Thursday, 8 November 2012

Evelyn Brent talks! Interference (1928)

Evelyn Brent
In spite of compelling roles in some of the best films of the 20s, distinctive good looks and acting abilities way beyond many contemporaries, Evelyn Brent failed to sustain success. But, as with Louise Brooks, the fact that she failed to “stay a star” shouldn’t be held against her: she gave some memorable performances and we have the enduring brilliance of Underworld and others as testament to her considerable ability.

In the final analysis, Brent seems to have come to terms with her fall from grace well and taken a balanced view… Unlike Brooks she kept working into her middle years and made ends meet playing a succession of the “lady crook” roles that came to define her. And yet, she was capable of so much more as her sure-footed performance in the comedy drama Love ‘em and Leave ‘em showed as well as her conflicted revolutionary in The Last Command.

William Powell and Evelyn Bren
She seemed to be forever miscast in average films with even contemporary reviewers threatening to form a league to help get her better roles. Maybe she just didn’t fit any one stereotype sufficiently well enough… maybe her sexuality didn’t fit and certainly, she was badly managed by her second husband (who left her bankrupt). But every good film was followed by half a dozen middling ones…

She listed Interference as her favourite film alongside Underworld and it’s not hard to see why. Made a few months after her final von Sternberg feature – the lost film The DragnetInterference was Paramount’s first talkie.

Starring Clive Brook, Doris Kenyon and William Powell it was based on the stage play written by Harold Dearden and Roland Pertwee – a good idea for the fledgling medium for which dialogue suddenly had to be naturalistic in a way not always found on title cards.

Evelyn Brent... hatching a plot!
All had stage experience and it showed with Brent and Brooks being particularly impressive. Enunciation was vital given the primitive recording techniques and this could conflict with the performers' need to bring as much natural feeling as possible into their voices.

Powell is caught here struggling with an English accent and frequently intoning “Deb-or-rah!”. Overall he does well, which is more than can be said for Doris Kenyon who possibly needed stronger direction… she’s far too cautious and halting and you really struggle to understand just why Powell’s character might consider leaving Brent’s for her?

William Powell and Clive Brook
The director was Paramount’s head of special effects, J. Roy Pomeroy, who took his chance as one of the few to grasp sound technology early on and yet his was not a sure hand and his inflated wage demands soon saw him out. Throughout the film his actors are planted in firm positions with long sections of virtual stasis as dialogue is delivered into carefully positioned microphones…

Interestingly, the seven minute sequence following the murder at Deborah’s apartment, features fast-flowing, silent film direction and succeeds in telling the story with far more eloquence than the talking sections… film was 30 but sound was just a newborn, still toddling around carefully placed microphones… There are quick entries and exits of Philip followed by Dr John who attempts to cover up for Faith who he thinks is the killer…

Lothar Mendes, listed as “Co-director”, was actually the director of the silent version and it is from him that many of these more deft touches came.

"...every morning Sir John will get a postcard and they’ll be blank… just as long as you behave…”
Interference is a story of a love quadrangle, based in upper middle class Britain after the Great War… Powell plays one Philip Voaze who was reportedly killed in action. He survived and has assumed a new identity, Julian Akroyd, but is spied at a memorial service for the war dead by his former lover Deborah Kent (Brent) who pursues him back to his apartment only to find that he wants to forget his old life with her and to make a fresh start.

The two have history and Deborah has always resented the woman Philip left her for, Faith (Kenyon) who is now happily married to an up and coming surgeon, Sir John (did they do that on purpose?!) Marlay. As a way of exacting revenge Deborah decides to blackmail Fiona knowing that any scandal might burst Sir John’s career bubble. She confronts Faith and threatens to release love letters sent from Faith to Philip to the press. She takes great pleasure in telling her that she is only asking for payment as a way of showing who has the upper hand. It’s cruel... but Brent is so much the superior actor you find yourself trying to excuse her behaviour.

“Oh, Faith… sui-cide is such a foolish way out!”
But all is not so simple… Faith crumbles like a balsa wood deckchair in a mild breeze but her husband is made of sterner stuff. The real complication comes from Philip who is seriously ill. He seeks out Sir John in an attempt to find a diagnosis and cure but, before he can see the doctor, Faith arrives to find him. Stunned at finding him alive she quickly assumes that he as part of Deborah’s plot…

Faith leaves and her husband tells Philip that he has very little long-term future. His aorta has been fatally weakened and unless he curbs his lifestyle and takes it very easy then he could die at any moment. He resolves to use his time well…

Clive Brook
Deborah continues to apply pressure to Faith but she cannot meet the requested payments… Then Sir John finds out about the blackmail and resolves to sort the issue out in his own way… All the protagonists are about to converge on Deborah’s apartment in a final conflagration…

Brent wears a succession of stunning outfits and is frequently seen draped over chez lounges with intent… she acts the others off the screen and obviously had no problem with the transition from silent to sound.

Years in theatre both in the UK as well as the US no doubt helped but she also had the timing and subtlety that screen acting required… She was intelligent enough to listen and learn from the likes of John Barrymore (with whom she worked on Raffles the Amateur Cracksman in 1917) who told her to smile with her eyes and not to be too expressive.

“Deb-or-rah!”
She also learnt from Tod Browning on a few films in the early 20’s… he worked from dialogue, unlike most silent directors and this struck a particularly resonant chord. Pointing out that Brent makes a magnificent baddie, is about as insightful as saying Garbo makes a great lover… but her intelligence and forceful nature made her perfectly suited to being a “lady crook”. And Josef von Sternberg brought this potential to full bloom.

Here she plays another anti-hero but one who has depth: she genuinely loves Philip and her revenge is tempered by the desire to make her peace and her life with him. As with her twists and turns in The Last Command she handles these emotional transitions really well… those determined eyes, the unmistakable intelligence, the sad realisation that she may never get these chances again…

And, sadly, in career terms she wasn’t able to sustain this kind of platform for her talent. But, what she left us is more than enough to prove that she was one of the very finest actors of the age. She made it and was able to come through the other side with grace and humility, finding friendship and happiness in the end.

Betty and Bill
Interference is bizarrely a “hard to find” movie, although it is available in so-so quality on YouTube. It deserves to be seen more widely and in good quality on DVD not least because of the important milestone it was in the development of the talking film but also because it’s one of Evelyn Brent’s best performances – one that proved she could act and talk at the same time!

Post script: I've recently completed Evelyn Brent: the Life and Times of Hollywood's Lady Crook by Lynn Kear with James King (foreward by Mr Kevin Brownlow).

It is excellently researched with an especially impressive filmography, covering all of Eveyn's movies from 1914 to 1950.

They have done a good job of telling the tale of this talented and courageous woman, steering an objective course through the conflicting contemporary PR. In spite of a disastrous husband or two, studio incompetence, bigotry and plain bad luck, you get the feeling that her career would always have been fitful... she just wasn't made for those times... But enough film-makers of quality were around to give her the chance to shine brightly.

It's available from Amazon. A recommended read paying tribute to one of the best actresses in Hollywood: ever!



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