Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Billy & Joan, tailor made... Spring Fever (1927) & West Point (1928)

I’m off to see The Tailor Made Man at London’s Arts Theatre for the second time - not used to seeing musicals at all let alone more than once…it really is that good and you should go see it! So, time to put in some more “revision” on the main character: Mr William Haines one of Hollywood’s most likeable and brilliantly self-less performers.

These two light comedies were made back-to-back around the turn of 1928 and were both directed by Edward Sedgwick as vehicles for William Haines and rising co-star Joan Crawford.

Comedy shorts
Spring Fever is the clear winner with a stronger story line, more golf, wittier inter-titles and considerably more Joan than West Point. The latter film is more formulaic with Billy as the wise-cracking recruit-to-hero in military setting he was forced to play a number of times… interesting type-casting, not just given Haines’ sexuality but also the pre-occupations of the times. The US was not at war and yet it felt the need to press the importance of its military and its discipline.

Spring Fever is freed of this agenda and is a more straight-ahead hetero love story with wayward Billy being forced to submit to honest self-discipline to earn Joan’s love.

He works in a factory as under-ambitious shipping clerk, Jack Kelly, a live-for-the-moment guy who enjoys taking the mick out of his grumpy boss Mr Waters (the marvellously expressive George Fawcett) but who none-the-less keeps an eye out for his old pop (Bert Woodruff).

George Fawcett and William Haines
There’s a great sequence when Kelly walks behind his boss mimicking his every move as he grumps his way across the shop floor. Haines is just so relaxed and free in his expression; he even pinches the derrière of a male co-worker en route – out and proud!

Jack and Mr Waters share one passion in common and that is for golf, “…invented by the Dutch in an effort to make the Scotch forget bagpipes…” Jack earns time at the local golf club as a reward for teaching Mr Waters some superior technique: it’s his big break and he intends to make the most of it.

The club...
But Jack is smitten when he comes across socialite Allie Monte (Crawford) who just happens to be dating the club pro Johnson (Edward Earle). Initially unimpressed with Jack’s bluster – and his back swing at her backside – “I’ve never hit anyone on the links before…” - Allie is soon won over by his way with golf instruction.

Allie meets Jack
Jack breaks the course record and resolves to “marry for money” to secure his future. In a convoluted twist he ends up marrying Allie as she is now without her fortune, her father having lost everything… It’s one of the first decent things he’s done but Allie re-buffs his charity once she finds out.

It’s a slightly unusual structure but one that, sure enough, will give the hero another chance and one involving a golfing dénouement intrinsically linked to his romantic fortunes!

Crawford and Haines have a real rapport and his spark and her intelligence make for a winning combination of unparalleled acting energy!

Tailor Made Man makes a lot of the Marion Davies link but they could have included Ms Crawford as well – she made five silent films with Haines and was a life-long friend. Then again,  a take on Davies is one thing but Crawford has a whole lot more reputational baggage – it would be nice though to see this wide-eyed young woman reclaimed from some of the perceptions of her over-wrought later period.

Joan the, young, woman
If Sedgwick was trying to repeat the actors’ chemistry in West Point he didn’t succeed …it’s a well-made but formulaic film and there’s less logic at the heart of the story. Know-all boy meets sweet girl, then meets the army and things just meander towards a some-what forced dramatic climax which echoes Haines’ break through role in Brown of Harvard.

Haines plays Brice Wayne a playful and frankly cocky young man who isn’t about to let military service interfere with his sense of humour.

The man of a few faces...
It starts well enough on the ferry to West Point, Brice convinces some fellow recruits that he’s an officer and Haines improvises a hilarious dental inspection. Brice then tries to ingratiate himself with a pretty fellow passenger, Betty Channing (Crawford), by pretending to be blind…funnier than it sounds.

Betty turns out to be the daughter of an inn-keeper providing accommodation for recruits…had to work a female role in there somewhere.

In Haines’ earlier military vehicle, Tell it to the Marines (1926) Eleanor Boardman’s nurse was attached to the unit whilst there was also the strong lead offered by Lon Chaney who anchored the story and enabled Haines to bounce off at will.

William Haines and William Bakewell
Here we get 'Tex' McNeil, Brice’s best buddy (played by William Bakewell) who is not as butch as his name would suggest and who appears to have as much of a crush on him as Betty – is this a deliberate sub-text?

Whilst it’s love at first sight for Tex, Betty’s not immediately impressed with the cut of Brice’s jib but we soon see that he’s not as selfish as he makes himself out to be - secretly paying off a fellow recruit’s debt.

There's obviously something about a man in uniform...
But as Brice continues to kick against the imposition of Corps discipline, his sporting super-power is revealed to be football. But his success only serves to make his head swell further and to drive a wedge between Brice and his comrades.

Eventually something has to give and Brice is kicked out of the team and also resolves to resign his commission… he doesn’t feel part of the Corps and the Corps is pretty much in agreement.

It is only the intervention of the loyal Tex which persuades them to give him one more chance…It’s the big Army vs. Navy game: can Brice redeem himself and win the hearts of his comrades as well as the disaffected Betty?

The Big Game
West Point has its moments and Haines is good as per usual but things are a bit rushed and lacking in dramatic tension!

Both films are available from Warner Archives and Spring Fever in particular is worth seeking out. The print isn’t as good as West Point but is mostly decent: who wouldn’t want to play a round of “Fours” with Joan Crawford and William Haines.

The Tailor Made Man continues at the Arts Theatre until 8th April – go if you get the chance: hopefully it’ll soon get an extended run on Shaftsbury Avenue or maybe even Broadway! It deserves the chance not least for helping us remember the remarkable William Haines!

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