Vanity Fair is one of the most enduring classics of English literature. It’s been a century and a half since it was published and readers have still not tired of the adventures of Becky Sharp.
It’s the story of a poor young woman and her ruthless efforts to break into high society and to gain financial security by any means fair or foul. Given the choice, she will take foul. William Makepeace Thackeray weaves a delicious satire with a double dollop of zaniness to offset the tragedy. (Anyone who denies the zaniness has clearly not read chapter VI. Can I just mention how much I adore Mr. Thackeray?)
Such an evergreen work would be a tempting target for modernization and in the early 1930s, the obscure Allied Pictures Corporation decided to do just that. Like most of the poverty row studios, Allied did not have a stable of major stars. Instead, they hired freelancers or rented the services of stars under contract with larger studios.
For their Becky Sharp, Allied arranged for MGM to loan them Myrna Loy. She is remembered today as one of the sparkling comedy stars of the thirties and forties but at this point she was a perennial also-ran. Famous enough to be known but not famous enough to be cast in leading roles over at the majors. Her big break was still a few years off.
Vanity Fair is a veritable buffet of silent veterans. Besides Loy herself (I covered her silent career in my review of Love Crazy), we have Montagu Love, Billy Bevan, Lionel Belmore and the picture’s director, Chester M. Franklin, who had helmed Norma Talmadge vehicles and the pioneering color movie, The Toll of the Sea.
Today, though, we are going to be focusing on Conway Tearle, a popular star in his day who is best remembered as Mary Pickford’s leading man in Stella Maris. How did he end up here? Well, Mr. Tearle’s tumble from big lot studios to the minor leagues can be directly connected to… Fatty Arbuckle? Yes, we are going to be taking a look at hardball negotiations and the hidden aftermath of Hollywood scandals.
First, the film.
Review: Vanity Fair (1932)
Available on DVD.
The first two acts of Vanity Fair follow the novel pretty closely. Here is the very basic rundown. Amelia Sedley (Barbara Kent) is a bubble-headed rich girl who brings her boarding school friend home for the holidays. Becky Sharp (Myrna Loy) has no money and no family but she means to get both. Her target is Joseph (Billy Bevan), Amelia’s older brother. The Sedleys quickly bundle Becky away and Joseph escapes unwed.
Becky has a position as governess for the Crawley family. Sir Pitt (Lionel Belmore) and his son, Rawdon (a disinterested Conway Tearle), both make it their goal to talk their way into Becky’s heart and/or bed. Rawdon wins the race but the joke is on Becky. She married Rawdon right before Sir Pitt’s wife died and her husband hasn’t a penny of his own.
The pair begin to live by their wits. Rawdon cheats at cards and Becky “befriends” older noblemen without her husband’s knowledge. (Rawdon is as stupid as a box of rocks.) Amelia has married George (Walter Byron), a creep of the first water who is trying to make Becky his mistress. He gets killed in a hunting accident before much can come of the affair. His best friend, Dobbin (Anthony Bushell), loves Amelia but she refuses to forget George.
Rawdon catches Becky with a certain Marquis of Steyne (Montagu Love) and orders her out of the house. As she is leaving, a telegram arrives saying that Sir Pitt is dead, Rawdon is his heir and he is rich. Rawdon gloats that he wanted Becky to see what she missed. Mature, very mature.
So it’s a long slide to the bottom for poor Becky. Rawdon gets off scot-free but our adventuress soon begins to lose her edge, her looks and her spirit. If it sounds depressing, it is.
While the book leaves the heroine in secure if somewhat shady circumstances, the film makes it very clear that Becky gets What She Deserved. Feh! Worse, we are expected to believe that Myrna Loy was dumped by Billy Bevan. He dumps her.
To be honest, I liked this film a lot more than I thought I would. Loy does a good (not great) job of portraying Becky’s quick-thinking ways. I enjoyed how her voice goes up an octave or two when she is putting on her sweetie-pie act and she has a few scenes that are very good indeed. (Her confrontation with Dobbin, for example.)
