Mae Murray plays a good girl who pretends to be bad in order to land a job as a nightclub hostess. Rudolph Valentino plays a nice Irish boy (?) who falls for Mae but wishes she wasn’t quite so naughty. And, naturally, there is a cad who plans to use our heroine’s double life for his own nefarious purposes.
I’d like to report a mugging…
Mae Murray is yet another of those silent stars whose name recognition is bigger than her surviving body of work and of those surviving films, precious few are available for the general public to see. A dancer by profession before entering motion pictures, Murray was soon churning out popular films for Universal, many of which were directed by Robert Z. Leonard, who was also Mr. Mae Murray during the height of her fame.
The Delicious Little Devil along with the equally ridiculously titled The Big Little Person, were both made quickly to fulfill the final requirements of Murray and Leonard’s contracts at Universal. The studio was a backbiting place in those days, filled with nepotism and bad business decisions that drove away some of the biggest current and future names of the silent era. Mary Pickford, Lon Chaney, Irving Thalberg and Rudolph Valentino all passed through Universal and proto-Universal on their way to success elsewhere.
Not many tears were shed among studio management when Mae Murray departed. Murray was famed for her temperamental, spoiled behavior (though it is worth noting that some of her friends declared that she was framed) and was more than ready to move on. Universal could have not agreed more.
Valentino was Murray’s leading man in both The Delicious Little Devil and The Big Little Person. (The latter film, by the way, is lost but from its description is sounds like an absolutely ridiculous melodrama. Murray plays a woman who loses her hearing and endures all sorts of tragedies until Valentino’s caddish behavior causes her to faint and bash her head, which restores her hearing. I am not making this up.) At this point in his career, Valentino was still trying to find the formula for stardom but had not had much success so far. He swung between villainy and playing sweethearts but nothing seemed to stick. And, by the way, I would take Murray’s claims that she discovered Valentino with a few grains of salt.
(This is as good a time as any to mention that any discussion of Valentino’s love life is strictly verboten on this site. I’ve seen too many slap fights ensue and I haven’t the patience to referee. Take it outside, kids.)
It’s probably a good thing that Murray left Universal when she did. Who knows what titles her next films would have been? The Dry Rain Forest. The Burning Iceberg. The Short Giant. The Young Geezer. (Opposite day naming was a big thing in the silent era. For example, Richard Barthelmess later starred in The White Black Sheep. Yeah…)
So now that we know where Murray, Valentino and Universal stood, let’s take a closer look at The Delicious Little Devil. (And, boy, am I ever nervous. Mae Murray fans tend to be very… very. Very. Very.)
Mary McGuire (Mae Murray) is an Irish-American girl and the only member of her extended family who finds it necessary to work for a living. Her father and uncle spend their days playing checkers and eating the large meals her mother cooks. Mary works in the cloak room of a large hotel but is fired when her manager catches her playing dress-up with a guest’s expensive fur coat.
Meanwhile, a young fellow named Larry McKean (William Mong) has become managers of a sleepy inn and plans to turn it into the hottest night club in the state. He places an ad in the newspaper for a hostess and solo dancer who knows all the latest steps and is acquainted with all the best wine buyers.
The next day, Mary is reading the morning paper. The first item of interest is a bit of gossip about a famous dancer named Gloria du Moine. It seems that Gloria was caught up in a scandal with a certain Duke de Sauterne and has gone into hiding. Next, Mary sees a large ad in the help wanted section.
“A good future for a girl with a past”
Mary decides to go for it but discovers there is stiff competition as girls with pasts seem to be in abundant supply. However, McKean inadvertently offends most of the applicants and Mary is the last dancer standing. After she shows off her hoofing, McKean is on the verge of hiring her but he has one more question: what about her past? Mary proudly produces a newspaper and points to the Gloria du Moine article. She is Gloria but in hiding! Her threadbare outfit? Her maid stole all her clothes. It could happen to anyone! McKean is suitably impressed and Mary has the job.
The edges of the already threadbare plot really start to fray at this point. The central joke of the film is that Mary is a good girl who pretends to be bad. The problem is that the film never establishes why she wants this particular job so badly. Mary has been out of work for a day so she can’t be that desperate. The advertisement makes it clear that it wants a bad girl so she can’t pretend to be surprised. Maybe she’s supposed to want the job because she dreams of being a dancer but this isn’t established very well.
Basically, we have a heroine who takes a position that violates every scruple she has because, I dunno, it was there. This is not good storytelling.
Further, the idea that she could claim the identity of Gloria du Moine is laughable. Sure, the internet didn’t exist but Americans were voracious consumers of celebrity gossip and got their fix from newspapers and magazines, which would have been especially available in the bustling metropolis that provides the background for this film. Are we to believe that a dancer who is famous enough for her love affairs to make the front page would not have her picture printed anywhere? This all could have been handled with a neat title card. “Why, Mary, you look just like her!” Instead, we are simply left to believe that every single person in the nightclub is a complete idiot.
