Welcome back to After the Silents, where we take a look at the careers of silent movie people after the talkie revolution. Today, we are going to be defending the reputation of a much-maligned director.
Misbehaving Husbands stars Harry Langdon, a wildly talented comedian who hit it big for a few glorious years in silent films. Langdon’s career sputtered but it did not die and he kept right on working, trying to guide his comedy persona back to success in the talkies. He never reached the same heights as his glory days but his sound work is well worth your time.
The director of this picture is William Beaudine, who has been the target of some rather bizarre attacks and who deserves a spirited defense. I will be looking at his life and career after the review. (Langdon is for another day.)
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m just wild about Harry. He’s one of my very favorite silent comedians and one of the few who can make me laugh out loud. Something about his slow, sleepy man-child just hits the spot for me. (Some comedy authors want to kick him out of the Big Four and make it a trio with Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. Feh! The “Big Four” thing is an artificial construct and if people feel that way, Harry and I can go and have fun without them. Why limit ourselves to four anyway?)
As stated above, I’ll save Langdon’s post-silent career for another day but I should note that the narrative has been taken over by Frank Capra, who parted with Langdon on less-than-friendly terms. I’m not necessarily saying that Capra was wrong, just that more research is needed before I can delve deeper into the rise and fall of the Little Elf. (There are some very strong opinions on this matter. I am still researching and will form a verdict when the time is right, though I will say that I found Langdon’s work as a director to be decidedly blah and possibly even meh.)
When Langdon is discussed, people often mention the strangeness of his silent comedy persona and how there might be an acclimation period. I don’t know if I am in the minority but I required no such period, I loved him instantly and found him hilarious. So if you’re looking for tips on how to get over the hump, I really can’t help because I was an instant fan.
(I will say that I absolutely disagree with film historian Walter Kerr’s belief that Langdon can only be appreciated in contrast with the other silent comedians. I watch perhaps one silent comedy for every ten dramas and had seen almost NO silent comedy when I first saw The Strong Man many, many years ago. I still fell in love with Langdon’s Little Elf.)
By 1940, Langdon’s elfin character had grown up a bit. He was still naïve and a little bit sleepy but he had entered the adult world. Would the results be funny or disastrous? That’s what we’re going to discuss as we review Misbehaving Husbands.
Henry Butler (Langdon) owns a department store and his completely absorbed in his business. He’s a ditz yet manages to run a successful and popular retail store. This is probably due to the fact that he has great fashion instincts and is an obsessive perfectionist. His wife, Effie (silent era bombshell Betty Blythe), quips that he loves the store more than he love her but they are clearly a devoted couple.
However, there is trouble brewing. A lawyer calling himself Gilbert Wayne (Gayne Whitman) has been helping wives of the smart set get divorces. In exchange for a large slice of the settlement, of course. Haven’t you heard, dear? Divorce! It’s the absolute latest!
On the night of their wedding anniversary, Harry works late and leaves Effie with a room full of hungry guests. Harry is rearranging mannequins and live models for a new display in the morning. However, to some prying eyes, it looks very much like he is carrying on with beautiful women in the store. One misunderstanding leads to another, gossips start talking (one of them is played by Gertrude Astor, who was Langdon’s partner in his acclaimed stair scene in The Strong Man) and Wayne swoops in to help with the upcoming divorce.
Things look bad for Effie and Harry but help is on the way. Since neither party wishes to vacate their house during the divorce proceedings, witnesses are called in to assure that they are living separately under the same roof. Bob Grant (Ralph Byrd, taking time off from Dick Tracy) and Jane Forbes (Luana Walters) are the witnesses but they also prove to be amateur detectives. Both suspect that the divorce is being ramrodded and that Wayne is the man responsible. But can they crack the case before Effie and Harry finalize their divorce?
