Sunday, 9 August 2015

Home Counties on the range… The Squaw Man (1931)

“I think it is terribly dangerous for him to ever take her in his arms or touch her deliberately… any physical contact must be legitimately for a purpose – like helping her off with some wet things.” So wrote co-scriptwriter, Lenore J. Coffee to her director Cecil B. DeMille.

This was DeMille’s third go at Edwin Royle’s The Squaw Man following two silent versions in 1914 and 1918 and, if anything, the tale of inter-racial love was more sensitive in the early thirties. At least in 1914 the part of Nat-u-ritch was played by a Native American - Lillian St. Cyr (aka Red Wing) – on DeMille’s insistence but here in 1931 we were back to make up and Mexican María Guadalupe Villalobos Vélez took on the role.

Lupe vexed...
The Californian anti-miscegenation laws existed until 1948 but apparently relationships between whites and Native Americans was “more accepted” than other combinations. You can see the appeal for DeMille in this opportunity to plug into what biographer Scott Eyman refers to as the “duality” of the audience: “… its eagerness to vicariously experience the forbidden, while at the same time preserving a sense of respectability.”

Eleanor Boardman
But I’m not really here for Cecil but for Eleanor Boardman in sound. Wiki-parently Boardman was “unable to make the transition from silent to talking pictures” but I think the truth was more along the lines of her having better things to do: divorcing King Vidor, romancing then marrying Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast in Europe oh, and bringing up two daughters, Antonia born in 1927 and Belinda born in June, 1930 just a year before this film was a released. She and Vidor were to have a battle royal for custody which certainly hit him hard as Durgnat and Simmon contend in King Vidor, American and no doubt exhausted their mother just as much. She was also someone who her later interviews confirmed, wasn’t necessarily that bothered with her film career, proud though she was of The Crowd and surely several others.

On this showing, Boardman could do “talkie” and, indeed, she is as nuanced and eye-catching as ever; not as energetic and edgy as her co-star, Lupe Velez – ten years younger – but more controlled, expressing her various reversals of fortune in quietly-desperate ways: a better portrayal of natural “English” than Velez’s portrait of “native” American.

No doubt, had Eleanor wanted to carry on making movies for us then she could and would… but, as much as Norma Talmadge, she didn’t need us anymore and she probably thought the audience could do without too especially given the cruder tone of pre-code in which the next generation made their way in more revealing and overtly sexual ways… Lupe being one of course and in this film too…

The ruling class
The story starts in England as the idle rich gather for a weekend at the country pile of Henry, Earl of Kerhill (Paul Cavanagh) and his wife, Lady Diana Kerhill (Eleanor Boardman). Henry has been collecting funds for his regiment’s orphan fund along with his cousin James 'Jim' Wingate (Warner Baxter) but has “borrowed” £10,000 to invest in a scheme run by a pal; one that couldn’t fail but which now has.

Lord and Lady take a break
Henry and Diana’s sparring over snooker reveals a marriage under strain and when Jim arrives, the lights in Diana’s eyes tell us all we need to know. As the party progresses the excellent Roland Young throws in much humorous gravitas as Sir John 'Johnny' Applegate who sacrifices his pawn in the hope of beating Henry’s aunt at chess: ‘tis a foretaste!

There’s a nifty sequence as the camera shifts from Jim in the garden to Diana behind a window – emblematic for the silent star forced to mime behind the glass until being revealed in sound at the doorway. Diana and Jim are in love and as they wish by the well they come close to admitting it until and over-hearing Henry surprises them. The truth is out but Jim is too much of a man and Diana is too much of a woman to betray Henry.

Diana and Jim agree the "decent thing"
Meanwhile Henry’s “investment manager” has killed himself and that truth is also about to come out too. He takes his own gun but Jim prevents him and hatches a plan to save both Diana and Henry’s honour at the cost of his own… he will take the blame and leave for America.

Jim's sense of duty is overwhelming
Cut to the middle of nowhere and a dusty ranch near Buzzards Pass where local bully Cash Hawkins (the effortlessly aggressive Charles Bickford) wants to appropriate part of the land of a recently-arrived rancher from England… Jim faces off the threat even with the local Sheriff Bud Hardy (DeWitt Jennings) favouring Cash (in hand, no doubt).

Cash tries to intimidate Naturich
Cash is also pressurising a Native American, Tab-y-wana (Joseph Singleton…), for his land by pushing liquor into his hands in the hope he’ll get drunk enough to let go. Tab-y-wana’s daughter, Naturich (Lupe Vélez) intervenes only to become the focus of Cash’s interest but as the ranchers pulls her hair and pushes her against the bar Jim arrives and slaps him down.

That’s one save to the Englishman but Naturich soon returns the favour as Cash aims to ambush Jim whilst he drinks himself into a stupor after spotting a picture of Diana in the society pages… a good moment from DeMille as the camera pans round the newspaper and shows the source of Jim’s reaction. She shoots Cash before he can gun down Jim.

Cheers m'dear
Jim avoids arrest – it wasn’t his gun – but is shot from his horse by Cash’s men as her returns home. Naturich saves him (2-1!) and nurses him back to health… she’s infatuated and gradually Jim returns that interest. Folks are talking though, it’s just not done round these parts, and he attempts to send her back to the reservation only to find her crouched outside the house soaked to the skin in a storm…

Steamy... literally.
It’s now that DeMille is able to show that “physical contact” as Jim does indeed help “her off with some wet things…” in front of the fire as Velez shows off her bare shoulders and legs in one of those code-transgressing moments so popular at the time. The scene ends with Naturich leaning her head against Jim’s arm as he sits masterful on his chair… all “code” for far more.

So now, common law in the cabin, what lies in store for Jim and Naturich? The story cuts to eight years ahead after the arrival of a son… and events in England progress as well meaning that Jim’s past and present are about to collide in the most forceful of ways…

The Squaw Man has some interesting moments and good performances all round but it doesn’t quite add up to more than the sum of these parts.  Even DeMille later admitted that it was a bit slow and it is indeed far less pacey than the 1914 original which has a lot more action and dramatic impact.Then there is the toe-curling "native" dialogue and references to Naturich having a "primitive mind" - hey, maybe she just doesn't want to learn English even after eight years with gentleman Jim?

The two are available on Warner Archives DVD either direct or from Amazon. This one is worth watching for butch Baxter and lusty Lupez but for me, elegant Eleanor still excels them all.

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