Anyway, Mary wows everyone with her sexy (or, to modern viewers, “sexy”) peacock dance and then slips into something a little more sheer to entertain the patrons. All the while, Mary looks like she has swallowed castor oil and gets all demure about her skimpy outfits. So get a different job, Mary! There must be dozens of others, especially for people with no scruples about lying. But no, Mary goes downstairs to meet her fans.
And here is where we meet Mary’s love interest. Jimmy Calhoun (Rudolph Valentino under five pounds of pasty makeup) is smitten with her performance and asks her to sit with him at his table. This is all very awkward because Mary does not smoke or drink. (Why did she want this job again? No, seriously, why?)
Jimmy falls head over heels and is ready to put a ring on Mary’s finger but his father does not approve of her colorful past. Matters are further complicated by the Duke de Sauterne (Bertram Grassby), the lover of the real Gloria du Moine, showing up. Sauterne decides to use his knowledge that Mary is a fraud as a way to creep all over her. Blackmail and lechery. Blech!
And so the film careens along toward its inevitable undercranked finale. I shall not reveal all but I should mention that Sauterne attempts to force himself on Mary while her uncle and father are present. This is met with only mild concern and she is obliged to beat him off herself and escape by automobile. And she’s supporting these lunks because…
Sauterne follows her home and Mary’s mother also takes a man attacking her daughter as a mild inconvenience. It’s a good thing Jimmy shows more concern because I was starting to wonder about the ethics of this weird little film. But then again, if Jimmy shows up with an “Unhand that maiden, you bounder!” why are the other characters so casual? And if you want to say it was because her father and uncle were hung over, well, so was Jimmy. This is ridiculous! Ridiculous, I tell you! Oh fine. I give up.
So there you have it. The plot is stupid, the characters take actions that make no sense and the plot moves the people instead of the other way around. Rudolph Valentino is as cute as a bug’s ear under all that awful makeup (Lordy! You cannot make a Hollywood Irishman out of that poor beautiful swarthy man just by slapping on enough pale paint to supply a mime school!) but he is given almost nothing to do. It’s a pity as comedy really was his forte and he could have knocked this one out of the park if he had been given a more humorous role.
The Delicious Little Devil is often praised as containing a great comedic performance from Murray. Um, no. No. No, no, no, no. What I saw was a woman bouncing around erratically and mugging random, bizarre expressions at the camera. Now this film is hardly realistic but one does expect performers to react in a way that can be deciphered by the viewer. Mabel Normand, Louise Fazenda, Gloria Swanson and Marion Davies could pull faces with the best of them but it always made sense within the plot and context of the film. Mae on the other hand…
Let’s play a game! It’s called The Mae Day Expression Game and it’s starting now.
What emotion is Mae Murray conveying in this scene?
Next up, what does this expression mean?
Finally, what’s happening here?
Great comedic performance, huh? Look, I know comedy can be broad, subtle and everything in between but this is just… weird. My admiration for von Stroheim’s successful toning down of the Murray screen persona continues to grow. (Murray is sometimes compared to Mary Pickford in this film. No. Don’t even.)
That’s not to say that Murray is wholly bad. (Just mostly.) In her interview scene, for example, she keeps popping up trying to get the attention of the disinterested McKean. It’s cute and her acting is just right. If only she had managed the same trick throughout the picture.
To make matters worse, the only release of the film is projected at sound speed and so all the characters are leaping around 20-30% faster than they are supposed to. This is especially bad during the intentionally undercranked finale, which is rendered almost incomprehensible and Murray’s already jumpy performance is turned into something truly bizarre. I do not normally mention playback speed because it’s a touchy subject but this edition is so severely sped up that I feel that the viewing experience is negatively impacted by it.
I recommend viewing this film using a player that allows you to adjust playback speed. The VLC player makes this very easy and is my personal go-to DVD player. I set the speed to 0.80 (80%) and it worked very well. (VLC is free and works with Windows, Mac, Linux, Unix…)
The Delicious Little Devil provides a glimpse at Valentino before he was smothered under The Sheik and Mae Murray’s fans seem to have found something they like about it. However, if you are not a particular fan of either star, I would say that you can safely skip The Delicious Little Devil and not miss much. The humor fell flat, the story is idiotic and the treatment of rape as a zany but minor inconvenience (except when it isn’t) is strange to say the least. This script desperately needed an editor and Murray desperately needed a director who could tone down whatever the heck she thought she was doing. Alas, neither was forthcoming. (And I prefer to be addressed as “Madam” in missives of rebuke.)
Movies Silently’s Score: ?½
Where can I see it?
The Delicious Little Devil was released on DVD as a double feature with Rudolph Valentino’s post-fame picture Beyond the Rocks. It has a very nice score from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra but, alas, the print runs much, much, much too fast.
I don’t normally do this but I must kvetch. The restored title cards use Comic Sans in some places. Comic Sans. I can’t even. Leave me alone, I’ll be better in a bit. (Every time someone uses Comic Sans, a graphic designer loses their wings. Please don’t.)