Jetta Goudal and William Boyd are an aristocratic pair on the outs. Angered by his rejection, Goudal plays a cruel joke on her ex-fiancé—she sets him up with a “lady of the pavements” (Lupe Velez) gussied up as a lady of quality. D.W. Griffith’s final silent film.
My Fair Cabaret Singer
Before we get started, there is quick thing I should mention about D.W. Griffith: I don’t like his feature films, for the most part. His style is simply not appealing to me. However, I do very much enjoy his Biograph shorts. In my opinion (and it’s not a popular one), Griffith was a miniaturist whose talents lay in the vignette; he was most adept at conveying singularly American concepts in deceptively simple packages. (A Corner in Wheat, The New York Hat, The Musketeers of Pig Alley, etc.)
In short, he was exactly the wrong director for Lady of the Pavements, a decadent tale of cheating and jealousy among European nobility in 1870 or thereabouts. The project has a Cecil B. DeMille or Ernst Lubitsch written across it in glittering spraypaint; it even stars two of DeMille’s former headliners, William Boyd and Jetta Goudal. The sort of decadent confections that DeMille and Lubitsch created during the 1920s were more difficult to make than they appeared. Ask Alfred Hitchcock and F.W. Murnau. And, as it turns out, D.W. Griffith.
Before we begin, the usual disclaimer. I have absolutely no problem with viewers and critics who see D.W. Griffith as a flawed man who is nonetheless worthy of study or who find enjoyment in his pictures. This is a perfectly reasonable approach. Unfortunately, there is a subset of Griffith fans who view him as nothing less than a saint and get positively petulant if anyone has a different opinion. Even more annoying, they happily credit Griffith and Griffith alone for his successes (and those of other people) but all failures must be the fault of someone else.
I mention this because we’re going to discuss the backstage goings-on of Lady of the Pavements and, well, there’s every chance the comments section will get dicey. “D.W. Griffith was perfect and invented everything in the world and everyone must love him and say they enjoy his films more than cake and chocolate!” is an odd hill to die on but there you have it. I don’t tell other people what to like, I merely share my own taste and opinion, and I don’t appreciate it when others do not extend the same courtesy. (For an example of this behavior in action, I direct you to this comment section.) The ban hammer is dusted and ready in case things get too heated. All settled? Good! Let’s get started!
The film opens in the Prussian embassy circa 1870 and immediately focuses on a very bored Karl von Arnim (William Boyd). We know he is Karl von Armin because he is obsessively writing his own name with a quill pen. Karl is in love with Diane des Granges (Jetta Goudal) and we know this because her picture and name (“Eternally Yours”) are in his watch.
Karl gets out of work at the embassy early because the French emperor has urgent business and cannot attend a planned meeting. And by an amazing coincidence, Diane sends Karl a letter saying that she must cancel their date as she has a headache. Hmm, I wonder where this is going to end.
Karl calls on Diane anyway because he just received the okay for their marriage to go forward. He enters her rooms, accompanied by a slightly too unchained camera, and sees her locked in a passionate clutch with another man. The interloper escapes but Diane explains that it’s okay because he is her emperor. Karl proclaims that a “Count of Arnim never marries the mistress of any man.”
So many questions: Is this such a common happening in the Arnim clan that they made an official rule? It seems to me that if this is the case, the Counts of Arnim really need to be more careful about who they court. Do they inform their dates in advance of this rule? Seems a bit rude to spring this on them at the last minute, especially considering the mores of the aristocracy during this period.
Anyway, Diane wants Karl back but he proclaims that he would rather marry “a woman of the streets” and flounces out. Now Diane could have Karl expelled but she proclaims that she would rather revenge herself in a woman’s way. Apparently, the “woman’s way” is also the Blackadder way because Diane has cunning plan. (Alas, this is no comedy.) She will find a “woman of the streets” and then trick Karl into marrying her. Um, are you sure you don’t want to pursue that expulsion thing, Diane? No? Really? This is your plan? Well, okay but we’ve all seen My Fair Lady/Pygmalion.
The lady chosen for Diane’s scheme is Nanon (Lupe Velez), a vivacious Spanish singer who belts out Irving Berlin ditties at a low dive. (Good thing Griffith didn’t write the screenplay or Velez would have been saddled with a name like Lil’ Tinky-Winky Boo Boo of the Pavements or something.) She thinks the plan sounds like a lark and agrees and before you know it, she’s decked out in hoop skirts and learning how to curtsy.
And wouldn’t you know it, it’s love at first sight between Karl and Nanon. Shocking plot twist, I know. But what will Karl do when he finds out that his dream woman used to flip her tutu for the patrons of the Smoking Dog Cabaret?
The story is a bit choppy, if I didn’t already make it clear. In one scene, Nanon is tackling and kicking her etiquette tutor and the next she is doing a creditable job of passing as a convent-educated lady. And her romance with Karl is exactly as follows: they see one another, they flirt, they have one date and then they are engaged. As the entire film hinges on a believable romance, this proves to be a fatal miscalculation. Why are they in love? What do they have in common besides being the prettiest people in the room?
