Welcome back to After the Silents. This series focuses on the careers of silent movie personnel in sound films and talkie stars who had forgotten careers in the silents. Today, we’re going to be talking about one of the most distinct voices in the history of cinema.
Edward Everett Horton is beloved for his numerous character parts in classic cinema, as well as his droll narration of the Fractured Fairy Tales series. After the review of Lonely Wives, we’ll be taking a look at an often overlooked chapter of his career: his work in silent films. (As an added bonus, the film we will be discussing co-stars three top silent era leading ladies: Laura La Plante, Patsy Ruth Miller and Esther Ralston. I’m excited!)
Before the history, let’s get reviewing!
Review: Lonely Wives (1931)
It’s 1931, the movies are talking and the code is toothless. What better time to make a bedroom farce about two lonely wives and one roguish husband?
Dickie Smith (Horton) is a stiff and staid fellow—until the clock strikes eight in the evening. Then he instantly transforms into a skirt-chasing party animal. This disturbs his mother-in-law, Mrs. Mantel (Maude Eburne), as she wants Smith and her daughter to commence with the breeding already. (Seriously, she wanders the house repeating “pitter-patter, pitter-patter” in a sing-song voice. I would have her committed.)
His wife is away in the mountains and so Smith arranges a date with both his sexy new secretary, Kitty Minter (Patsy Ruth Miller, The Hunchback of Notre Dame), and with his new client, Diane O’Dare (Laura La Plante, The Cat and the Canary). Diane is film star with a vaudeville husband who never seems to come home after the last curtain call and she is sick of it. She wants a divorce and a little fun with Mr. Smith in the bargain. If you often feel lonely in your marriage, take a look at this custom sex doll.
Smith tries to keep his date but Mrs. Mantel is watching him like a hawk. All seems lost when Zero (also Horton) shows up. Zero is Diane’s wayward husband and he is in the business of impressions. As Smith is something of a well-known local figure, Zero is hoping to secure permission to add him to his repertoire. Smith agrees—if Zero manages to fool Mrs. Mantel and the servants for the evening.
With Smith off on his date with Kitty and Diane, Zero makes himself at home but is soon thrown for a loop when Madeline Smith (Esther Ralston, Old Ironsides) comes home from the mountains early. She wants a big kiss from her husband and then she wants to see about that baby business.
So Zero and Smith have swapped wives for the evening with Kitty tagging along and making tart comments. Will this ever get sorted out? Well, of course it will, this is a Hollywood picture.
First, the bad news. Lonely Wives has many of the ingredients of what would eventually become the screwball comedy. However, the film lacks the snap and pacing of a true screwball. It also lacks the winking sophistication of the Lubitsch touch and barely manages single entendre. Worst of all, the film relies on everyone running around madly and turning off their brains for the final two reels.
Horton does do a pretty good job of keeping his characters distinct, a particular challenge when both are dressed as Smith. The finale of the picture involves the two Smiths criss-crossing around the house and confusing the living daylights out of everyone, including themselves. I feel this strains believability as both Smith and Zero know that they have a double in the general vicinity. Wouldn’t their first assumption be that their doppelganger is still in evidence?
Like Cactus Flower (1969), Lonely Wives makes a fatal error in casting a funny and talented actor who is absolutely ill-equipped to play a lothario. Cactus Flower expects us to believe that Walter Matthau is the object of desire for both Ingrid Bergman and Goldie Hawn. Lonely Wives expects us to believe that two incarnations of Edward Everett Horton are capable of driving Laura La Plante, Patsy Ruth Miller and Esther Ralston wild.
Horton sets about his usual routine of fussiness and he is so good at it that you almost forget how odd his casting is. Almost. Still, two Hortons are never a bad thing and a talented performer can do a lot with split screen. The actions of Smith and Zero may defy logic but Horton is so fun to watch (and so is Horton) that it makes up for many a sin. His hypocritical wronged husband routine is particularly funny and makes is eventual comeuppance satisfying. The special effects are pretty good, though they lack the virtuoso touches from the silent era. (Mary Pickford kissed her own cheek, Rudolph Valentino draped a fatherly arm over his own shoulder and Constance Talmage was inseparable from herself.)
I am delighted to report that the picture’s three leading ladies are also a treat. Patsy Ruth Miller has enough pre-code sass for three films. Laura La Plante is a doll as the ditz of the outfit and she does a killer drunk routine in the bargain. Esther Ralston has the last laugh as the innocent (or is she?) Mrs. Madeline Smith.
Alas, Maude Eburne plays her character like she’s afraid we can’t see her in the back. Mrs. Mantel is one of those dreadful characters known to inhabit romantic comedies of this sort. Basically, they show inordinate interest in the consummation of marriages and the making of babies. It reaches the point where you really wish they would seek professional help. Things are made even worse in Lonely Wives by the fact that Horton is closer in age to Eburne (she is eleven years older) than Ralston (she is sixteen years younger). Mrs. Mantel’s antic include playing baby-related novelty songs 24/7, locking her daughter and son-in-law in their bedrooms at night (!) and demanding to hear ALL the details of daughter’s love life. She is, frankly, terrifying.
Lonely Wives has deep flaws in its script and Horton is miscast but his considerable charm and the novelty of seeing him x2 is quite enjoyable. The cute performances from Ralston, La Plante and Miller are the icing on the cake and it’s a wonderful chance to see these talented women work their magic in the talkies.
Availability: Lonely Wives is in the public domain and is available in numerous editions, though I wager none are particularly pristine.
Edward Everett Horton
Few classic film actors have as many young fans as Edward Everett Horton. His witty narration of the Fractured Fairy Tales segment in Rocky & Bullwinkle made him one of my favorite classic character actors. I’m not sure if I saw him in Arsenic and Old Lace before or after but it was around the same time. His amusing turn in Holiday sealed the deal: I was a six-year-old fan of Mr. Horton.
I’ve never liked loud noises or loud people (shocking, I know, for a silent film blogger) and Horton’s quiet ways even when upset or stressed appealed to me. I think he has a bit of a Mr. Rogers vibe about him; he just comes off as such a nice, gentle man that it’s easy to love his characters, nervous tics and all.
Horton’s signature fluttering, nervous mannerisms are a delight but what really sells his work is his wonderful voice. He sounds like a kindly (if neurotic) schoolteacher and no one in movies has sounded like him before or since. And so it may come as a surprise that Horton had a successful career in silent films.
Alas, many of Horton’s silent starring features are missing and presumed lost, including Ruggles of Red Gap (1923), his breakout film made while he was still just Edward Horton. (It was later remade with Charles Laughton in the lead.)
Edward Everett Horton in a film based on a novel by my beloved Harry Leon Wilson? Yes, please! (On that note, please check your attics, basements, former Soviet archives, etc.)
Horton’s surviving silent films are mostly found in archives, some intact and a few incomplete, but at least we have film festivals that screen such rarities, right? And all is not lost as you can see him in a supporting role in La Boheme (1926), which is available on DVD.
Much of Horton’s career from his screen debut in 1922 to the talkie revolution is unavailable to the general public. I wish I could share more information with you but to make up for this shortage, vintage ads and clippings give us a tantalizing glimpse of this fascinating period:
Of course, fans of Horton can easily enjoy performances from his long sound career but it’s fun to go a little further back in time and examine the beginnings of one of the great character actors of classic films.