|Scarlet Pages (1930)
Running Time: 66 Minutes
Dir. Ray Enright
Cast: Elsie Ferguson, Marian Nixon, John Halliday
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama
Screening Time: Saturday, May 13, 2017 at 10:10 p.m.
A hard hitting pre-Code crime drama. A female lawyer defends a cabaret singer accused of killing her foster-father. Stage legend Ferguson stars in her final film and only talkie.
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Considering this is an early talkie directed by journeyman Warner Brothers director Ray Enright who learned his trade at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios mainly as a gag writer, this is not a bad little programmer. There are several intriguing camera shots from unusual angles. The story is interesting. A brilliant defense attorney on her way up takes a difficult case not to enhance her career but because she empathizes with the young chorus girl accused of killing her father. The reason for the bonding between attorney and client becomes obvious as the plot unfolds. The lady barrister is played with flair and dignity by distinguished silent screen actress Elsie Ferguson, who reprises her role from the Broadway production of the show. This apparently is Elsie Ferguson’s only surviving film. The only one she made with sound. That her father was a famous lawyer helped Ferguson in adding authenticity to the role. In some ways, her performance reminds one of a certain lawyer Senator from New York, late of Arkansas, who may be the next President of the United States. There is even a throwaway line by Feguson to the effect that it’s legal for women to be successful attorneys, a subtle attack on the sexism that was rampant in Hollywood and the nation at the time. Similar artificial barriers now confront that certain Senator mentioned above.
Since it is based on a play, the film moves at a snail’s pace even at 66 minutes. The murder is not shown, which would have been a big plus, catching the audience’s attention near the beginning of the movie. There is way too much talk which the studios encouraged to show off the new media of sound cinema believing that audiences wanted as much chatter as possible for their money.
Overall, with the exception of Ferguson the acting is weak. The pivotal role of Nora Mason is damaged by the histrionics of Marian Nixon who was also making the transition from silent to sound. She ultimately retired from films at an early age which may have been a blessing for the industry. At the time character actor Grant Withers was making a grab for the big times and does an adequate job as Bob Lawrence. The rest are blown away by Ferguson who basically has the film to herself.
The speakeasy part of the film is one of the highlights. The Jazz Age is evoked with all its glamor and tinsel. In the precode days, more leg could be shown. So the viewer gets an eye-full. The flappers are flapping as never before, the Jazz trumpets blasting out in a carefree era that was winding down as Old Man Depression snipped away at the fluff.
is a stagy and unconvincing melodrama about an unwed mother, a sleazy murder, and (of course) redemption. Elsie Ferguson isn’t bad though as the lawyer who learns a terrible secret while defending a showgirl of murder. The rest of the cast, however IS pretty bad: Marian Nixon, Grant Withers, John Halliday, etc. go through their paces without much to offer. Ferguson had been a big silent star playing upper-crust ladies in "weepies." This film was an attempt to revive her career (after 5 years), but it was just too late. Her speaking voice is fine, but the new medium of "talkies" and the new Depression-era sensibility made it clear it was time for Elsie Ferguson to retire from the screen.
I agree with both reviewers that Elsie Ferguson gave an excellent performance in this movie, and that the supporting cast was pretty bad, with one exception-John Halliday! John Halliday was too good an actor to ever give anything but an excellent performance! It is true that his role in this movie was very small, basically because it was Elsie Ferguson's movie, but he did an excellent job, anyway. The movie was a bit corny, and many people might find it quite old-fashioned, but I still would recommend it, solely because of the excellent performances by Elsie Ferguson and John Halliday! Even the bad supporting cast should not deter anyone from seeing this movie!
This film is Elsie Ferguson's only surviving film, and it is the only talking picture she ever made. Ms. Ferguson plays Mary Bancroft, a successful attorney and candidate for office in the upcoming elections. The first scene, however, is in an orphanage with a nun clutching a baby girl that has just been given up for adoption by the mother because she is starving. The mother is not shown, and the nun indicates that the mother did not divulge the name of the father, the insinuation being that the child was born out of wedlock.
The next scene is in the law offices of Mary Bancroft. She apparently has been spurning the advances of the district attorney (John Halliday as John Remington), although she considers him a close friend. However, that doesn't mean that any holds are barred when they spar in court. Mary agrees to take the case of a 19 year old cabaret performer (Marion Nixon as Nora Mason) who admits to shooting her father but refuses to say why she did it. After playing twenty questions with her as to why, Mary can tell – and the audience can too – that it is probably because her father approached her sexually in some way, although this is never actually said.
Now I'm going to spoil this movie completely, mainly because the plot is not at all unique. The interesting parts are the players and their performances. What results is that, in court during Nora's murder trial, a nun from a local orphanage appears to reveal that Nora's "father" is in fact not her biological father at all – that Nora is adopted. So here Mary Bancroft is with a girl that is the same age as her daughter, adopted from the same institution as her daughter, brought to the institution on the same day as she brought in her daughter, and when the judge and DA see the card from the orphanage that has Nora's birth mother's name they beg of her not to reveal the birthmother's name in court. Like my title says, what was she thinking???? Did she not get that there was a high probability that Nora was her daughter? The fact that Mary Bancroft could be insightful and clever enough to be a successful attorney in what was very much a man's world in 1930 and not see this coming from a mile away is just ridiculous.
What makes this even crazier is at the end Mary tells Nora that she's paced the floors every night of her life wondering about what happened to her, although you could have fooled me given her top of the world carefree demeanor up to the point she realizes she is defending her own daughter against a murder charge.
Now for the performances – Elsie Ferguson reminded me very much of Glenda Jackson in her prime. She looked to be in her mid 30's although she was 47 when she made this film. John Halliday was excellent as always, and these two dominated the film and gave very good natural performances making me forget that this is an early talkie. I hardly recognized Marian Nixon as she had a very hardened, sullen, used-up look about her, but given her part this may have been a combination of good make-up and a good performance. Grant Withers, as Nora's fiancé, has had his time in the sun at Warner Brothers by now and in just a year of being built up as a leading man he is on his way down.
The art design in this one is good too – much better than I'm used to seeing in surviving WB early talkies. Just one thing had me scratching my head. When Nora is doing the second of two dance numbers at the cabaret, for some reason the background scenery is changed from just curtains to a dead tree. I could never figure that one out.
Watch this one mainly as the only filmed record we have of Elsie Ferguson.