In fact, I dare say that the first two-thirds of the film are enjoyable. The cheapness of the production shows, sure, but enough of the original novel remains to make things worth a viewer’s time.
The single biggest mistake was keeping the action in England. The movie’s low budget meant that sets were kept to a minimum and so the “English” settings are terribly generic, more like New York lite. This clearly was noticed by the filmmakers because they compensate with just about every stereotyped Britishism under the sun. Words like “cheerio” and “guv’nah” are tossed around and even telegraphed. The accents range from genuine to so-so to just plain wretched.
Let me explain it in terms that the filmmakers will understand: Look here, old bean, when one sets out to make a movie in jolly old, one really should make things look the ticket or you’ll end up with a proper pig’s breakfast. Pip pip, cheerio and Bob’s your uncle. I am off to do more bad imitations of P.G. Wodehouse. (I think I missed the boat not using “cor, blimey” but there you are.) British readers are now offered a chance to take revenge. Please let me know your clichéd Americanisms, pardner.
The performance quality is as mixed as the accents. Myrna Loy tries, Billy Bevan is pretty good, Lionel Belmore mugs outrageously, Montagu Love seems confused, Conway Tearle mails in his part (and make sure the check is made out to T-E-A-R-L-E).
Matters are not helped by Chester M. Franklin’s direction. The extent of his camera work is a pan here and a pan there, tricks that were standard by 1915, which was also the year that Franklin started directing. There are few close-ups, most of the dramatic scenes are handled by a single medium shot.
As editing, cinematography and visual effects became more sophisticated in the silent feature era, many early directors found it difficult to catch up. Franklin is clearly one of them. His output slowed to a crawl after 1924 and he directed his last picture in 1936. Franklin does seem aware of the times in one area. Just to remind us that this is a pre-Code flick, the ladies have heart-to-hearts in their undies. You know, as women do.
Now we move onto the film’s Achilles heel. There are two mistakes that most movie adaptations of Vanity Fair commit. Either they try to make Becky a more sympathetic figure, an anti-heroine of sorts, or they make it very clear at the end that she got her comeuppance. Obviously, the 1932 version adopts the latter tactic while the 1935 Miriam Hopkins vehicle, Beck Sharp, takes the former. Neither approach is satisfying because the appeal of Thackeray’s novel is that it paints its characters in shades of gray and does not make moral pronouncements at the end. Taking the very thing that made a book memorable and chucking it? A proud Hollywood tradition since time immemorial.
Side note: Nowadays, comeuppance is out and the trend seems to be “the villain’s point of view” but the villain is totally secretly good, which negates the entire purpose of calling them a villain so why did they… Okay, yes, I am still annoyed that one of the movies on my twelve hour flight to Korea was Maleficent. I am still trying to get the taste of that stinking pile of cheesy CGI crud out of my mouth. I’m pretty sure that screening it was a violation of some international law. However, one of the other movies was Godzilla. Sure, it was like three hours of boring people talking and running and stuff but then we got monster fights. Monster fights make me happy. A point to Godzilla! And those are the blockbusters of 2014 in review, folks! You wonder why I stick to silents.
Back to Becky!
While most version of the tale (even the excellent 1998 miniseries, which otherwise manages to be pretty faithful to its source) allow the romance of Amelia and Dobbin to stand as a reasonably happy element in the ending, Thackeray has no such illusions. Amelia is the sort of sweet loyal heroine beloved by audiences in the nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. Thackeray shows her to be a naïve little fool, sanctimoniously clinging to the memory of an unworthy man. Dobbin’s noble wait is shown as being equally foolish and his character is tragic in that he knows that Amelia is undeserving but he can’t give her up. He loves her but he cannot respect her. Their final union is bittersweet with both understanding that their relationship will never recover.
Rawdon is the dashing officer, bold and brash and not particularly bright. There is no happy ending for him in the book. He takes a foreign post and dies there. One gets the impression that he never really understood what hit him.
