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The Forgotten: Hobart Henley's "The Big Pond" (1930)

A Frenchman woos a gum magnate’s daughter in Preston Sturges’ first screenplay.
I find it impossible to believe anyone called Hobart Henley could ever be a great film director, but on the other hand, I also find it impossible to dislike a film director called Hobart Henley. It's too much fun reading his name in a credits sequence.
Henley had been an actor, which seems to account for his preposterous, alliterative name, except it seems that really was his name, not a stage contrivance. He directed numerous silent films from the teens on, all of them obscure, but his late-career outpouring of a few cute pre-Codes is better remembered. Night World (1932) is enjoyable, and Roadhouse Nights (1930) is remarkable for being the only official adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest (unofficial source material for Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars, Last Man Standing...), only you wouldn't know it because it reached the screen as a Jimmy Durante musical. The only thing it has in common with Red Harvest is its initials.
Still, nobody watches The Big Pond (1930) on account of Hobart, they're either drawn in by stars Maurice Chevalier and Claudette Colbert, or by the fact that this was Preston Sturges' first screenwriting job. Hired by gun-toting independent Walter Wanger (who would later shoot off a love rival's testicle), Sturges is credited with dialogue only but also reworked the plot to let Chevalier get the girl, a must after the star had established himself as a peculiar but somehow acceptable romantic lead in Ernst Lubitsch's The Love Parade the previous year. That movie fairly creaks today, though it deserves credit for inventing the musical form as we know it (by way of the film operetta, a form which admittedly did not survive long as a going concern). The Love Parade, viewable only in rather tatty form, shows signs of sclerosis too, but picks up something resembling pace as it goes, driven by the Chevalier ebullience.
Sturges' dialogue initially struggles to make itself felt, or even heard, above the soundtrack's pensive crackle. Some snappy slang expressions raise a smile: Chevalier's rival complains Colbert has "given me the ozone." Later, Chevalier advises the schnook on how to make love, which leads to practically a full action replay of the wooing process, between two men, in the back of a car. the driver looks back and sees them holding hands and we get a great horror movie reaction shot:
Chevalier sings two songs. "You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me" ("If the nightingales could sing like you/They'd sing much sweeter than they do") gets so many renderings, as gondola serenade and shipboard duet, and picked up by swank party band and street organ grinder, that it seeps into the brain cells like formaldehyde. No wonder the Marx Brothers felt the urge to beat it to death in Monkey Business. Ironically, Claudette Colbert never could sing a note, and her dubbing here must be one of the earliest examples of the craft. Later, Chevalier introduces "Living in the Sunlight, Loving in the Moonlight," best known for its eccentric falsetto cover version by Tiny Tim. Chevalier's original is its equal in elated stupidity and almost unpleasant rapidity. It leaves one breathless and giggly. Hobart Henley sits back and records it in a single medium long shot, as if stupefied.
Chevalier's much-vaunted Gallic charm can appear at times as oiliness, but Sturges renders him sympathetic by heaping difficulties on him as a naive outsider in America, making him both an underdog and a fish out of water, a role which suits the actor, with his face reminiscent of both a pug and a guppy. What Maurice Chevalier most resembles, though, is an Al Hirschfeld drawing of Maurice Chevalier.
Sturges clearly finds this material conducive: the battle between romance (Europe) and business (America) is played out entertainingly, as it would be in The Lady Eve (1940) and others. Chevalier's father-in-law-to-be, who would rather not be, is a millionaire who made his fortune from gum. "Don't bite the gum that feeds you," his haughty daughter is advised.
Though the decrepit print, its image flaking and faded, its sound boxy and fizzing, imparts a strange quality unintended by Hobart Henley, and reminiscent of Raudive's recordings of departed spirit voices from beyond the grave, a restoration would be nice.

The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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