|The Trespasser (1929)
Run time: 90 min
Director: Edmund Goulding
Writers: Edmund Goulding
Stars: Gloria Swanson, Robert Ames, Purnell Pratt
Swanson’s first sound film! A complex melodrama of adultery, love and reunification which Swanson demonstrated that she had a beautiful singing voice and was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award.
Release Date: 11 November 1929 (USA)
Budget: $725,000 (estimated)
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Famous United Artists film from 1929 with Gloria Swanson in her smash-hit talkie debut. I saw this at the George Eastman House in Rochester last week; it has the only known complete print and it's a beautifully restored version.
Swanson stars as a private secretary who marries a wealthy man's son. But their honeymoon is interrupted by the angry father who bullies the son into getting an annulment to "test" Swanson, while they "gussy her up" for their society friends. Swanson storms out but the boy doesn't follow. Later she reads about his marriage to a "proper" girl in Europe. So she decides to never tell him about the baby from their honeymoon night. Later she reads about a terrible accident and the other wife's injuries. But by then Swanson has shacked up with her boss and living off him even though he is married. Everything comes to a head when the boss dies and Swanson tries to go straight but can't make a living to support herself and her baby. Re-enter the first husband, his crippled wife, and treacherous father.
Pure soap but it's very well done and Swanson (with her 2nd Oscar nomination for this gem) is totally great. Opening scene is a long dolly shot moving in toward her office where she has her back to the camera as she types. Her first words are "and how!" as the 'can-do" secretary. Up thru the honeymoon Swanson is bright and funny as the happy bride. She was a terrific comedienne. But when the story turns tragic, Swanson really comes into her element as the suffering mother, the high-living floozy, and finally the contrite penitent.
Robert Ames is the husband, Henry B. Walthall is the office manager, Kay Hammond is the crippled wife, Blanche Frederici is the nanny, Purnell Pratt is the boss, William Holden is the mean father, Henry Armetta is the barber, Mary Forbes is the boss's wife (in fabulous clothes and jewelry), and Stu Erwin shows up as a reporter.
Swanson sings "Love, Your Magic Spell Is Everywhere" and "My Tormented Heart" in the Italian version.
A pity this film will likely never be released on DVD. The Trespasser is a great moment in a great star's career.
None of us should pretend that THE TRESPASSER isn't now, 82 years after its time, incredibly creaky. It is. But it's also, for a 1929 talkie, darned well made, with any number of clever cinematic touches and, unlike most 1929 dramas, a well-done musical score. Just contrast it with the other big 1929 woman's picture, the arid and primitive MADAME X, made a few months earlier. Obviously a number of modern viewers won't make the necessary allowances, as some of the other reviews here show. It isn't always easy to view an early talkie sympathetically, especially when The Marx Bros. aren't involved. But if TRESPASSER is trite in many ways, and relies on at least one outlandish coincidence, it should be seen, still, as a phenomenally astute way to introduce one of the biggest silent stars to sound film. It's fascinating to watch Swanson feeling her way into the talkies. Sometimes she's perfectly naturalistic, other times she declaims like an old-school stage star, and sometimes her silent-movie roots show very clearly with some too- grand gestures. In her best sound film performances, MUSIC IN THE AIR and, of course, SUNSET BOULEVARD, she used aspects of the old over-the- top silent style to great effect; here, not playing a grandiose diva, she can seem more self-conscious about the whole thing. But, more than anything else, she's an first-rate trouper, working hard to give an adoring public every bit of its money's worth. And she obviously worked very well with director/writer Edmund Goulding, who she helped (and also with Laura Hope Crews) to put together this autobiographically-tinged soap opera. (Gloria as the mistress of a tycoon? See the very first frames of the credits : "Joseph P. Kennedy Presents…") And though her singing isn't necessarily presented in a subtle way, it's terrific. Audiences in 1929 were bowled over to find out that she could sing as well (or even better) than she could talk, and it's easy to see why. Note, too, that she clears her throat before starting "Love, Your Spell is Everywhere," proving that she was doing it live on the set. Her performance of Toselli's Serenade is lovely too, especially the way Goulding has her singing off camera before entering, still singing, in a drop-dead gown. It's just too bad that both performances are somewhat truncated, unlike the commercial recordings she made of them. We shouldn't expect THE TRESPASSER to be seen, today, as anything other than a museum piece. Too many of its dramatics are too unsubtle or rudimentary for it to work without some necessary caveats. But as an antique, and a small, authentic piece of film (and political!) history, it's extremely engaging, as crafted by an intelligent and resourceful director for a still-brilliant, one-of-a-kind star.
