While the enticement of a pre-Code 1932 pairing of Marion Davies and Clark Gable does indeed seem – to quote the confectionery hucksters – lip-smacking good, the ultimate result is a bit disappointing.
That said, there's certainly reason enough to view POLLY OF THE CIRCUS – a recent addition to the DVD-R manufactured-on-demand Warner Archive Collection, but do so with a mild warning: specifically that all pre-Code movies aren't necessarily classics – nor are they chock full of deliciously risqué situations.
Of course, the premise is perfectly honky-dory: wise-cracking big top aerialist turns small-town bigots upside down when she sets her cap for the local reverend...and ends up marrying him…going all straight and narrow at the forfeit of a personality. And therein lay the rub. Pre-Code movies should never be righteous – at least not blatantly. In short, you know there's a problem when the best stuff in the pic happens sans the participation of male lead Gable.
The opening chronicling the traveling carny’s train ride to the next stuck-up burg brims with a plethora of P.I.P.C.s (politically-incorrect/pre-Code-isms). As they pull past the local billboards heralding their arrival, Davies and Co. are aghast at what they see: someone has taken to censoring Polly's scant skin-tight black leotard billboard – pinning a giant pair of bloomers over the good parts. This proves to be too much for the rightfully-proud-of-her-bod woman – who ditches her associates and moves in for the kill – determined to give the town council’s City Beautiful League a piece of her mind.
Not surprisingly, the segments revolving around the circus and its dubious inhabitants comprise the highlights of the movie. Polly gabbing 'n' crabbin' with fellow “Say Girl” frenemy Mitzi (Ruth Selwyn) is pure pre-Code gold. The primo moment comes, however, when trash-talking midget Little Billy likens the high-wire artiste's formidable rear end to that of the elephant's. As these few minutes gloriously unfurled, I sat there wringing my hands with glee in joyous “Oh, boy!” anticipation.
Alas it's here where, like those offending bloomers – the action goes south. When an occupational hazard forces Polly to convalesce in the conservative rural hamlet of Oronta, she becomes enamored of Gable's Reverend Hartley, a struggling new clergyman so impoverished he can't even afford the trademark mustache that will soon help make him a household name. Why such a spontaneous and adventurous babe as Davies would cave for the dull rube is beyond me but, apparently Polly wants a cracker. From here on in, it's rough going as the young lovers fight the town, have their ups and downs – and eventually make the locals go mega-Christian on everybody (how non pre-Code)...all without any DeMille-ish orgies...or even one lion chow down.
Nevertheless, there are some incredibly inane/demented trappings that could only have flourished in the Forbidden Hollywood era – like, for example, Gable having an accused rapist (Raymond Hatton) working in his employ as a handyman. Not a smart move when you're about to bus a sexy, young housewife into your abode. Then there's Mitzi’s feigning recognition of Polly in her near non-existent togs: “I didn't notice you with your pants off.” But these snippets are few and far between.
Most of this blame falls squarely upon the prudent shoulders of notorious square prude William Randolph Hearst – Davies' infamous lover, who spearheaded her movie career. His ridiculous demand that she be as virginal as possible – that all her vehicles be jam-packed with family values is nothing more than a bid for artificial respectability. The picture's credits herald that it's an MD (Marion Davies) Production – nowhere near the Hippocratic Oath that the initials suggest, but rather the Hypocritical Oath of its off-camera brazen faux morality-playing adulterers. And that treacly holier-than-thou fake veneer permeates the last two-thirds of the picture.
This is all doubly sad, as Davies was an expert comedienne and a decent actress – and should have genuinely shined in the SG(*) world. It's also strange that she's one of the few actresses to have little chemistry with Gable (perhaps the only one), even though they reunited in 1936 for the so-so comedy romance Cain and Mabel.
Aside from Hearst, there's the sourcework itself: a 1907 play by Margaret Mayo – no doubt the cause for many a then-contemporary face to end up on that barroom floor (the property was first filmed by Goldwyn in 1917, presumably a more apropos version, indicative of its times). I suspect more than a couple of juicy tidbits in Carey Wilson’s adaptation and Laurence E. Johnson’s dialogue were left in the editing room. The picture looks as if it was severely tampered with – key being this major production's 69-minute running time, a telltale sign of something gone wrong.
Finally, there's the direction of Alfred Santell – kind of the poster child for the word 'uninspired.' Or perhaps, in this case, he too was hampered by Hearst. The cinematography is by the great George Barnes, but the 35MM elements – in dire need of a restoration they're likely to never receive – tend to lean on the dark side. Barnes does manage some innovative techniques, such as slo-mo for the opening trapeze sequences and a makeshift zoom effect. Also unusual for movies of this time is the almost wall-to-wall score by composer Dr. William Axt. The supporting cast runs the age gamut from C. Aubrey Smith at his most stickiest-in-the-mud ever to an unbilled Ray Milland, who can't seem to stay out of my columns lately.
Pre-Code collectors are probably going to want this regardless – ditto fans of the stars – although newbies might be better advised to check out early Gable in...well, anything else; those curious about Davies should clamp their mitts around King Vidor's 1927 hoot Show People, a hilarious lampoon at the movie business and undoubtedly the actress' finest time in the sun.
(*) – Say Girl
POLLY OF THE CIRCUS. Black and White. Full frame [1.37:1]; Mono audio. DVD-R manufactured on demand. SRP: $19.95.