I was half-fixin’ to do a post on this delightful discovery already, but kindred spirit Farran Nehme‘s endorsement of the film this morning sealed the deal. I caught Blondie of the Follies on Criterion’s streaming platform last weekend; it will be up through the end of the month. It was mighty enjoyable, which is why I take the trouble to alert you.
Like so many Pre-Code movies, Blondie of the Follies is a potential classic that has lain ignored for nearly a century because of the Puritanical standards of both the film and television industries, dealing as it does with issues of pre-marital and extra-marital sex. But nothing should prevent it from being widely watched NOW, at least by classic film buffs. It is a perfect STORM of talent, the main reason I wanted to share it with you today.
Co-written by Anita Loos and Frances Marion, this scintillating tale concerns a couple of New York tenement girls who yield to the temptation to get into the fast lane to escape their bleak impoverished lives. The title and the theme remind us that in happier days, a decade earlier, Loos had given the world Polly of the Follies and then Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. (Though the comic strip Blondie debuted three years earlier, it is unrelated). Now, in the depths of the Great Depression, the impulse seems less satirical, more sympathetic, much as in Gold Diggers of 1933, released the following year. That the girls are played by Marion Davies and Billie Dove, appealing but aging silent stars and Ziegfeld Follies veterans, adds a layer of poignant symbolism to the act, as does the fact that Davies had her own famous sugar daddy William Randolph Hearst. (This was Dove’s last movie. Davies would remain in films for five more years).
Dove’s character runs away and joins the Follies, here not specifically identified with Ziegfeld; since Ziegfeld stole the Follies brand himself he couldn’t very well sue anyone over it. She then proceeds to become a kept woman to a Wall Street millionaire, living in high penthouse style. Davies (Blondie, of course) follows her up the ladder, or down the chute, if you prefer. They both love good looking young millionaire Robert Montgomery, though for a time, Davies truly swallows her pride and shacks up with the loathsome creep Douglass Dumbrille. Like any good soap opera of this kind, there is a crippling injury, and then a deus ex machina happy ending.
The rest of the dream cast: James Gleason plays Davies’ stern but loving father; ZaSu Pitts is her older sister; Sidney Toler (best known as Charlie Chan) is her lazy brother-in-law; and stage vet Sarah Padden is her mother. Louise Carter, who played W.C. Fields’ wife in You’re Telling Me! (1934), is Dove’s mother.
There are several welcome scenes depicting theatrical production numbers and show biz parties that allow us to see the REAL Marion Davies, the one reputed to have been so entertaining at San Simeon (e.g., at one point she cuts up with Jimmy Durante, and does her Greta Garbo imitation). Former silent comedian Clyde Cook plays a dancer, and there are also European sensations The Rocky Twins, as well as familiar faces such as Billy Gilbert, Oscar Apfel, and Wilbur Mack (whom we’ll be writing about here in a week) in small parts.
Edmund Goulding directed this picture and Grand Hotel in the same year! He achieves a terrifically realistic ensemble tone in this movie; countless quiet and subtle moments seem semi-improvised they ring so true.
Catch it! It’s up on Criterion through July 31.
To learn more about show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic film, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.