Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Stars of Public Domain: Natalie Moorhead (1898-1992)

Natalie Moorhead,” wrote columnist Wick Evans, “gives out the impression of coldness.” And that pretty much explains Miss Moorhead's brief vogue in the very early years of sound films. From Pittsburgh, PA, she had earned some measure of fame on Broadway, slouching her way through something called “The Baby Cyclone,” a not too well remembered George M. Cohan production. But with her marcelled bob, a “Baby Cyclone Bob,” in fact, she made herself famous along the Rialto, or at least noticed enough to have Hollywood come calling. Looking a bit older than her published birth year would suggest, Moorhead slinked through a seemingly endless parade of “other women,” adulterous wives, over-the-hill gangster's molls, and so on and so forth, all of them performed “mid-Atlantic-style” with plenty of “cahnts” and “yooos” for “cannot” and “you.”

(Photo: Natalie Moorhead waving goodbye to author James Watters and photographer Horst in front of her Montecito home)

Moorhead is probably best remembered for playing a murder victim – yet another gold digger – in the first Thin Man feature in 1934, and although her screen time in that rare Grade A whodunit is customarily brief she makes it stand out. And that is Natalie Moorhead's legacy on screen: she always managed to stand out no matter how impoverished the surroundings. There she was, dripping in fur and faux jewelry and with an icy remark to all of sundry, a veritable Depression-era Theda Bara with a fool or two at her feet.

Off-screen, Moorhead was widowed in 1936 when her husband, noted screen director Alan Crosland, was killed in a car accident. She left films in 1940 – or did films leave her? – and two years later married former Chicago parks commissioner Robert J. Dunham. She was left a widow for the second time in 1949 but then in the 1950s she was reintroduced to an old friend, Juan de Garchi Torena, a South American diplomat who had once enjoyed a Hollywood career as Juan Torena. She became Mrs. Torena in 1957 and stayed Mrs. Torena until her death at Montecito, CA, 13 October 1992. As the former screen femme fatale explained to James Watters in 1983: “Our life has been so rich in so many ways that the acting was only part of our happiness.”

Discarded Lovers (Tower, 1932) PD ***

Actress Irma Gladden (Natalie Moorhead) may be beloved by her adoring public but she makes only enemies in her private life. Take her husband, for example, Andre Leighton (Roy D'Arcy), who still carries a torch for his estranged wife but whom she only agrees to kiss when cameras are rolling; not to mention poor Rex Forsythe (Jason Robards), a dialogue director (now there's an early silent screen function!) who may kiss her whenever he pleases but who knows very well than he isn't the only man in her life. And when Mrs. Sibley (Sharon Lynne) comes to warn her rival to keep her manicured paws off Mr. Sibley Irma gleefully substitutes Rex's portrait with one of Sibley (Robert Frazer), just to rub the poor woman's nose in it. If anyone deserves to become a whodunit victim it is Irma Gladden and 25 minutes or so into Discarded Lovers, she is indeed found very much dead in an automobile by her lecherous chauffeur (Jack Trent). But who actually done it?

Top billed Natalie Moorhead got to play what she never became in real life in Discarded Lovers, a movie star. Okay, the movie studio is not exactly Paramount or MGM but Tower Productions, the creation of someone named Joseph Simmonds but mostly run by the ubiquitous Sigmund Neufeld, who would later have a lot of sway with PRC. In fact, Sigmund's prolific brother, PRC regular Sam Newfield, directed his first of literally hundreds of programmers for Tower, albeit it was The Important Witness (33), with vixens Noel Francis and Dorothy Burgess, and not Discarded Lovers, Tower's initial release. The present film was instead helmed by another poverty row mainstay, Fred Newmeyer, a jack-of-all-trades kind of director who served mainly as a traffic cop. He certainly didn't do much for the performances here, which ranged from wildly over-the-top (silent screen villain Roy D'Arcy) to strictly amateur night (Barbara Weeks, whose father, George Weeks, handled the one Tower production not arranged by Neufeld, The Big Bluff [1933]). Natalie Moorhead, though, is fine in her standard femme fatale mood and gets to parade a handsome wardrobe that was no doubt her very own. Orbiting her are stalwarts of the genre, including J. Farrell MacDonald as the police chief and Fred Kelsey as the numbskull sergeant. Nominal leading man Russel Hopton, who actually became a dialogue director in real life, is a bit too phlegmatic for heroics but also never interrupts the flow. Discarded Lovers is certainly not great art but remains a serviceable little pre-code whodunit well worth dialing up on a rainy day.

