Run time: 1h 25min | Drama
Director: Jacques Feyder
Writers: Arthur Schnitzler, Frances Marion
Stars: Ramon Novarro, Helen Chandler, Jean Hersholt, C. Aubrey Smith
Feyder, a Belgian by birth, worked in France, the USA, Britain, and Germany. He made several French classic silent films before being lured to Hollywood by MGM to direct Greta Garbo’s last silent film, THE KISS. He later returned to France, where he made the award-winning CARNIVAL IN FLANDERS. His brief Hollywood career produced the pre-Code DAYBREAK, a “waltz-drenched” costume drama set in the Hapsburg era, based on a novella by Arthur Schnitzler, in which Ramon Novarro plays a rakish and cynical imperial lieutenant who seduces an innocent music teacher. Leonard Maltin describes it as a “poignant love story” and a “polished adaptation” of Schnitzler’s story, “glowingly photographed and given a touch of European sophistication by the underrated Feyder.”
Budget: $515,000 (estimated)
Sometimes it’s a melodrama, sometimes it’s a comedy. Even though TCM gave it 1.5 out of 4 stars, I just couldn’t resist a 1931 pre-Code with handsome Ramon Navarro, so I gave it a whirl.
Handsome Austrian lieutenant Willi (Navarro) meets virgin music instructor Laura (Helen Chandler), pursues her, gets her drunk, spends the night with her. She’s in love, but he thinks it was just fun and games. He leaves her 100 gilder on the breakfast table. (Note to pre-Code fellas: when you spend the night with an innocent girl, don’t leave her money in the morning; you will only insult her and turn her into a prostitute for real as she wreaks revenge on you while feeling she’s good for nothing else now that you’ve defiled her — Freddie March made the same mistake in 1934’s "We Live Again" — tsk tsk).
Her heart hardened, Laura calls up Herr Schnabel (Jean Hersholt), a rich brute of a man whom Willi previously saved Laura from. In front of Willi, Laura tells Herr S. that she’s "willing to accept your previous invitation … and quite completely." We get the drift; Laura becomes Herr S.’s mistress and is transformed from shabbily dressed music instructor to kept woman in fancy new apartment with a new wardrobe and dripping in diamond jewelry.
Willi truly does seem to love Laura, and wants to make amends for ruining her life. Laura tells Willi that if he has more money than Herr S., that she will go with him. Willi plays chemin-de-fer (baccarat) with Herr S., but loses 14,000 gilder to him, which he must pay by noon the following day. As he leaves the casino, Laura gives Willi her address; he is waiting in her apartment when she arrives home. They kiss, and Laura tells Willi this is now "Act 2". They spend the night together, and in the morning she is now the one who is leaving money for him. She tells him over breakfast: "I’m a businesswoman now… You taught me how to make love without meaning a word that I say. I amused you once, and you paid me. Well, you’re as handsome as ever and just as amusing. I return the compliment," as she reveals the money she’s hidden under his breakfast plate.
Willi, determined to prove his love for Laura, leaves the money there and prepares to pay his debt by committing honor suicide. Willi’s rich uncle, unable to bear the thought, offers to pay his debt but only if Willi will marry Emily, a member of a wealthy upper class family. Willi would rather die than marry Emily. Willi offers instead to quit the army, get a regular job, marry the woman he loves, and repay his uncle over time. At first the uncle rebuffs this idea, but in the end accepts rather than see Willi kill himself.
Next scene: Laura is teaching music again. Willi interrupts the lesson (as he did the first night he met Laura), some code words are exchanged (student’s mother to Willi: Where’s your uniform?, Willi’s reply as he looks at Laura not the mother: I’m going to a masquerade, as a human being). Willi and Laura kiss. The End.
This movie also had some hilarious moments to it, if I may continue on with the spoilage:
1 – Willi’s manservant Josef, who loves to parade around Willi’s apartment wearing Willi’s underwear; and who, when kicked in the rump from Willi for burning him with a hot towel, says "Thank you sir." He seemed to enjoy that kick!
2 – Willi hanging out with a prostitute at a fancy bar, Herr Schnable walks by and tells him, "Hope you wouldn’t do anything I wouldn’t do", to which Willi replies slyly with a slight raise of one eyebrow, "We’re going to do something you *couldn’t* do!"
3 – Willi donning his hat and checking himself out in the mirror after spending the first night with Laura; he tells his reflection "Just as handsome as ever!"