Becky is a gambler who knows that she has two assets: her wits and her beauty. The former she will always have but the latter must be spent before it fades. In her haste to cash in, Becky miscalculates badly but she is clever enough to rebalance herself. She is always ready to catch an opportunity. Born in a time when women could inherit money or marry money but had very few ways to earn money, Becky seeks to climb the social ladder and gain the financial stability that she craves. However, Becky is not a plucky little heroine. Her quest is ruthless, she is ready to step on anyone’s head, including her child, husband and best friend.
While the story could have been adapted to Depression-era realities, the film makes no real effort in this regard. Instead, we are shown a rather Dickensian view of life in which a middle class existence is next to impossible. One is either wealthy or a pauper. There are no other options. Why didn’t 1930s Becky sail to America where she could become an English governess and scam from coast to coast? Why didn’t she take to the stage? While opportunities for women were limited in the 1930s, there is really no comparison to the social taboos that ensnared women in Napoleonic War-era England.
Speaking of the war, the movie also misses a chance at better drama when it kills George in a hunting accident. In the original novel, George falls at Waterloo, which makes Amelia’s veneration of her war hero husband a bit more believable. The 1932 version could have easily had him die in the first world war. Talk about missing an opportunity.
Further, the film manages to reinforce the very class distinctions that Thackeray was satirizing. Rawdon’s short-lived marriage to Becky does not ruin his life as it ruins hers. He will doubtlessly be back at the old club once the scandal of his card-cheating ways calms down. This is treated as right and proper. Amelia is a moron of the first water but she still manages to keep the position in society she was born into. The film is a not-so-subtle condemnation of a lowbrow girl attempting the break into the upper crust. I wonder how this played for Depression audiences. Not too well, I would imagine.
In short, I bought into the movie’s reality until Rawdon dumped Becky. After that, the film seemed unsure what to do with itself, possibly due to censorship concerns. One minute Becky is a shabby but still able to put up a good front. Then she throws herself at Joseph and it all goes down the drain. Why would Becky do that? In the book, Joseph has some money so it is obvious why she would use him as a lifeline. (Thackeray also broadly hints in book and illustration that Becky poisons her hapless admirer for money.) In the film, he is shown to be just as broke as Becky; in fact, he’s an infamous sponger. After her mistaken marriage to Rawdon, one would think Becky would check out Joseph’s finances before taking the romantic plunge again.
The film had an opportunity to show the reasons for Becky’s fall in the character of Steyne but he comes off as a doddering old man and not the malevolent force that he was in the novel. A pity as Montagu Love was an experienced arch-villain.
Here’s a bit of trivia. Myrna Loy and Montagu Love both played henchmen to the Borgias in the 1926 version of Don Juan so Vanity Fair was a bit of a reunion. Love had played a lot of baddies in the silent era but his image softened with the coming of sound. His voice was noble and worked well for fathers, magistrates and members of the clergy.
Loy, on the other hand, had not yet really benefited from sound. It hadn’t hurt her career, it just didn’t change anything. Loy was a dancer when she had been discovered by Rudolph Valentino and Natacha Rambova. Both tried to help her win roles but Loy admitted that her acting skills were not yet up to the challenge. Most of her silent parts were supporting bits of villainy, often as Asian temptresses.
It had been six years since Don Juan and Myrna Loy was still trying to break out of the exotic vamp typecasting that had trapped her in one-note roles. She felt ridiculous in stereotyped and offensive “Asian” roles, especially when called to play them opposite talented actresses like Anna May Wong. Loy left Warner Brothers (which had been her home for five years) for Fox and she left Fox to freelance when it became clear that they intended to give her more of the same. She finally signed on with MGM, the most prestigious studio in Hollywood but she still could not shake those darn vamp parts.
It seems ludicrous today that Miss Loy, our Nora Charles, Mrs. Blandings and dry-witted urban sophisticate, would be forced into black wigs and obliged to play some variety of man-eater. Casting directors of the twenties and early thirties didn’t see things that way and it took Loy a solid decade to claw her way out of this ridiculous niche.
