William Haines is a safecracker who falls in love with a banker’s daughter and leaves the old business but the old business doesn’t want to leave him. The police are tracking him down but can he be saved by a last minute plot twist?
This is my contribution to the It Takes a Thief Blogathon hosted by Moon in Gemini. Be sure to read the other reviews!
Be my Valentine
A huge thanks to David Wyatt for allowing me to view his rare copy of this film and for granting permission for me to review it.
A Retrieved Reformation, O. Henry’s 1903 short story, lasts a whopping 2800 words but that didn’t stop it from being adapted as a silent feature film three times. Actually, it’s a little misleading to say that the films were based on Henry’s story as they actually owed most of their plots to Paul Armstrong’s 1910 play, which also gave A Retrieved Reformation the snappier title of Alias Jimmy Valentine.
The 1915 Maurice Tourneur version was a masterpiece of moody lighting and it took full advantage of its location shoot inside Sing Sing but it suffered from the usual Tourneur flaw: a slow pace. The next version was made in 1920 and included scenes shot in the Arizona State Penitentiary in Florence, Arizona. Alas, this second version seems to be lost. (Do let me know if you have heard otherwise.)
This version of the story doesn’t have penitentiary scenes but it does have something notable: talking. MGM was one of the last major studios to get on the sound bandwagon and Alias Jimmy Valentine was an early attempt to incorporate sound into their films. They had already added synchronized music and effects but this picture would have honest to goodness talking sequences. (This film is sometimes erroneously listed as MGM’s first sound film. It was their first part-talkie feature, which is not the same thing at all.)
I must pause here to state that the version of the film that I viewed was a silent French 9.5mm abridgement, which squishes a ten-reel film down to four. To my knowledge, the full part-talkie picture does not survive, though some of the soundtrack discs do. Therefore, my experience with this picture (sometimes listed as a lost film) is entirely silent.
So, with all these disclaimers in place, let’s get started on the film.
The character of Jimmy Valentine, always impertinent, has been made even more of a trickster to go along with Haines’ sassy screen persona. The film opens with an extended robbery sequence. Jimmy Valentine (Haines) and his two accomplices, Tully Marshall and Karl Dane, are robbing a safe inside an express company. Jimmy uses his bare fingertips to open the safe’s combination lock, steals the contents and then sets up an explosive and heads to the nearest police station.
He’s been robbed! Oh, the humanity! Jimmy is carrying on at the police clerk’s desk when the safe blows, providing him with an airtight alibi. This does not please Doyle (Lionel Barrymore), who has been trying to collar Jimmy for years.
Meanwhile, Jimmy has headed off to his next mark, a large bank. But then, wouldn’t you know it, he meets Rose (Leila Hyams) and decides to leave his life of crime behind. Dames, amiright? But Doyle hasn’t forgotten and he’s circling around, hoping to finally nab Jimmy Valentine.
(Spoiler for a century-old plot twist.) Of course, the main draw of the Jimmy Valentine story is the grand finale in which a kid gets locked in a safe, nobody has the combination, the kid is suffocating, the cop is on the scene… and Jimmy has to decide whether to expose his knowledge of safecracking and go to prison for life or let the kid die.
Haines tends to oversell dramatic scenes but I feel that he struck the right balance in Alias Jimmy Valentine. The story is a warhorse and needs a certain amount of pizzazz to work. Haines strikes just the right balance of arrogance and vulnerability. He overplays his early scenes in the police station but that could be read as a conscious decision made by Jimmy in order to thumb his nose at Doyle. This Jimmy is considerably less dangerous than the 1915 edition (Robert Warwick straight up kills a guy in that film) but he does have youthful charm on his side.
Lionel Barrymore is all intensity as the dogged Doyle and the performance works extremely well silent. (We’ll talk about the sound version in a bit.) Leila Hyams is okay but the role is pretty thankless. Her entire purpose is to look pretty and convince Jimmy to give up his life of crime through sheer purity. I told you this story was a warhorse.