To be honest, Misbehaving Husbands was a very pleasant surprise to me. As the picture was filmed under the banner of Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC), a cheapie outfit if there ever was one, my expectations were low. However, the silent veterans really pull this one off. Harry Langdon and Betty Blythe make a charming married couple and darned if I don’t believe they are madly in love with one another. (I would pay cash money to see how Harry won over Betty the glamour goddess back in 1920. It would probably be adorable.)
Langdon’s previous babyish behavior has matured into fussiness. He is never satisfied and is always playing around with displays and mannequins. Speaking of mannequins, much humor comes from his woes with Carole, a little blonde number purchased from a wax museum. He carries her around, trying to rearrange a window display, drops her on the ground, cracking her head and gets accused of murder when passersby notice him carrying around a rather stiff and lifeless woman.
Langdon is still a panicky creature who loses his head when the going gets rough but his comedy is less surreal and more grounded. It works extremely well for the film.
I liked Langdon’s more mature take on the Little Elf and Blythe’s warmth as his doting wife. I also enjoyed seeing Ralph Byrd hang up his Dick Tracy fedora in exchange for… another fedora. Actually, isn’t it possible that this “Bob Grant” is really Tracy in disguise? This theory pleases me.
It’s not all good news, I’m afraid. Luana Walters is simply painful as Jane and the “funny” antics of the protagonist couple’s African-American servants are best left without comment. Fortunately, none of these rotten apples hang around long enough to spoil the whole film.
I have no complaints. I was promised a light marital comedy and I got one. I was promised some laughs and I got those too. The plot is thin but not disagreeably so and the film is well-paced and looks more expensive than it was. I have to agree with contemporary critics: Misbehaving Husbands easily equals the quality of romantic comedies being made by the majors and is considerably better than some films with higher budgets and bigger names.
The plot could have used a bit of tightening and I could have done without the Stepin Fetchit “comedy” from the Butler’s servants but overall, this is a light and breezy bit of fun and there are certainly worse ways to pass a movie night. This was an extremely pleasant surprise.
Availability: In the public domain so pretty much take your pick from the bargain discs.
William Beaudine has gotten a raw deal from movie history. A director with one of the longest stints on the job, he started out at Biograph and ended up directing popular television. He was efficient and professional, two qualities that all but guaranteed employment. Unfortunately, Beaudine’s legacy has been tainted by the horrible brothers Medved, who were apparently the ones who slapped the nickname “One Shot” onto the poor man, supposedly because he never did a retake. The nickname stuck and now every reviewer seems to have to put in a cheap shot at old One Shot. (I can’t bother to keep the Medveds straight as to which brother wrote which book. If they won’t bother with proper research, why should I?)
I dislike the Medveds’ “worst movie” books as they generally punch down, aren’t very funny and toss in some casual racism toward Korea. Thoroughly unpleasant.
The other raw deal comes at the hands of Mary Pickford. She insisted that while shooting the gothic masterpiece Sparrows, Beaudine tried to make her crawl over a real gator pit with a real baby on her back. Pickford’s tale is that Douglas Fairbanks freaked out and came racing from the set of The Black Pirate to make Beaudine aware of his displeasure.
First of all, those gators Pickford crawled over were clearly very realistic puppets. We see the wires, Mary, you’re not fooling anyone. Second, the baby on her back is clearly a dummy. Third, the other shots of the real gators that included live actors actually used double exposure. No woman or child was ever in any real danger. Fourth, are we really supposed to believe that Mary Pickford couldn’t fight her own battles? Finally, cinematographer Hal Mohr—the man responsible for those double exposures—came to Beaudine’s defense and confirmed that no one was ever anywhere near live gators.
So, which is it? Was Beaudine a hack who didn’t care or an insane tyrant who insisted on realism even if it endangered a movie star and a baby? Make up your minds, people, I have reviews to write! (Silent movie fans know to be wary of these tales of terror. It seems that every silent movie director must be portrayed as an Erich von Stroheim at some point.)