Some reviewers question why Loy would be loaned to a tiny studio like Alliance and speculate that she must have annoyed the studio bosses and was loaned out a la It Happened One Night. This is highly unlikely for several reasons.
First, while Loy did start her career at MGM by turning down Freaks, it seems unlikely that she would be punished in such a manner so early into her contract. She simply was not that big a star. Firing would have been the more likely outcome. In any case, this was one of many loan-outs that Loy engaged in during her early years at the studio, the parts a mixed bag of prestigious and small potatoes. This leads us to…
Second, MGM was in full cost cutting mode (the Depression was in full swing) and hiring out their stars and supporting players helped pay the bills. Loy was known to photograph well, was reasonably inexpensive and was an undemanding performer who got along well with her co-stars. In short, she was an easy sell.
Finally, and most importantly, Vanity Fair would not have been much of a punishment for Loy. While the studio was tiny, Loy was getting top billing (she was usually at least four or five names down at this point) and she was not being called on to play a character by the name of Azuri or Tiza or Coco or Fifi. Becky Sharp is one of the juiciest roles in English literature. Loy had been openly lobbying for better parts and here was one of the very best. (Besides, poverty row and serials could get an actor noticed for better things. It worked for Clark Gable, Jennifer Jones and Robert Mitchum.) The benefits of Vanity Fair easily outweighed the costs. Plus, if it was a punishment detail, one would think Loy would include this detail in her memoirs. She does not.
Vanity Fair was not as bad as I had heard but it loses its way in the third act. Unimaginative direction and questionable story decisions sink a promising concept. Myrna Loy would move onto bigger and better things, thank goodness.
The film might have been another in a long line of gold-digger films from the thirties but the literary prestige of its source material holds it to a higher standard. Sadly, it does not rise to the occasion. A pity as the film does have its moments.
Availability: The film has received bargain bin release. Here’s hoping a better quality version becomes available.
There are silent movie leading men who are remembered today by even casual film buffs. Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, John Barrymore. There are silent movie leading men who are a little more obscure but who still have a following in silent circles. Milton Sills, Adolphe Menjou, Thomas Meighan. Then there are the silent leading men who were popular in their day but who are often greeted with a “Who?” by all but the most nerdy silent fans.
Conway Tearle fits into the latter category. His most famous film for modern viewers is 1918’s Stella Maris (read my review here) but most people are too captivated by Mary Pickford’s brilliant dual performance to pay him much mind. He also had a part in Dancing Mothers but most people go into that movie for Clara Bow so no soap.
Tearle was born as Frederick Conway Levy in 1878 (or at least that is the agreed-upon date, he gave several) to a notable entertainment family. His father was Jules Levy, a musician, and his mother was Minnie Conway, an actress. The Tearle surname is from his stepfather, Shakespearean Osmond Tearle. Most biographies put forward during Conway Tearle’s career omit his birth father and mention only his step-father.
It was only natural that our young Conway (he took to using his middle name early) would follow in the footsteps of his family and give the stage a try.
After a stint in England and Australia (he had the title role in productions of Ben-Hur, apparently) Tearle debuted on the American stage in 1905 and was soon co-starring with luminaries of the early-twentieth century stage. By the time the 1909 Actors’ Birthday Book was released, Tearle was described as having great promise.
In 1914, Tearle joined the mob of stage actors who suddenly realized that movies were not icky. Oh, sniffing and smirking at them was still all right but taking the picture studio’s cash had become quite the fad. (The Ben Hecht method, if you will.) Tearle signed on with Selnick Pictures (Lewis J. not David O.), did a bit of freelancing (this is where he made Stella Maris) and then returned to Selznick.
The stability did not last. Here is Tearle’s side of the story: In the wake of the scandals that had rocked the motion picture industry (Fatty Arbuckle, William Desmond Taylor, Mabel Normand, Wallace Reid), producers realized that they had a chance to suppress the star salaries that had been ballooning for years. In violation of U.S. law, the major studios formed a cartel of sorts, all promising to avoid bidding wars for talent.
