Monday, May 15, 2006

BACK PAY (1930)

It's taken for granted today that the coming of sound films ruined many an actor's career. John Gilbert is the most notable example, though it has been argued in retrospect that the quality of his voice and his acting didn't have as much to do with his decline as a general desire on his studio's part to make a clean sweep of their starring slate. This movie, however, certainly serves as evidence that some actors were indeed unable to make the jump from silent style to sound style. Corrine Griffith made over 50 movies between 1916 and 1928, but her career faltered in sound movies; she only made a handful of them before retiring in 1932, and this was her next-to-last one. Her voice is OK (though unfortunately she is given one song at the very beginning of the film, and she performs it like it's sheer torture for her), but she gives a wooden and unappealing performance. She plays a small-town girl who, though still in love with her beau (unambitious department store accountant Grant Withers), is itching for something bigger, in part to get away from her frowzy, piggish relatives. When obnoxious salesman Hallam Cooley offers to take her off to the big city, she goes with him and soon moves through a string of men until she winds up comfortably kept by businessman Montagu Love. Years later, during a quick visit to her hometown, she runs into Withers again and they have a chat during which it becomes clear that there is still a spark between them. He goes off to war, gets gassed and goes blind, and returns home. Griffith, knowing Withers only has a few weeks to live, gets permission from her terribly understanding sugar daddy to marry him and take care of him during his last days. When he dies, he does it like Ali McGraw in LOVE STORY, looking quite healthy, as the Armistice is celebrated in the streets outside his window. Though the movie is bearable, it feels awfully long for its 55-minute running time. Griffith is only part of the problem; the narrative is not fleshed out very well. The most interesting scene in the movie juxtaposes Griffith and Love at a high society party with Withers suffering on the battlefield. The title comes from a line of hers at the party: "If the wages of sin is death, I've got a lot of back pay coming." The problem is that the movie never really shows her "sinning" or its consequences on her; she never looks dissolute or miserable, and when she marries Withers, it seems more like a slightly unpleasant job than a real sacrifice. No attempt is made at any kind of period atmosphere, so when WWI rolls around, it's startlingly out of the blue. Louise Beavers is quite chipper in a small role as Griffith's maid. [TCM]

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