Monday, March 28, 2011

His Picture in the Papers (1916)

Douglas Fairbanks as Pete Prindle, looking for his name in the paper. It isn't there.

I generally find that I know more or less what to expect from a film before I see it. I may not know if I will like it or not, although I usually have a pretty good idea of that too, but seldom does a film surprise me as much as this one did. His Picture in the Papers is clever and original (what movie wasn't at least a little original in 1916?); it is quirky, unpredictable, and utterly charming, a tale of love, advertising, and vegetarian cooking. What more could you ask?

Douglas Fairbanks stars as Pete Prindle, the slacker son of Proteus Prindle, producer of Prindle's 27 Vegetarian Varieties (28 and 29 are Pete's portly sisters, said to be a triumph for the vegetarian diet, presumably as living proof that it can in fact nourish such bulk as theirs). Pete falls for Christine, the daughter of his father's friend, also a proponent of Prindle's Products. Christine, like Pete, pretends to toe the line to please her father, when in fact what they both crave is a nice big steak. It's hard to ignore the Freudian overtones here, especially when confronted with title cards saying things like, "In which it is presented that beefsteak produces a very different sort of lovemaking than prunes." Indeed.

Raised on Prindle's Products. Sure.
Everything seems to be going well, until both their fathers refuse to allow the pair to wed until Pete has proven that he can make something of himself. They're not setting the bar too high, mind you. He doesn't have to run a successful company or even show up to work on time--all he needs do is get his picture in the paper. Any paper. For any reason.

Out into the world goes Pete, determined to make a splash. "I am Peter Prindle, son of Proteus Prindle. I was raised on Prindle's Products, and here is my photograph," he greets the man who rescues him after he "accidentally" drives his car off a cliff. He wrestles a goat, gallops across town bareback, and climbs up the facade of a three story building. These aren't publicity stunts, they're just things that happen along the way. He also wins a boxing match, and swims ashore from an ocean liner bound for Vera Cruz, only to be arrested for public indecency (he was wearing pajamas).

After all his planning, though, his great opportunity for fame comes quite by accident. A group of gangsters tries to derail the very train Christine's father is traveling on, intent on wrecking it into a freight car sitting on an adjacent track. The freight car is carrying, you guessed it, Prindle's Products. Pete must utilize the contents of this car, "Prindle's Prohibition Punch," to beat up the gangsters and foil their evil plan, saving the lives of hundreds of people on the train, including the father of his beloved.

More supporters of Prindle's Products.

Did writer/director John Emerson and co-writer Anita Loos intend this film to be a satire of the pervasiveness of advertising in early twentieth century America? It certainly seems so. Ads for Prindle's Products are everywhere, on the foods the family eats, on the walls of Pete's office. Pete is never simply Pete Prindle, he is "Pete Prindle, raised on Prindle's Products." Even the ever-present alliteration of the title cards recalls the jauntiness of advertising slogans. If man is defined by his relationship to commercial goods, then successful advertising--fame at any cost--must be the ultimate measurement of success. But Pete rejects these standards. Remember, he doesn't actually eat Prindle's Products, he just pretends to. Thus it is only natural that all his attempts at publicity end in failure. He is at heart a phony. In fact, his triumph at the end of the film can be seen as a subversion of this commercial ideology. He is able to defeat the evil gangsters (symbolic of the degradation of the human spirit in an over-commercialized society, perhaps?) not by drinking Prindle's Prohibition Punch, but by destroying it.

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