Of course, we all know that studios did continue to bid for major talents but it is not outside the bounds of reason that they would agree to certain standard rates for mid-level stars. Tearle complained to both Will Hayes and the newly formed AMPAS that he was being cheated by Famous Players-Lasky. He claimed that he had been offered a salary of $3,000 a week but the studio had been pressured by the cartel to cap his salary and the producers reneged on the deal. Tearle was threatening legal action and exposure.
Will Hayes’ papers and the records of AMPAS do not indicate what specific action was taken to placate Tearle but no suit was brought.
Whether you believe his side of the story or not—and quotes from the Hayes papers indicate that no one was denying his claims—Tearle’s fall from grace is clear from his filmography. Prior to 1925, he had contracts with Selznick, Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount, and First National. After the salary dispute, his work is a mix of smaller outfits (Columbia) and poverty row studios (Allied, Chesterfield, Invincible) with occasional stints back at the big boys, most often First National/Warner Brothers and MGM. He even took a hiatus in 1928, though he was back to his busy schedule the following year.
This may seem like a humiliating step down but freelancing wasn’t all bad if handled right. Contract players had the security of a regular salary and a large studio to help them with publicity but they paid for these privilege with loss of autonomy. A freelancer could command a somewhat higher salary from even the smallest studios because it was a one-off expense rather than a recurring outlay. The blend of B-picture leads and A-picture supporting roles could be quite respectable, especially when we consider that Mr. Tearle was past fifty when sound took over the movies and many of his 1910s idol contemporaries were barely scraping by.
In addition to acting, Mr. Tearle was quite adept at marriage and divorce. He was married four times and had a habit of introducing a new spouse before her predecessor had properly exited. His second wife caught him taking an ocean cruise with his future third wife. Oops. His third wife then caught him with his future fourth wife, Adele Rowland (her first husband was Charles Ruggles), in a hotel room. Miss Rowland was wearing a robe and a smile. She later claimed that they were rehearsing a play (I’ll bet they were) and that wearing a robe was customary in such a case. Well, at least she tried. Rowland and Tearle wed in 1918 and remained together until his death.
(The current Wikipedia article on Tearle is unusually well-sourced and its claims check out. Therefore, I have no qualms about citing it.)
Tearle continued to work on the stage and supplemented his income with freelance movie work. His stage-trained voice is a bit plummy at times but audiences seemed to like it and he continued his eclectic career. In 1932, Tearle created the tragic role of Larry Renault, a washed-up matinee idol, in the original stage version of Dinner at Eight. (John Barrymore played the part in the screen version.) That same year, Tearle appeared in five feature films. Titles included Vanity Fair, Her Mad Night and The Hurricane Express. Well, we can’t accuse Mr. Tearle of being lazy.
Tearle’s last film part was a supporting role in the 1936 MGM Romeo and Juliet, a true gathering of the hams. The cast included John Barrymore, Basil Rathbone, C. Aubrey Smith and Reginald Denny.
In late 1937, Tearle joined Tallulah Bankhead as Antony to her Cleopatra. The play was savaged, with the sequin-clad Bankhead described as a “night-club queen” and employing “hootchy-cootchy posturing” while Tearle roared through his performance and was generally said to have swallowed the scenery whole. The play closed after five performances.
This would prove to be the final role in the varied career of Conway Tearle. He passed away a year later.
Conway Tearle is not the most famous of leading men and his popularity was not enduring but what an intriguing character he was!
Film Actors Organize: Union Formation Efforts in America, 1912-1937 by Kerry Segrave (Please use caution with this one. It states that Conway Tearle was driven out of the film industry within a few years of his complaint but this was clearly not the case.)
American Silent Film: Discovering Marginalized Voices Edited by Gregg Bachman and Thomas J. Slater (Excellent book but please note that some of the contemporary papers use the name Laemmle in place of Lasky in some places. It’s fairly safe to assume that this was a slip of the typewriter as the rest of the information makes it clear that Universal was not involved in the case.)