4 – The music student’s parents believe Willi to be Laura’s cousin. When Willi and Laura are kissing passionately at the end of the movie, the parents look on smiling but then, realizing "oh hey, aren’t they cousins?" they turn and give each other a puzzled "what the hell????" kind of look. It was pretty darned funny actually.
Sometimes these 1- or 1.5-star flicks on TCM are duds, sometimes they are enjoyable little trifles such as this. Not a great movie, but certainly fun to watch and I’d definitely recommend it to any fan of the pre-Codes.
Two beautiful performances by dashing Ramon Novarro and exquisitely lovely, fragile Helen Chandler make this precode film, Daybreak, something very special. A film like this proves that, even with a thin plot line, two exceptional performers like Ramon and Helen can turn an unoriginal story into something magical and unforgettable.
The story involves the regeneration of a spoiled playboy soldier by the love of a prim and proper little music teacher. The road to their falling in love with one another is a rather bumpy one, with occasional resting spots in sublime locations, but this is what helps make this film extra special and interesting.
"Oh look at the river!" Helen’s character Laura says to Ramon’s character Willi, as they cuddle under a blanket together outside in the dark, while beautiful Viennese music is played nearby. "I wish we were swans." This is the most lyrical, heavenly scene in the film. When I first watched this film (which I recorded off TCM) I had to stop at the end of this scene and play it over and over again. Tears came to my eyes, it was so beautiful. Instead of taking advantage of the little musician lady he had picked up and gotten drunk, he takes her to this lovely spot and waits till the alcohol has lost its influence on her, before he takes her home. So when later that night it becomes obvious Laura has fallen for Willi and will succumb to his charms physically, she is not choosing to do so because she is inebriated, but because she really feels he has genuine concern and love for her.
Willi makes a mistake in the morning (but not before a delicious, romantic strawberry scene takes place – another one of those "resting spots") which causes Laura to doubt his true feelings. Willi may or may not be too sure of them himself at this moment, but he is soon to realize he truly loves her, when out of anger she turns to an older, rich man who has been pursuing her. Willi tries to rescue Laura from her situation but only gets deeper into trouble and debt. Suicide seems the only honorable way out but fate intervenes and regeneration and restoration takes place in their relationship.
Daybreak is a must-see film for those who love and appreciate the precode era and for Ramon Novarro and/or Helen Chandler fans. Both Ramon and Helen met with tragic ends, which makes this film all the more poignant to watch.
This plot seems to owe a bit to Tolstoy’s REDEMPTION, filmed by Mamoulian in 1934 as WE LIVE AGAIN. Here an Austrian officer and roue seduces an innocent young girl and while it is just another feather in his cap, her life is destroyed. In trying to make amends, he finds he is truly in love with her, but now she has a protector, a powerful older man that the officer despises.
How to win her back?
Novarro is completely at ease with his material and proves once again that he is the most charming of seducers. Helen Chandler is perfect as the shy gamin and Jean Hersholt is wasted with only a few scenes as the heavy. Douglass Montgomery here in his first role and billed as Kent Douglass has only three scenes in the first five minutes, all without dialogue.
It’s a nice little film with a moral lesson and a finger wag at the idle young rich and privileged. Mainly of interested for Novarro fans. Note the risqué Novarro bathing scene and the prissy orderly with a lust for Novarro’s undergarments – definitely pre-Code and a bit Von Stroheim-ish.
When a young Imperial Officer offhandedly insults the poor girl he’s smitten with, it precipitates her into the arms of a bullying, rich old gambler. Trying to win her back, the Lieutenant becomes greatly in debt to her new lover. Will the young man retain his honor & his life, come next DAYBREAK?
The plot is a bit musty, but the performers do what they can with the material. Ramon Novarro, always a good actor, provides the latest in a series of ethnic impersonations – this time playing a highborn Austrian. Helen Chandler is a pretty love interest, especially good in the Grinzing wine garden scene. Jean Hersholt provides quiet menace as the heavy. As always, Sir C. Aubrey Smith is nothing less than excellent, this time playing a gruff old general – watch him imperiously send an impecunious young officer off to commit suicide.
Morally, this is definitely a pre-Production Code movie. Casual sex is implied, much of the action takes place in a fancy brothel and just why is Novarro’s manservant wearing Novarro’s drawers?