No Limit (1931)
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Clara plays a naive movie theater "usherette" nicknamed Bunny who is persuaded to look after an apartment in a ritzy building, unaware that the place is an illegal gambling joint. (For a New Yorker, Bunny is a bit slow on the uptake.) She also gets involved with one of the gamblers, a real sleaze-ball who takes advantage of her, and she's slow to react in this situation, too. It takes way too long for our leading lady to wake up and smell the coffee, and meanwhile we lose patience with her. There's nothing wrong with Bow herself as a star of talkies: her voice was fine, and she delivers her lines with a natural quality that comes off better than some of the other players' painfully precise elocution. She's energetic and charming, and carries this film with ease, but like John Gilbert she had to deal with second-rate material cobbled together by screenwriters who were themselves still struggling to master the new medium. Listen to all the love talk she and the leading man have to deliver and you may be reminded of Gilbert's infamous "My darling I love you, I love you" speeches in His Glorious Night, lines that made audiences hoot with laughter. Who could recite this stuff without sounding foolish? It's impressive that Clara plays her part with such conviction, no matter how silly things get, and emerges with her dignity intact.
The opening sequence is the highlight. Clara and her girlfriend (played by Dixie Lee, Bing Crosby's first wife) are working girls struggling to get to their jobs on time. There are some good location shots of a New York tenement neighborhood as the girls rush outside to the elevated train. (Is this the Sixth Avenue El? or were they filming in Clara's birthplace, Brooklyn?) Next there's a funny sequence on the train, significantly played in silence. Clara's eyes are more eloquent than any of the lines she's required to speak. It's a promising intro, but all too soon Bunny and the other characters are required to behave in ways that aren't credible for a second. Bow is clearly smarter than the woman she's playing, and the most dismaying aspect is that she becomes such a doormat to the aforementioned crook who blatantly uses her for sex, and who actually admits this to her face -- but darn it, she can't help loving the mug anyhow. (Clara's boyfriend is played by Norman Foster, an actor who turned director a few years later.) Even the crook's highly unconvincing eleventh hour conversion to goodness can't overcome the high yuck factor of this relationship. Add Stu Erwin's caricature of a moronic Swedish sailor, and Harry Green as the Jewish Guy Who Mangles English, and you've got all the ingredients for a pretty dismal experience. Pre-Code buffs may want to see No Limit despite its deficiencies, and for fans of Miss Bow it's a must, but it's not likely to satisfy the average viewer.
P.S. For those with an interest in slang there's a notable moment in this film. In an early scene Bunny the usherette arrives late at the theater, prompting one of her co-workers to make a sarcastic remark, something along the lines of: "Well Bunny you're always on time for workNOT!" The phrase is a little startling for anyone under the impression that negating a sentence by ending it with "NOT!" came along much later. The things you learn from old movies!
What exists of the slim, staticky drama is the tale of a movie usherette (Bow) who happens to become involved with Norman Foster, the owner of a gambling house and overhears his involvement in a crime. In between are moments between the various characters which do not move the plot along at all. The most interesting elements of this pre-code drama is some of the New York location photography (particularly a shot of an elevated subway train) and the one scene where Bow stands frantically in the background as she realizes the truth about Foster. Comic great Stuart Erwin is wasted in a romantic buffoon part, while Dixie Lee (the first Mrs. Bing Crosby) and Thelma Todd play stereotypical depression era tough girls. Without Clara, this would be a total bomb.