Monday, April 11, 2011

Reaching for the Moon (1930)

Douglas Fairbanks as Larry Day in Reaching for the Moon
"The microphone is ruthlessly unkind to [Fairbanks]," wrote a New York Times critic in 1934, "Neither in voice nor theatrical skill is he gifted to read lines." Unfortunately, writer/director Edmund Goulding also didn't do him any favors, as this second Fairbanks talkie, Reaching for the Moon, thoroughly demonstrates. (Fairbanks himself wrote his next film, Mr. Robinson Crusoe. Sadly, it is even worse). On top of this, DVD distribution companies like his voice even less; the production quality of the Passport Video release of this film makes it all but unwatchable. Having sat through a 74 minute mess of blurry, jumpy picture and and audio that sounds like it was recorded in a railway tunnel, I find that while Fairbanks does nothing to save this shoddy script, neither do Bing Crosby or Bebe Daniels. The only truly memorable performance is given by Edward Everett Horton, a year or two before he found his true calling as Fred Astaire's perennial valet at RKO. I've heard a rumor that the art deco sets used for this film are magnificent, but I wouldn't know, as I've never seen them. Yes, the DVD is that bad.

We've all seen Singin' in the Rain. We know what happened to silent film stars in 1927. While a handful managed to navigate the transition successfully, the vast majority did not. Popular perception likes to claim it was silent stars' thick accents that did them in, but, Brooklyn-born Clara Bow notwithstanding, that's an oversimplification that hardly seems justified. One only has to look at the roster of European screen goddesses of the 30's and 40's to see that Garbo's thick Swedish accent was not a liability. Certainly her own glamor and mystique may have rubbed off on the accent itself, paving the way for the voices of Marlene Dietrich and Ingrid Bergman to captivate audiences on their own, but the fact remains: a talented actress with a heavy European accent could still sell tickets in the sound age. Plenty of them.

Fairbanks' voice is all-American, but it is thin and nasally, and generally unpleasant. Nothing a decent vocal coach couldn't have straightened out, really, but therein lies another hindrance to his sound age success: United Artists. Exactly who on the set was going to tell Fairbanks that he snorts like a hyena when he laughs, when he's the one signing the paychecks? Apparently no one, and that's a real shame. On the silent screen, his raucous laughter is all part of his boisterous good humor and boyish charm. In Reaching for the Moon, it's just obnoxious.

Fairbanks and Edward Everett Horton
As if this weren't enough, he was getting old. Fairbanks was 37 when he started making action movies in 1920; in Reaching for the Moon he was closing in on 50. That's not all that old, but it is old enough that a massive career change can seem daunting, to say the least. He'd already done it twice, when he moved from Broadway to Hollywood in 1915, and then again when he traded light-hearted comedies for big adventure films in the 20's. Here he is, back in the same sort of film roles he started with, only his heart is clearly not in it. His marriage was falling apart, his health was declining, and although his gymnastics skill seems as good as it ever was, he clearly had a lot on his mind apart from being funny. And of course, there was that business on Wall Street the year before.

Reaching for the Moon was dead before it hit the water, but even with an all-star dream cast it is hard to see how this script could have been salvaged. Fairbanks plays Larry Day, a Wall Street wizard who is too pure for his own good. He doesn't drink, date, wear cologne or stay out past nine o'clock. He does smoke like a chimney, but this one vice is hardly enough to compensate for a bowl of puritanism so thick the spoon breaks when you try to stir it up a little. Add to this mix Vivien Benton (Bebe Daniels), a beautiful young aviatrix who makes a bet with a friend that she can get him to go out with her. She is only interested because he's not, and he's only uninterested because it's past his bedtime. When he meets her the next day, he wants to lick her up, but by this time it's all a game to her, the object of which seems to be to find out how many times she can stand him up and make a fool of him before he realizes what she's up to.

Bebe Daniels and Bing Crosby
A quick setting change from Larry's New York office to an ocean liner bound for London, and play continues as before, only now Vivien's fiancé is added to the lineup. There are a few good scenes, most notably one where Larry's valet (Horton, naturally) instructs him in the art of love. It is genuinely funny, and a little bit of self indulgent comedy only makes it more endearing for fans. Roger the valet is rehearsing with Larry the scene he has scripted for Larry's coming date with Vivien. "Now you, in a manner peculiar to yourself, you must swing yourself lightly to her side," he instructs. Larry does, with an athletic vigor we all know and love, and nearly knocks Roger off the seat with the landing. "How's that?" he asks. "A trifle collegiate, perhaps, but you get the idea." Outside of a few moments of well written dialog like this, it's not funny, it's just pathetic. Bing Crosby makes his screen debut as a ship-board crooner, but for some reason--the world may never know--all but one of his songs were cut.

As if this weren't bad enough, come to find out all of this is happening in October of 1929, so when the ship arrives in London, Larry discovers that he--and the investors he represents--are dead broke. He is comforted in the knowledge that Vivien has at last come round to his way of thinking, and the pair leave to go start a new life together from scratch. I'm sure a Capra or a Chaplin could have made that ending poignant, but Goulding is neither, and it's just depressing.

I'd love to see a restored version, with the deleted scenes back in and decent picture and sound quality, just to see if maybe the shoddy DVD has made me treat this film unfairly. If Kino or Flicker Alley want to have a go, I'll bite, and I'll be happy to reopen negotiations, although I suspect my conclusions will be the same. Fairbanks' age, voice, and lackluster performance certainly don't help things any, but with a script like this for a foundation, he needed a lot more than vocal coaching to make Reaching for the Moon a success.

1 comment:

  1. I have a soft spot for this film, as it's one of the first early talkies that I viewed at the tender age of 11 (I'm 37, now), and my first exposure to Fairbanks' voice. Thus, aside from seeing him in The Mark of Zorro, I had no previous exposure to any of his other silent films to render the voice obnoxious by contrast with the effervescence that it appeared to convey silently, if that makes sense.

    I have read that a complete sepia print exIists at UCLA, and it would indeed be intriguing to see it released. The market for it, to be sure, would be miniscule, but to hear the excised musical numbers (that endeing couldn't have been that choppy originally) and see the DECO sets in their full glory--that would be amazing.

    Also, the song that plays over the opening credit--"Reaching for the Moon," is a beautiful waltz ballad. There are two versions on YouTube. I feel as though the brooding nature of it shows that this film had so much more potential.