Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Not So Dumb

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

Not So Dumb (MGM, 1930) – Director: King Vidor. Writers: Edwin Justus Mayer (dialogue), Wanda Tuchock (continuity), Lucille Newmark (titles - uncredited). George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly (play). Stars: Marion Davies, Elliott Nugent, Raymond Hackett, Franklin Pangborn, Julia Faye, William Holden, Donald Ogden Stewart, Sally Starr & George Davis. B&W, 76 minutes.

One of columnist Franklin Pierce Adams’s most popular characters was an endearing dingbat by the name of Dulcinea, or Dulcy. The character enjoyed a brief vogue during the early ‘20s, when George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly turned it into a Broadway hit starring Lynn Fontanne and running for 241 performances. In 1923, Constance Talmadge and Associated First National turned it into a film adapted by the husband and wife team of Anita Loos and John Emerson and directed by Sidney Franklin. 

The glow had long since worn off the character before Marion Davies selected it as her second talkie (after her sound remake of the silent Marianne). Her director was King Vidor, also making only his second talkie (after the musical Hallelujah). As with other early talkies, the silent influence can be seen in the use of title cards, the frozen camera, and the clumsiness of the dialogue.

The plot is rather simple, Dulincea “Dulcy” Parker (Davies), the eccentric but well-meaning fiancée of up-and-coming businessman Gordon Smith (Nugent), is hosting a party at her palatial estate to impress Gordon’s cantankerous boss, Mr. Forbes (Holden). A title card with the words “Sunny California” introduces both the location and the film. Standing under a small umbrella in a driving rain, Dulcy and Gordon await the train carrying Forbes and his family. Gordy must carry out a merger of his jewelry factory with Forbes's company in order to stay in business and have enough money to marry Dulcy. 

He warns Dulcy that Mr. Forbes is sensitive and asks her not to talk too much or attempt to interfere with the merger. Of course, we know Dulcy will ignore this advice, proving an immediate irritant to Mr. Forbes with her chatter keeping the family standing in the rain. A photographer swoops in for a picture of Forbes. Dulcy knocks over the camera and spoils the photograph.     

Mr. Forbes and his family weren’t the only ones invited and Dulcy individually introduces the other guests beginning with her brother, Bill (Hackett), who is annoyed because she persists in calling him “Willie.” Bill knows, and is attracted to, Forbes’s daughter Angela (Starr). Dulcy’s butler, Perkins (Davis), is awkward and untrained, and had to be instructed by Dulcy in the proper manner of greeting guests. Unknown to the guests, he is a convicted robber who has been paroled to Dulcy's custody. Next to arrive is Skylar Van Dyke (Stewart), rich, highly eccentric, and an avid golfer. He is followed by Vincent Leach (Pangborn), a rather prissy film scenarist who has been courting Angela.     

After the arrival of the Forbes family, Dulcy’s attempts to entertain Mr. Forbes causing him to become increasingly annoyed and grumpier than usual. The antics of Van Dyke and Leach add to Mr. Forbes's irritation. His irritation peaks when Dulcy inadvertently brings about both the apparent theft of Angela's pearl necklace by the butler and the elopement of Angela with Vincent.     

Gordon, distraught about the events Dulcy has precipitated, despairs about the merger with Forbes. At this point Van Dyke offers to back Gordon’s business with better terms than those Forbes has offered. Gordon wastes no time informing Forbes about the offer. But as Gordy and Dulcy are rejoicing in their good fortune, a well-known attorney representing the Van Dyke interests arrives. He’s looking for his insane cousin Horace Patterson, who goes about posing as a rich man under the aliases Mr. Morgan, Mr. Rockefeller, or Mr. Van Dyke. Dulcy and Gordon are taken aback by the news.     

But just when everything has gone wrong beyond repair, all the pieces of the plot are brought together for the requisite happy ending. As the lawyer is taking his cousin away, Forbes enters and recognizes the lawyer as representing the actual Van Dyke interests. He realizes he has misunderstood the situation, and makes Gordon a new and better merger offer. Bill and Angela return without Leach, telling everyone that a wedding has indeed occurred, but Bill is the groom. The butler arrives and returns the necklace. He explains that it was carelessly dropped and that he had taken it for safe keeping. Dulcy and Gordon kiss. Fade out.


Because Vidor filmed Hallelujah as if it was a silent, Not So Dumb was his first entirely talking picture and it stands as an example of the difficulties encountered by a director completely new to the technology, with facial expressions, and body movements dominating the comical situations. The stage origins of the film are obvious, with the characters standing (or sitting) and talking in range of the microphones. As the camera is immobile, any variety of movement can only be accomplished with different groupings of the cast. As a result, the acting is stiff and forced and the film reduced to a crawl (death for a comedy) that is not very funny.

As for the performances, Davies, Nugent and Holden dominate the film, with the others having little or nothing to do. Marion Davies is excellent despite the problems. It’s considered fitting today to rip her acting – mainly courtesy of her fictional portrayal in Citizen Kane. But so-called “good friend” Donald Ogden Stewart didn’t help matters either, telling an interviewer that she wasn’t a good actress. In reality, she was a gifted comedienne (the reviewer for Variety noted that “comedy is her forte”), and if Stewart is looking to cast dispersions, he should begin with his own performance in the film, which could be generously described as “embarrassing.” The sight of him walking up and down on a garden hose or playing golf indoors would suffice as a definition of the term “not funny.” It all looks so forced and he’s not helping matters any. This was his only credited performance, after which he prudently stuck to writing. Ironically, Davies was not expected to make a successful transition to sound because of her stutter. But she successfully overcame it to turn in many fine performances.

Holden is fine as the perpetually annoyed Forbes and Nugent provides solid support to Davies’s character. As Leach, Pangborn is excellent, though shortly later he would be typecast as the prissy fusspot. 

If we want to stretch the point more than a little, Not So Dumb could be viewed as a direct ancestor to the screwball comedies off the ‘30s and ‘40s. However, there is one major difference: while screwball heroines such as Lombard, Stanwyck, Gracie Allen and Katharine Hepburn use madness as a cover for their method, there's far more madness in this film than method. A telling question is asked of Dulcy by Gordon after everything turns upside down: “My God, are you smiling?”

It’s claimed that Not So Dumb was also released as a silent. If so I haven’t been able to find any evidence of it. Also, Davies wouldn’t have made so many unnecessary pauses in the film while looking at the camera, She never did that in any of the silents I saw her in. 

Although Not So Dumb garnered mainly positive reviews from the press, the public, viewing Davies as someone being pushed on them by her rich boyfriend/benefactor William Randolph Hearst, stayed away in droves, with the result being a financial loss for MGM of $39,000. For all its problems, though, Not So Dumb exudes a sort of goofy and campy charm. As such it’s a treat for those who are fans of early talkies. And Pre-Code fans, take note: in the course of the film, Mr. Forbes, asked about pictures, replies, “I don’t care a damn about pictures!”

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