The Stoker (Allied Pictures, 1932) PD ***

In the opening shot of The Stoker, businessman Dick Martin (Monte Blue) lovingly fondles a portrait of his wife, Vera. The face looking back, however, is that of Natalie Moorhead and you just known what poor Dick is in for. And, sure enough, Vera, who wears the pants in the family, and holds the purse strings as well, is off to Paris for a quickie divorce so she can marry Dick's attorney (Richard Tucker). A dejected Dick, who has lost not only his wife but his once-thriving business as well, signs on as a stoker on a steamship bound for South America. There he meets the exotic Margarita (Dorothy Burgess), and although at first they don't get along, it is she who bails him out of jail once he gets in trouble with the law in Nicaragua. As it turns out Margarita is the daughter of a local planter and she soon agrees to marry Dick in the hopes that he may be able to enlist the US marines if the plantation is attacked by bandits. Dick is disgusted when he learns the truth of her machinations but changes his mind after learning that she loves him for himself and not only for who he is. And, sure enough, Dick is indeed able to summon help from the marines when the plantation find itself attacked.

Needless to say, Natalie Moorhead's role here is little more than a cameo but her mere presence helps establishing who and what her character really is. You never had to spell it out: Natalie was trouble, either as a wife or a mistress. The nominal leading lady, Dorothy Burgess, usually played Bad Girls herself, notably the vixenish Tonia Maria in the Academy Award-winning In Old Arizona (1928), and unlike Natalie's her presence in The Stoker keeps the audience guessing. Monte Blue is at all times believable and since The Stoker is based on a Peter B. Kyne original, the story at least has a bit of depth. Director Chester M. Franklin, perhaps best remembered for helming a series of fairy tales cast  entirely with child actors, performs his tasks with customary skill but is somewhat defeated by the film's meagre budget. The Stoker was issued by M.H. "Max" Hoffman, formerly of Tru-Art and mainly a purveyor of Hoot Gibson westerns. But Allied and Hoffman had pretensions and among the 1932 releases where versions of Thackeray's Vanity Fair, with Myrna Loy, and Flaubert's "Madame Bovary," in modern dress and retitled Unholy Love. Yet despite those films, and the popular A Shriek in the Night (1932), with Ginger Rogers, Allied went the way of nearly all the early sound independents and was defunct by 1934.

Love Bound (Peerless Pictures, 1932) PD ***

His family nearly destroyed by a gold digging blackmailer, Dick Randolph (Jack Mulhall) follows the lady, Verna Wilson (Natalie Moorhead), aboard a liner to Europe. Dick's plan is to have the family chauffeur (Dick Alexander) pretend to be an oil millionaire in order to catch Verna in the act, so to speak. Things, however, take an unexpected turn when Verna not only falls in love with Dick, who she assumes is penniless, but breaks up with her latest boyfriend, Juan (Roy D'Arcy), who wants in on the expected windfall. Verna is ready to tell Dick the truth when the couple is interrupted by the former's ex-husband, Jimmy (Lynton Brent), who seeks revenge for having been locked up on her behalf. A fight breaks out and Juan shoots and kills Jimmy. A chagrined Verna agrees to return to New York and clear the Randolph family name.

I'm always interested in how men acquire their wealth,” purrs Natalie Moorhead to Dick Alexander, whom she is mistakenly believes is a Texas oilman. And that is how we have come to know and love Natalie: as a woman with few, if any, scruples. But this time she does surprise us by actually possessing a conscience and, even more important, a heart. Not that screenwriters James Gilber, George Plympton (of the serials) and Robert F. Hill (who also directed) make any of this the least bit plausible, you understand, and why Natalie should fall so instantly in love with Jack Mulhall remains a mystery. But fall in love she does and that fact allows her to at least attempt to create a multi-faceted character. And that is really all we could possibly expect from a cheap little potboiler like Love Bound. Produced by small-time Peerless Pictures, a New York-based company owned by one Sam Efrus that issued only eight releases 1931-1936, the drama was resurrected in 1949 with the completely misleading title “Murder on the High Seas.”

Gigolettes of Paris (Equitable, 1933) PD **
Naïve Suzanne (Madge Bellamy), who works in aboutique, finds herself installed in a posh apartment by the smooth-talking Alfred Valraine (Theodore von Eltz), but he dumps her when she keeps mentioning marriage and honeymoon. Taking the engagement ring with him, cheapskate Alfred then returns to his wealthy fiancee, Diane (Natalie Moorhead), who soon enough becomes Mrs. Valraine. When Suzanne, who is now a chantoose in a nightclub, spots Diane with what she still considers her ring, she sets a trap for the philandering Valraine that threatens to ruin his otherwise none-too-successful marriage.

(Mr. and Mrs. Verlaine in a rare agreeable mood)

Natalie Moorhead is her icy self in this very low-budget effort from a company calling itself Equitable, and easily steals every scene that she is in. Not too difficult a task, really, considering that Madge Bellamy, fresh from her zombie-fied performance in White Zombie (1932), was arguably Hollywood's worst actress. Or at least high on the list. Theodore von Eltz did slippery very well – and it is too bad that his only memorable screen role was a mere bit, if an important one, in The Big Sleep (1946) – and Gilbert Roland enjoyed a lengthy Hollywood career playing gigolos like his character here. But Gigolettes of Paris is still a tough piece of hokum to plow through today, enlivened all-too briefly by former Wampas Baby Star Molly O'Day as Madge Bellamy's wisecracking friend.

