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September 21, 2007

William Wyler and the Funny Girl

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The Love Trap
William Wyler - 1929

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Be Yourself
Thornton Freeland - 1930
both Kino Video Region 1 DVD

I found out by chance that there is a William Wyler blog-a-thon going on this weekend. It is purely by coincidence that my writing about these two films is at this time. My own feelings about Wyler change from film to film. I love Dodsworth and greatly enjoy The Good Fairy and Roman Holiday. The last time I attempted to watch Ben-Hur from beginning to end, I fell asleep during the much touted chariot race. Even less enjoyable is the over-long, over produced Funny Girl. As little as I like Funny Girl, that has not disuaded me from seeing other films by Wyler or even seeing one film starring the real funny girl, Fanny Brice.

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Seeing The Love Trap and Be Yourself close together is instructional in seeing two films made during the transitional period from silent films to talkies. In terms of narratives, if the cliches didn't start with these films, they weren't too old either. The Love Trap is about the chorus girl in love with the boy from the wealthy society family. Be Yourself is about a champion boxer and the manager-girlfriend who loves him. Anyone who’s seen more than three films from the early Thirties can pretty much guess the story arc. What may be of more interest than either narrative is seeing, and hearing, how two filmmakers take on the challenge of sound.

The Love Trap would seem the more awkward, starting out as a silent film with titles and a synchonized music score, more than halfway shifting to spoken dialogue. Wyler appears to have instinctively understood how to film people speaking without it looking stagey, cutting from full to medium shot. Even if there is less camera movement, the use of editing allows The Love Trap to flow rather than falter.

The Love Trap features Laura La Plante as an early version of that filmic archtype, the ditsy blonde. Thrown out from the chorus because she can't dance, La Plante temporarily plays party girl for the night before deciding she has her scruples, no matter that the rent is due. Escaping wearing a robe from what appears to be a compromising position, she finds her belongings out in the street. As if that's not enough, it rains that night. La Plante is rescued by wealthy young man Neil Hamilton. While happily married, La Plante's past comes to haunt her.

Even though the dialogue is spoken in a style more suitable for stage than screen, Wyler uses that as way way of underscoring the silliness of the story. La Plante, who I have never seen before, is fun to watch because of her ability to make a fool of herself, whether stumbling drunk or literally getting mud in her eye. It may also be that Wyler, who has had a reputation for being involved with some of his leading ladies, found The Love Trap a great excuse for filming Laura La Plante frequently in her lingerie. The Love Trap is everything that Ben-Hur is not - short, sexy and funny.

Be Yourself is primarily of interest for those who might want to have a glimpse of the real Fanny Brice. While her singing voice is closer to that of Ethel Merman, Brice is not the mugging, annoying screen presence that is Barbra Streisand. While the film starts of nicely with a dolly shot of the audience at a boxing match that moves into the ring with the two boxers, too often the film is static. Director Thornton Freeland is remembered, if at all, for Flying Down to Rio. Be Yourself looks like the work of people who were intimidated by the new technology. Many of the scenes are shot as full shots, with characters entering and exiting through doors. Robert Armstrong, as the dumb lug of a boxer who wins Brice's heart is especially awkward. Better is seeing Brice sing two very different versions of the same song, once upbeat and again as a tearjerker. It is quite possible that this film played a part in the title of the musical version of the life of Fanny Brice. Twice, her character is refered to as a "funny girl".

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Posted by peter at September 21, 2007 01:08 PM


I just watched the Love Trap as well, Peter. I wonder if the theatrical style of dialogue delivery is a strong enough commentary on the silliness of the developments in this film, though. I can't decide if the implausibility of the developments in the last reel or so of the film was so much harder to digest than the early fluff because it was fundamentally sillier material, or because of the difference between silence and sound in making silliness go down easy.

Posted by: Brian at September 26, 2007 05:59 PM


That's a good rap for "The Love Trap" which I've recently seen. And Brian, if you think the film is merely 'silly' I think you've missed the point of the plot which is much more subtle than one might assume...

When a friend first gave me the DVD, I ran through the first few minutes and thought "nice camerawork, nice lighting, nice art direction, nice print, interesting to hear an original Vitaphone music track of the period over a silent film, but otherwise undistinguished". It was only a week later that I played the DVD right through and realised that the second half was in full dialogue. This gave me my first view of Laura La Plante, mainly remembered as a silent actress, in a good talkie. Previously, I'd seen her in the painfully bad 1929 film version of "Showboat", and in a few indifferent comedy interludes scattered through the early Technicolor extravaganza "The King Of Jazz" (1930). Her performance, and even her look are reminiscent of Doris Day in the late 40s and 1950s, but she's perhaps not quite so ditsy as you imply.

"The Love Trap" is a film that 'grows on you' with repeated screenings, and there are subtle messages about sexual equality which were topical in the period that gave us the Volstead Act, Dorothy Parker, Marie Stopes, Clara Bow - and the talkie. To me, the film is a fascinating and well-crafted historical document. It shows the changing film techniques necessary in the switch from silence to sound - that much is patently obvious - but in a deeper and subtler way it's a fascinating insight into the role of women in an age of increasing liberation.

What is the Judge doing, by coming to that disreputable party thrown by Guy in the film's opening scenes? Could a wealthy middle-aged lothario "butter and egg man" like Guy have existed in any period later than the 1920s?

The way that Laura eventually reverses Guy's seduction techniques by trapping the Judge in his own web of deceit is far more clever than cliche. There are also those jokes about the "gin riskey" in the opening sequences, pertinent to Prohibition America. Perhaps these interjections may go 'over the heads' of a modern audience.

Sure, the pace of the dialogue scenes is uneven, and occasionally the lines are delivered a little too deliberately. You'd expect that of such an extremely early part-talkie. But the film is miles ahead of the outrageous clumsiness of many of its contemporaries - for example "Interference", "The Desert Song" or "Condemned". It's a credit to William Wyler, Laura La Plante and Neil Hamilton.

I'd recommend Wyler's 1929 part-talkie "The Love Trap" to all cineastes - but do yourself a favor and watch it closely, more than once! -------------

Chris Long, Melbourne, Australia.

Posted by: Chris Long at July 8, 2008 11:06 PM