Well, this early talkie netted La Swanson an Oscar nomination for Best Actress — her second AA nod in her first "talkie." This melodrama was later remade with Bette Davis as That Certain Woman. which I recognized after about an hour into it. It was recently screened on TCM as a part of their showcasing of films restored by the George Eastman House in Rochester New York — a few miles from where I'm typing this.
Here Swanson is cast in a then-popular clichéd role of a working girl trying to make good in the world who is left disappointed by a wealthy lad. Along the way she manages to bear his child, and has hopes to raise it alone. Story lines like this abounded in those Depression years, and young women and girls just loved to wallow in this stuff. Apparently after the debacle of the unfinished Queen Kelley, Swanson wanted some quick cash, and enlisted Goulding to helm it for her.
And she ended up with an audience-pleasing success, and showed in her first talking role that she was truly a talent, and not simply a fashion icon of the day. Swanson actually got incredibly real in this, showing both a feisty quality and a soft, sensitive one that's surprising. And bravely, she sings too. To the accompaniment of a player piano according to the script. And her voice is fine, even if the recording equipment was primitive and distorted. of course, she looks fantastic, and wears some spectacular costumes throughout. Star quality abounds in this woman certainly.
And kudos should go to the fantastic photography, which sometimes became cloaked in shadows and darkness. I was pleasantly surprised at how appealing the movie looked. At times it almost reminded me of Dracula (1932).
And yes, there's a down side provided by many of the supporting players who mug and overact in ways popular in silent movies. But on the bright side, an honorable mention goes to the sweet and adorable little child who played Swanson's son. Whoever coached this little boy did a great job, because the kid was extremely natural and also poignant when the story required it.
I'm sure The Trespasser had the shop girls of 1929 crying buckets of tears.
**** out of *****
Gloria Swanson netted a best actress Oscar nomination for her first talking role as the long suffering working girl destined to raise her son alone after her society conscious father-in-law unduly influences her husband to have their marriage annulled. Swanson then picks herself up by her bootstraps and manages to survive without "money" until she can't anymore. Then the inevitable showdown ensues. Despite being a sudser in retrospect, Swanson's earnest performance grabs the viewer. She imbues the character of Marion Donnell with endurance, nobility, and strength, utilizing some of her experience/style as a silent film actress. The cast clearly does not have the acting chops of Swanson, but the story's transitions and movement in the plot do not depend on any other character but Swanson's, so Swanson's part is written to carry the film. Later famous cinematographer Gregg Toland had a hand in the cinematography.
Director Edmund Goulding wrote and directed the film, which was executive produced by Swanson's long time love Joseph P. Kennedy. Swanson originally hired Goulding to help complete Queen Kelly, and Goulding turned the association with Swanson into this film after writing a script. Some viewers may criticize the film for its possibly dated, over-the-top performance by Swanson and unbelievable coincidences which abound. However, the film was released a mere couple weeks after the stock market crash of October 1929, which quickly ushered in the Great Depression, and considering that fact, the film surely tugged on the heartstrings of millions who faced an uncertain future as a result. Swanson, in her first talking film, even sings a couple songs too. Although creaky and limited in emotional scope, the film still is worthwhile viewing for Swanson's performance. *** of 4 stars.