The Forgotten (Invincible, 1933) PD **

The forgotten man of the title is one Papa Strauss (Lee Kohlmar), an immigrant who has made a fortune with a dye manufacturing company. But Papa's two daughters-in-law (Natalie Moorhead and Natalie Kingston) convinces their husbands (Selmer Jackson and Leon Waycoff [Ames]) to put the exasperating old dear in a retirement home. They do the dirty deed while caring daughter Lina (June Clyde) is away but Papa is quickly bored and to amuse himself stars a competing dye company with a formula invented by Lina's chemist boyfriend (William Collier, Jr.) The ungrateful sons and their snooty wives eventually learn that the company's chief competitor is their own father, who obviously still has it in him, and regret their behavior.

(According to the dearl old Imdb, "This film is believed lost. Please check your attic." Well, you really don't have to; just go to archive.com and voila!)

Imagine that your daughter-in-law is Natalie Moorhead! You may as well wish just head for that nursing home right off the bat. Especially if you smoke a stinky pipe when Natalie demands that you switch to a more upscale stogie. Yep, that is all there is to this little misfire from Invincible, the one half of the independent Chesterfield-Invincible combine that filmed their little programmers at Universal. Lee Kohlmar, from Furth, Germany, who had been around in Hollywood for awhile by 1933 and was best known for playing Louis XVI in D.W. Griffith's Orphans of the Storm (1921), does his stereotypical Jewish immigrant to near-exhaustion but is still upstaged by another accented old timer, Prague-born Otto Lederer, whose penultimate film this was. Natalie Moorhead, meanwhile, is her usual haughty self but at least she appears to be faithful to stodgy Selmer Jackson, if that is anything to brag about. The other daughter-in-law is Natalie Kingston, who had played Jane in the part-yelling serial Tarzan the Tiger (1929).

Curtain at Eight (Majestic Pictures Corp., 1934) PD * (Natalie Moorhead's scene: ***)

All the ladies just love matinee idol Wylie Thornton (Paul Cavanagh), including, believe it or not, a female chimpanzee. But unbeknownst to ingenue Anice Cresmer (Marion Shilling), Thornton's most recent fling, her older sister Lola (Dorothy Mackaill), or heiress Doris Manning (Ruthelma Stevens), who is going to bankroll Wylie's latest play in payment for playing the female lead, the actor's secretary (Natalie Moorhead), is actually his wife. And Mrs. Yhornton is getting mighty tired of playing second fiddle to his career and tells him so in no uncertain terms.The chimp, meanwhile, kisses his portrait while brandishing a pistol (!), Lola warns him to stop seeing her sister, and everyone is shocked when the lights go out and a shot is fired during a birthday celebration. Surprise! When the lights return, the birthday boy, Thornton, is found very much dead. But who done it? Meticulous policeman Jim Hanvey (top-billed C. Aubrey Smith) finally solves the mystery, but not before his dimwitted partner, Gallagher (Sam Hardy), has arrested most of the cast, excluding the chimp, and several suspects have proven to be red herrings by turning up all too dead themselves.

I had a hard time awarding stars for this whodunit which survives in a somewhat truncated form (the American Film Institute lists a running time of 74 minutes while the version viewed only ran to 61). The suicide of one character, for example, appears out of nowhere and we aren't even quite sure whothe killer really was. Could it have been the chimp as Detective C. Aubrey Smith would have everyone believe? Really? Natalie Moorhead, meanwhile, enjoys one of her best scenes in Curtain at Eight when fifteen minutes into the proceedings we learn that she is really Wylie Thornton's wife and not just his secretary. The couple emerges from what has obviously been a sexual encounter, he getting dressed while she is still lounging in a double bed – yes, a double bed! – wearing very little and her hair in a bit of disarray. Another first for Natalie who emerges looking far younger without the tightly marceled bob. And a triumph for the lax pre-code censorship. As Wylie continues to dress, she takes time out to fling insults at him, calling him a “cackling boudoir rooster” and a “flannel-mouthed Romeo.” It is a great scene for both performers and Natalie's mirth as her husband is forced to lie to his latest paramour over the telephone is infectious. Unfortunately, apart from this one scene, the most memorable aspect of Curtain at Eight is that gun-toting chimp

Run by veteran poverty row entrepreneur Phil Goldstone, Majestic Pictures Corp. was a small-scale company with aspirations, and aspirations that nearly came to fruition. Curtain at Eight, for example, played an MGM flagship theater in New York City and was renamed “Backstage Mystery” so as not to be confused with Metro's major undertaking of the year, the all-star Dinner at Eight. But Goldstone's real coup – or was it the artistic head of the company, Larry Darmour? – was to hire major genre stars Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill to appear in the still-fondly remembered The Vampire Bat (1932). Majestic also produced a version of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (1934), starring, of all people, 1920s flapper Colleen Moore as Hester Prynne, but the less said about that one the better. Like most of the early sound independents Majestic left the field 1934-1935, when double-bills became the norm in the industry, but Darmour went on to produce scores of B-Movies, mostly westerns.

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