The direction by Jack Conway is pretty good, especially in the safecracking scenes that bookend the film. In the film’s opening, we have Jimmy working to open a safe with a huge glass window facing a busy street. Karl Dane and Tully Marshall are the lookouts and the police presence is heavy. Can Jimmy do it? Can he rob that safe? Go, Jimmy, go! (And now you see why the censors were so keen to put the kibosh on crime pictures.)
The climactic safecracking has less style and more emotion as Jimmy sacrifices his freedom, Doyle looks on gleefully, the kid slowly suffocates, Leila Hyams shrieks and Karl Dane gapes in horror. To the credit of the stars and director, the scene doesn’t go over the top as a silent film and it still works as a moment of bittersweet melodrama. (According to critics of the day, the performer voicing the child oversold the crying, which rather lost the audience’s sympathy.)
I do feel that the film missteps a bit in making Rose’s father privy to Doyle’s investigation. One of the elegant things about O. Henry’s story is the unspoken understanding between Jimmy and the police inspector. Adding another character to the mix doesn’t really improve things and messes with the lovely intimacy of the scene.
The film was met with generally positive reviews and an enthusiastic audience, which translated into excellent box office returns. Haines was singled out for praise, as was Lionel Barrymore. Barrymore’s delivery of dialogue was particularly popular with the critics—they seemed to have a weakness for ham—but at least one review found the sound effects tiresome.
Still, not at all bad for MGM’s talkie maiden voyage.
Incidentally, Mordaunt Hall’s New York Times review reveals an interesting historical tidbit. Alias Jimmy Valentine was released with a sound short subject that featured several major MGM stars, including Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Ernest Torrence, the criminally unfunny George K. Arthur and John Gilbert. One of the scenes involves Torrence placing a telephone call to Gilbert.
Given the rumors about Gilbert’s voice and the myth that MGM tinkered with the recording to make him sound silly, I think it’s important to state that Hall had no complaints about Gilbert’s actual vocal chords or the recording thereof. Rather, he objected to Gilbert’s use of twenty-five cent words, which goes along with my belief that Gilbert’s main talkie flaw was his affected over-pronunciation. (“Cruel” pronounced “crew-ell” and so forth.) He was NOT the only star with this problem and he corrected the issue, of course, but the myth of his “squeaky” voice lives on. (It was repeated in a major publication as recently as May of this year.) In any case, Gilbert starred in ten sound features between 1929 and 1934 and any discussion of his career’s demise must include mention of his alcoholism.
(By the way, the Hollywood Revue of 1929 would be released less than a year after this sound short. It was an all-star showcase for MGM’s biggest names and Gilbert was paired with Norma Shearer for a serious and comical take on Romeo and Juliet.)
Back to the film! So, what are we missing? Would the sound version of Alias Jimmy Valentine have been the better product? Well, there’s no way to say for certain but let’s examine the evidence. While part-talkies have enormous historical value, I am not a fan. The whiplash of swerving between silent and sound sequences pulls me right out of the picture and I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. (How many part-talkies were reissued in the sound era? Not many.) From the surviving discs, it seems that the dialogue is stilted and Barrymore is gobbling down every scrap of scenery he can lay teeth to.
It’s also worth noting that I found the pacing of this picture to be pretty snappy but there are six missing reels to consider. Would they have slowed down the picture to a snail’s pace or would they have added depth? We’ll never know unless the full picture is recovered but it is something to keep in mind.
One major hole in the abridgement is the fate of Tully Marshall’s character. After Jimmy decides to go in for law and order, we see Karl Dane but Marshall is gone. Reviews of 1928 reveal that Marshall’s character dies in Jimmy’s arms, further sending him down the path of law and order. I would call this a major omission and a distracting one as we spend the last couple of film reels wondering where Marshall got off to.
Director Jack Conway does his job well but Alias Jimmy Valentine lacks the artistic flair of the Tourneur production However, there are compensations. Haines has fun with his criminal role and there are some moments of genuine suspense. It’s a pity that the full-length version is not available for review but I am grateful to have seen a piece of it. Do give this one a watch if you get the chance.
Where can I see it?
This film is not yet available on home video but I will update this review if that changes.
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