Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Laughing Boy (1934)


Laughing Boy, based on the Pulitzer prize winning novel by Oliver La Farge, could have been a good film. The story - of a Navajo, Ramon Novarro, who marries a fellow Navajo educated by whites and torn between two cultures - is a fascinating one and it's unique in its complete sympathy with the Navajo; there's not a good white person portrayed in the film.

Sadly, though, Laughing Boy is a mess. Ramon Novarro is seriously miscast in the lead role. With his Prince Valiant-like haircut and too much makeup, he looks ridiculous. Also ridiculous are the anachronistic songs he's made to sing (or lip-synch), which made me wonder if Jeanette MacDonald was going to glide onstage and join in. Fellow Mexican actor Lupe Vélez fares somewhat better as Laughing Boy's prostituting wife, but exotic doesn't equal authentic.

The movie, directed by W.S. Van Dyke, was partly shot on location with real Native Americans (some of the location footage may be left over from Universal's earlier attempt to film the novel). When mixed with particularly bad rear-projection scenes, cheap looking sets and MGM actors dressed like Navajo, the result is worse than jarring. It's absurd and takes you right out of the picture.

Laughing Boy's fate worsened when the Hays Office demanded cuts which almost make the film nonsensible. Due to fear of controversy, MGM didn't promote the film and it lost money - continuing a pattern for Novarro's films which culminated in MGM not renewing his contract in 1935. Laughing Boy was Novarro's least favorite film of the ones he appeared in. Andre Soares, in his book on Novarro, Beyond Paradise, reports that novelist Oliver La Farge splashed a drink in the face of the screenwriter of Laughing Boy after the release of the film; the ultimate commentary on the film.

Laughing Boy is not available on DVD, but has been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies.

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