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Forgotten by Fox: The Adoring Twenties

Three rich wives hire college boys for a night to make their cheating husbands jealous, in Howard Hawks' farce "The Cradle Snatchers."
David Cairns
As Disney quietly disappears huge swathes of film history into its vaults, I'm going to spend 2020 celebrating Twentieth Century Fox and the Fox Film Corporation's films, what one might call their output if only someone were putting it out.
And now they've quietly disappeared William Fox's name from the company: guilty by association with Rupert Murdoch, even though he never associated with him.
When you look through the IMDb entries for the early releases of the Fox Film Corporation (recommended: it's dispiriting and boggling at once: how many Buck Jones and Tom Mix westerns did the world need—and how many survive?) it's striking how many potentially interesting ones are unheard-of and impossible for the ordinary cinephile to see. My mouth waters in particular at the many, many Roy William Neill silents: Neill was a terrific, expressive filmmaker, a journeyman maybe, but a very talented one, best known today for his numerous entries in the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series, and for Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. Fun stuff.
A lot of the more prestigious films have been made available, thanks to box sets of Murnau, Ford, and Borzage, but Howard Hawks, surprisingly, has not had the same deluxe treatment. Probably because his silents are genuinely not as sensational as his talkies: the coming of sound, said Hawks, was "when it got interesting." Once Hawks showed what he could do with dialogue, he was given more control of his projects, and the movies just got better. Nevertheless, in the early works there are some gems.
Short of a box set, The Cradle Snatchers (1927) is probably never going to get a home video release or show up streaming anywhere, because it apparently survives only in incomplete form. The copy I obtained is also somewhat fuzzy, with a dancing rain of wibbly-wobbly abstract film damage, like the paint is flaking off it, partially obscuring what looks to have been gorgeous cinematography, far more atmospheric than you would expect a light comedy to require (cameraman L.W. O'Connell went on to collaborate with Hawks on Scarface).
The film, lacking titles (lost to history, it seems), begins on a "Men at Work" sign before pulling out to reveal we're in a student dorm. The boys are pranksters. One is a "sheik" (a skirt-chaser), one ridiculously girl-shy, one somewhere in between. There's also a Jewish drag artiste, prompting some uncomfortable ethnic humor, but he disappears from the plot, though it's possible he had more to do originally.
  
Meanwhile, there are three rich wives whose husbands have been stepping out with chorus girls, so they decide they should hire three young men for the night to make their spouses jealous. Of course the college students are selected.
The wives are as mismatched a gang as the youngsters, with one prim and proper and one ridiculously bubbly. The middle, normal one is our heroine, deeply hurt by her husband's unfaithfulness, and recruiting her niece's beau to play-act the part of toyboy. He's charged with obtaining two pals for the other wives, and rather oversells his friends' suitability, leading to farcical complications when one is a little too eager to earn his fee and the other is a petrified wallflower who has to be plied with liquor...
The cast is interesting: Louise Fazenda had done broad comedy for Mack Sennett but is equally skilled at this 5% more sophisticated brand of farce; fresh-faced Arthur Lake, as the shy Swede who reacts to women by literally fleeing in panic, would go onto worldwide ignominy as Dagwood Bumstead in the popular Blondie series; Sally Eilers makes a brief appearance on her way to equally brief stardom. Best of all is an early Franklin Pangborn performance. I collect those. His talent for camp was already well-developed but at this stage in his comedy career he was often cast as straight men, in the heterosexual sense. And yet, his destiny is writ large upon his pasty features, and when his lips move you can just hear that fluting voice.
Allowing for some dated attitudes, like one wince-inducing Jewish schnozz joke, the script is witty and at times quite progressive in its sexual attitudes, as we'd come to expect from Hawks. Three writers, two of them female, are credited on the IMDb: actors Norma Mitchell and Russell G. Medcraft wrote the source play and Sarah Y. Mason adapted it: she'd later work on the John Stahl versions of Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life.
Time has treated their work harshly: aside from the lopped-off credits and sparkling patina of decomposition, the film starts making huge narrative leaps: reels have been lost. And the ending, or what may have been the ending, becomes a dizzying series of blipverts, teleporting the cast around the grand set, all continuity gone the way of the rumble seat. Intertitles become a series of nonsequiturs as conversations collapse into one another, their origins and purpose now a total mystery. It's like Joseph Cornell has been handed the shears and told to indulge himself. It becomes uncertain whether the wrong lot of footage has been lost: maybe the missing bits, by themselves, would make more sense?
The Cradle Snatchers is a magnificent ruin. Hawks shoots the amusing dialogue very straightforwardly, with no complex blocking: it's stand and deliver all the way. But he perks up when the characters move, with jittery dolly shots chasing them down halls, and an imposing track back framing one character in close-up when he tries the old caveman stuff. You can see his sense of humor and the kind of performances he liked: in the satire of sex roles, it's probably closest to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
I wonder if the rest of it exists anywhere? And if we'll ever get to see it?
Forgotten by Fox is a regular fortnightly series by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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