimmy gets an honest job and sets out to woo this sweet Rose. There's a charming scene of the two of them together on a garden swing. Jimmy's henchmen are left to their own devices. When Avery pulls a robbery on his own, and gets shot dead in the attempt, Jimmy is more convinced than ever that he was right to reform. But now his past is catching up with him: a tough detective named Doyle (Lionel Barrymore, hamming shamelessly) has come to town, hunting Jimmy for past safecracking jobs.
Jimmy proposes to Rose: she accepts, and her dad offers "Lee Randolph" an executive job at the bank. It looks like Jimmy's new identity is safe. But, speaking of safes: Rose's little sister has toddled into the bank's airtight vault, and Rose's little brother Bobby has pushed shut the heavy door! It's got a time lock, so the innocent little brat will suffocate unless someone can crack open the safe. "Do something!" Rose pleads to Jimmy, with tears welling up in those meltingly beautiful blue (well, monochrome) eyes. Jimmy glances round, and he sees that detective Doyle has strolled into the bank. If Jimmy tries to rescue the little brat, he'll have to demonstrate his safecracking talents while Doyle is watching. What to do?
When this movie was made in 1928, O. Henry's original story was so well known that the "surprise" ending is obvious ... and that story is still quite popular today. The climactic safecracking scene in this film is fairly suspenseful, and would have been even better if it had been filmed silent. Most part-talkies are awkward, with their jumps in and out of silent-film grammar, and this film is one of the more awkward examples. In 1928, when movie audiences were eager to hear movies make noises, any sound effect or any audible dialogue (no matter how extraneous) was sure to boost a movie's box-office returns. Here, the talkie sequences are filled with unnecessary comments, crowd noises and "rhubarb", just to keep the soundtrack busy. During the safecracking climax, when one of the actors says "Be quiet!", I wanted to reply: "Right, you lot: be quiet!"
"Alias Jimmy Valentine" is a goodish film that would have been much better as a standard silent. Leila Hyams, with her ripe lips and golden-blonde hair and her gorgeous figure (shown off to excellent advantage in her costumes here, including an amazingly scanty skirt during the swinging scene), could have become a major star in the 1930s if only she'd invested in a few elocution lessons. In most of her early talking roles, she sounds as if she's got a mouthful of Brooklyn.
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