Wednesday 19 September 2012

Marion and Clark in 'Polly of the Circus' (1932)

Instead of finishing my Warren William series - which I should have done in August - I've decided to do a couple of random movie reviews rather then sticking to one actor or genre. Most of these will be ones that I have had in my movie collection for a while but haven't had the opportunity or inclination to actually watch. The first one is one of the Marion Davies and Clark Gable pairings, 'Polly of the Circus' (1932).


Pauline ‘Polly’ Fisher (Marion Davies) and the company of a circus arrive in a small conservative and religion-oriented town. As soon as she arrives, Polly is furious at the suspected influence the church has on the circus advertisements by covering her bare legs with skirt and pant shaped fabric. She instantly storms down to the church to confront the minister.
Polly at the circus
She finds the reverend to be the young, handsome, quick-witted and very charming Rev. John Hartley (Clark Gable).  He tells her that it is not his fault, but censorship regulations that require her body parts to be covered. They appear to like each other – the beginnings of a typical Hollywood love/hate relationship.
Later that day, on Polly’s first performance as a trapeze artist, she is distracted by a heckler and falls to the ground. She only just survives and is taken to Rev. Hartley’s house. On doctor’s orders not to remove her, Polly is forced to recover in his house for a couple of months. Bonding over their equally strong sense of humour and Polly’s new found interest in the Bible, they slowly fall in love. On the night before Polly is set to leave, she cooks John a late night sandwich, and they profess their feelings through passages in the Bible.

Later that night, John’s servant Downey (Raymond Hatton) attacks Polly, yelling that the ‘jezebel’ has brought sin to the house by seducing the reverend. He is not the only one upset about the relationship, John’s uncle and the bishop of the parish Reverend James Northcott (C. Aubrey Smith) refuses to acknowledge the marriage and threatens to fire John from his position at the church.

Nevertheless, the couple marries and John plans to accept a position in a different church. Rumors of the past of Mrs. John Hartley, helped along by Rev. James, follow the couple and John is unable to find steady employment. They are forced to move into a small, dingy apartment and are unable to pay their household bills but both still seem deeply in love.   One night they have an argument, Polly tells John that he should look for work in areas other than the church; however, it is clear that it is John’s great passion and he will not give it up. Polly is sad and guilty that she is keeping her husband from what he loves. To Polly, there is only one solution, leave John. She talks with his uncle and finds that he would not get his job back even if they divorced or separated, and realises, to society, John would only be accepted back in the church as a widower. First, she persuades John into thinking she doesn’t love him anymore and returns to the circus. A few days later, Rev. James goes to see John, under the impression Polly is about to commit suicide to save Johns reputation. Meanwhile, jaded and depressed, Polly begins her trapeze routine without the help of a net.
Polly ready to begin her act
Thankfully, John and Rev. James hot on her heels.

Far from being a quintessential Precode, ‘Polly of the Circus’ appears to be a typical all-star movie. Basically, it is a movie to watch not for the script or plot, but for Marion Davies and Clark Gable. Made four years before Davies and Gable’s more popular collaboration ‘Cain and Mabel’ (1936), ‘Polly’ is a good film with lots of great dialogue and a fast-moving pace but where it does lack is in the plot department. It does have a clear sequence of events and the characters are clearly defined; however, as many hour long Precodes suffer, needs to expand some plot elements and show the audience more. For example, the nature of Polly is never fully developed. The viewer is given snippets of her past, such as, growing up in circus life and her obvious openness about sex but is left to assume she is not a pure character and accept that the parish dislike her without knowing much of her.
Having not seen a Marion Davies picture before, I was surprised to note how talented and charming she appeared. As, the girlfriend of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, she is often painted as a women who used his influence and wealth to extend her acting career. To me, at times Marion seems reminiscent of Joan Crawford in Rain in both their free-spirited, flirty natures and their similar almond eyes and you cannot deny that both women were beautiful. During the film it is easy to see that Marion was an accomplished silent actress; there are several wonderful slapstick comedy scenes – mainly with Rev. John’s servant Downey – and Marion’s funny lifelike impressions of some of the smaller characters.

Marion having fun
Like with other Precodes, I find Clark Gable’s appearance odd; perhaps he is incomplete without his moustache or, similar to Humphrey Bogart, is suffering from being too young. Although, at times I don’t believe him in the role of a reverend, I did like him in this role and would recommend it to all Clark Gable fans.   

Clark without his moustache
When viewing this film in the context of its era, there are not a lot of Precode moments. As, it is set mostly in a circus environment, the directors tried to slip in the occasional ‘freak’, such as, bearded ladies, strange clowns and strong men.  However, in saying this, the film is filled with sexual innuendo and frank sexual discussions. Polly is always questioning John’s feelings on sex – the ‘hotness’ of the Bible and that his wife would have to ‘sleep in the woolshed over lent’. As well as these lines all from Polly to Rev. John:

“Having viewpoints is alright, but putting paper bloomers on them is an insult.”  And.
“Don’t paw me, are you one of those fellas that has to put his arms all over a girl.”
Overall, ‘Polly of the Circus’ is a good film and worthwhile if you only have time to watch a short movie. It is not a great film or even a classic Precode, but I think most Marion Davies or Clark Gable fans will appreciate it.

'Polly of the Circus' publicity shot


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