Sunday, September 28, 2008

Daybreak (1931)

Daybreak lost $100,000 for MGM, and it’s not hard to see why. The film unsuccessfully straddles the line between Stroheim-ish decadence and slick, feel-good, romantic MGM gloss. Attempting to appeal to both sensibilities, it’s successful in neither.

Based on a book by Austrian novelist Arthur Schnitzler (whose work was also the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut), Daybreak features a cad as the protagonist, Ramon Novarro (playing a William Haines-type character, only not funny), an Austrian lieutenant who pursues shy, sweet Helen Chandler, then insults her when he makes clear he wants her only as a mistress. The most logical thing happens next (logical if you’re in tune with the vibes of early ‘30s movies): within seconds, the insulted sweet music teacher casts Ramon out of her life, flees to the arms of the sneering, sweating, debaucherous Jean Hersholt, who earlier tried to rape her (Jean Hersholt!), and becomes, overnight, an angry, cynical, gambling, seen-it-all woman of the world.

Of course.

What bizarre aspect of the American psyche made this theme so popular in the early ‘30s? Even sweet Norma Shearer went this route (in The Divorcee), but the queen of spurned-and-fornicating ex-lovers was Greta Garbo. Her surreal turn as Susan Lenox (in Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise) has to be the quintessential portrayal of this sort of archetype, as she literally sleeps her way around the world in revenge, Clark Gable spurning her at every far-fetched meeting (of course, they really love only each other).

Anyway, MGM filmed two endings to Daybreak, one faithful to the novel (Ramon commits honorable suicide, being unable to pay back money lost trying to win Helen back in a game of Baccarat!), and the other a happy reuniting of the two lovers. They used the latter.

Novarro reportedly attempted to buy this film off MGM and shelve it. To make matters worse, the director Jacques Feyder, who didn’t speak English well, was sick during much of the shooting. The end result is a film of inconsistent tone, unable to please either the women’s audience, who wanted to see Ramon in a likeable role, or those fans of Lubitsch and von Stroheim who like their decadence unprettified.

Daybreak is not available on VHS or DVD, but has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.

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