I have enormous respect for Beaudine’s talents as a director. He didn’t finish directing Sparrows but he had fun with Little Annie Rooney and his 1926 film The Canadian is positively brilliant. Further, his sound career shows that he was capable of very good things. For example, his 1932 film Make Me a Star is a sensitive and sympathetic look at the motion picture game and the emotional damage it inflicts even on people who have found success. Beaudine doubtlessly could relate to that narrative. Both The Canadian and Make Me a Star showcase what Beaudine was best at: finding humanity in characters, no matter how humble. The characters may be eccentric and may even do ridiculous things but they are never set up as figures for ridicule. Beaudine’s style was not flashy because he was all about the people.
(If you want to know more about Beaudine’s life and career, I recommend William Beaudine: From Silents to Television by Wendy L. Marshall, his granddaughter.)
Our A-list director slipped into the Bs but he still had some pizzazz left. Misbehaving Husbands didn’t have an enormous budget but it’s not terribly obvious because it made intelligent use of the money it had. There are no flubbed lines or awkwardness that Beaudine’s fictional reputation would suggest and there are even a few sophisticated visual touches. When Effie discovers the shoe, she stares at it and the camera pans in, there’s a fade and the shoe has been carried to a different location. However, the shots are carefully matched so that the shoe is in an almost identical position both times. My point is that effort was made and it shows. In fact, contemporary critics praised Beaudine for making the production look significantly more expensive than it was.
Beaudine directed television episodes and films until 1968. I can’t claim to have seen everything he made (the man has almost 400 director credits!) but the sample I have viewed is pretty typical for its era and budget. Beaudine was earning a living but he was quite capable and respected by his contemporaries. Walt Disney personally hired him to direct the Wonderful World of Color. (They had known each other for years.)
When tossing insults Beaudine’s way, his monster/western mashups are usually trotted out. He dabbled (Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter and Billy the Kid Versus Dracula) but didn’t exactly make a career of this odd sub-genre and he took the jobs in the middle of his stints with Lassie, Disney and The Green Hornet. The directing of these western mashups cannot be described as enthusiastic but you try to get excited about the cheesy scripts he was assigned. In any case, he was filming for the drive-in crowd and knew it. He was hired to make a kitschy crowd-pleaser and that’s what he delivered.
Beaudine was rushed in his B pictures and knew every shortcut in the book but there is a difference between having a tight schedule and apathetic sloppiness. Further, he made a point of reconnecting with old Hollywood friends who might be looking for work (a particular challenge after the Second World War) and got them parts in his pictures. B pictures didn’t pay a lot but it was something to put in the bank and on the resume. (I wonder how many unemployed veterans Beaudine’s critics have helped out.)
The saddest part about Beaudine’s decline is that he seemed to be a lovely man. Humble and kind, he accepted his demotion and kept right on working. I am glad that he got to bask in a few accolades during his lifetime. When The Canadian was rediscovered after being thought lost for decades, Beaudine was invited to the 1970 screening and enjoyed a standing ovation. “I was quite good in spots,” he remarked. The screening came just in time; William Beaudine passed away one month later.
Beaudine was a top director of the silent era and while he never artistically matched those early days, he was not the hack that some would lead you to believe. He was just a man trying to earn a living doing the work he had always done. Even if all his sound work had been utter rubbish, Beaudine more than earned his bones in the silent era. I’m not sure what it is about him that inspires such cruelty but I really wish it would stop. He doesn’t deserve it and these “clever” quips say more about the hecklers than they do about Mr. Beaudine.
So, next time you hear William Beaudine referred to as “One Shot” and a hack, watch The Canadian and watch Make Me a Star. Follow it up with Misbehaving Husbands. If anyone still insists that Beaudine was a bad director or even the “worst director of all time” I recommend shoving a jalapeno jelly bean up their nose while they reconsider.
(Disclaimer: Not actually advocating battery with pepper-flavored confections.)