Now for the technical stuff: The camera work is pretty good but I think it’s a little too swoopy. The camera scurries to the door as someone enters and then immediately retreats. Reversing the zoom makes what could be an effective trick into a bit of unintentional comedy. (Accompanists! You’re missing the boat by not playing a slide whistle during these movements!) On the other hand, the camera rushing along with the characters in moments of emotional upheaval is quite good.
Unfortunately, the cinematography is as choppy as the screenplay. The swoops and zooms and tracking shots come to a screeching halt and we are given a bunch of static shots before we’re off zigzagging again. This movie will give you whiplash and not in a good way. I wonder if this can be blamed on the cinematography job being shared by Billy Bitzer and Karl Struss. (And before someone jumps in claiming that this film invented something, the moving camera was a very old hat by 1929. I suggest an incomplete playlist of Cabiria, David Harum, The Last Laugh, Variety and The Chess Player.)
There is some symbolism but it’s terribly ham-fisted. For example, the Smoking Dog Cabaret has a giant electric winking dog outside but while posing as a lady, Nanon gets her very own poodle. When she remembers her old life, the shot of the poodle dissolves into a shot of the electric dog. All well and good. But then Griffith does it again. And we get more and more shots of the electric dog. Seriously, give it a rest! And at the very end of the picture, we are given one more electric dog zoom for the road. They built that electric dog and, darn it, they’re getting their money’s worth!
This story absolutely aches for the Lubitsch touch or DeMille’s love of spectacle or even von Stroheim’s sleazy fingerprints. Reportedly, director Sam Taylor was slated to helm the thing but he got caught up in directing Mary Pickford’s Coquette. Taylor is best known for comedy (Safety Last, The Freshman, My Best Girl) but his Tempest (1928) is a fun costume melodrama in the best overwrought, kitschy silent tradition. A pity he didn’t end up directing.
Story and director were not exactly well-matched but there is more to the tale. Griffith always favored topics that were old fashioned even by the standards of the nickelodeon era. Many of his Biograph shorts are nonetheless a pleasure to watch because he knew how to wrap these hoary plots in modern 1900s-1910s trimmings and because the one and two-reel length allowed him to get his point across without overstaying his welcome. He managed to make a fair number of splendid little pictures in a brief space of time. His feature career, on the other hand, was wildly erratic with a few megahits punctuated by so-so potboilers and honest-to-goodness bombs.
In many ways, Griffith was a victim of his own success. He would deliver blockbusters and then financially tread water for a while before hitting the jackpot once again. Unfortunately, he eventually reached a point where there were no more jackpots waiting for him but it would have been impossible for him to know that at the time. As films became more costly, investors wanted a certain amount of consistency and sinking money into Griffith was more of a game of roulette.
(Incidentally, a familiar lament in silent movie star memoirs is how terrible it was that the studios didn’t give Griffith another chance. Funny, I didn’t hear about these stars offering up their personal fortunes to finance a Griffith indie production in the 1930s. My view of these complaints? Pay up or shut up.)
And now you know the reasons behind the relative lack of creative control Griffith enjoyed over this production. His autonomy had been ebbing during his brief stay at Paramount and he had not scored the kind of blockbuster that he needed to restore his finances and the faith of the front office. (Yes, I have seen The Sorrows of Satan. Solid C+.)
Producer Joseph Schenck controlled most aspects of the production and this is sometimes blamed as the cause of Griffith’s so-so direction. However, I have seen pictures in which Griffith had total creative control (looking at you, Love Flower) and they were so-so as well. At a certain point, we need to take responsibility for our own blunders. This idea that Griffith is always a righteous genius and any poor filmmaking is 100% the fault of someone else is a formula for inadequate film criticism.
What about the cast? Critics sometimes praise Lupe Velez’s character as a new direction for Griffith’s heroines. She’s temperamental! Not a damsel at all! Not a bit of Victorianism! While I am the first in line to throw rocks at Griffith for the ridiculous, simpering, manic mannerisms he often forced on his young female leads, I must correct this misconception. While Griffith did indeed have his share of saccharine virgins with names like Little Miss Yes’m, he also featured a generous number of gamines, hoydens and spitfires. Constance Talmadge, Dorothy Gish, Clarine Seymour and even the much-maligned Carol Dempster all had their turns playing the wild child in Griffith pictures. Lupe Velez is not an aberration but the last in a long line of silent troublemakers.
Velez is an absolute delight in the role. She had made a splash in Douglas Fairbanks’ The Gaucho but her follow-up in the DeMille-produced programmer Stand and Deliver was pretty vanilla and had barely managed to break even at the box office. (DeMille’s programmers made plenty of money but their lavish budgets invariably made profits elusive.) However, everyone seemed to agree that in Lady of the Pavements, a star was born. Velez sings and dances and brawls and pines and generally steals the show from one and all.
Harry Carr wrote a series of Hollywood insider articles for Smart Set magazine and he regaled his audience with the tale of Griffith vs. Velez.
Lupe out-gamed Griffith. This is a little secret. Griffith’s method is to acquire complete domination over every actress. If he can’t accomplish this complete surrender of will in any other way, he wears them down physically. (Editor’s Note: Charming man.)
He started in with Lupe early one morning. From breakfast time on, he put her through hard, difficult close-up scenes. When noon came, Griffith was tired; the camera man was plumb tuckered out, but Lupe was frolicking around. They went through the whole afternoon, and ended staggering on their feet— all except Lupe. Late that night— after midnight— Griffith fairly collapsed in his chair. His face was white and drawn; his voice was sagging with utter weariness. For a moment he stopped, and in the pause, Lupe leaped up and said to the exhausted orchestra: “Play some jazz; I want dance.”
Physical and sexual domination of women is a recurring theme in Griffith’s films and, by some accounts, in real life as well. He also seemed to enjoy setting his performers, technicians and others against one another in competition for jobs. You see why I really hope the story of his failure with Velez is true. What delicious irony to be defeated in his domination game by a jazz baby who was born the same year he made his debut as director.
Lost in the shuffle, possibly for the first time in her life, is Jetta Goudal. She is most often described as temperamental and columns were full of alleged feuding with Velez but we would do well to remember that the columnists and studio publicity teams were also busy inventing wars between Pola Negri and Gloria Swanson. I would take all such claims with a generous dose of sodium. What if instead of focusing on an alleged “catfight” (lordy, I hate that term), we talk about the fact that Goudal designed her own costumes? Because she did.
At this point in her career, Goudal was embroiled in a breach of contract lawsuit with Cecil B. DeMille’s studio. The case is far too complicated to deal with here but you can read the ruling if you are interested in learning more. Long story short, she won and the case is considered a landmark decision for actors. Despite the legal battles, Goudal remained a close personal friend of the DeMilles for the rest of her life.
Lady of the Pavements was Goudal’s last silent and her third-to-last film altogether. She isn’t given a huge amount to do beyond look lovely in her gowns and act nasty to the romantic leads. (She and Boyd worked together in Road to Yesterday and Her Man O’ War.) She’s not bad, exactly, just not nearly as much fun as she could be. (Goudal was the lone saving grace in the icky Open All Night. It’s about a wife who thinks her husband doesn’t love her because he won’t beat her. Really.) By the way, Goudal is often listed as French but she was really from the Netherlands. Her first name is pronounced exactly like the Volkswagen car with a softer J.
William Boyd, who was never particularly comfortable with serious romantic plots, is all at sea in this film. Give him some goofy, quirky romantic scenes (Eve’s Leaves) and he’s fine but ask him to become John Gilbert and he doesn’t know what to do with himself. I find myself in the peculiar position of agreeing with Mordaunt Hall, the New York Times’ notorious film critic: Boyd is entirely too American to be playing a Karl von Anything. Further, he is ill-at-ease with Griffithian mannerisms like kissing the bouquet of flowers he is about to present to his beloved. (In all fairness, most anyone would look doofy doing that.) It’s easy to see why Boyd abandoned love scenes entirely once he gained some creative control in the later Hopalong Cassidy series. I do love me some Boyd but this is not really his best silent performance.
Franklin Pangborn briefly shows up with his usual droll antics as an exasperated etiquette tutor. Frankly, it’s the sort of role he could play backwards and blindfolded but he and Velez have great comedic chemistry and seem to be enjoying themselves. Alas, all the comedic characters NOT named Pangborn or Velez are, quite frankly, painful.
The sound in Lady of the Pavements is sometimes blamed for the film’s failure. (There were issues with the sound technology United Artists was using.) However, it is fairly clear that Lady of the Pavements would not have wowed even with its sound intact. While the film won positive reviews, the critics were enchanted with Velez and almost everything and everyone else was lost in the shuffle. Her charming live appearances further cemented her status as the star of the show.
Is Lady of the Pavements a bad movie? Not at all, just a decidedly generic one. For what it is, it’s a pretty solid entry into the ugly duckling genre. However, it would have been much better if it had been directed by DeMille, Ernst Lubitsch or Erich von Stroheim. DeMille would have embraced the kitsch, Lubitsch would have added a winking touch of sophistication and von Stroheim would have sleazed it up. Griffith’s version just ends up being kind of nondescript and any watchability is owed to Lupe Velez. Worth seeing for fans of any of the leads and Griffith completists but no masterpiece.
Where can I see it?
Lady of the Pavements is not yet available on home video but it is a fixture on the festival circuit, where it is often screened with its original Irving Berlin songs incorporated into live musical accompaniment.
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