Maytime (1923): A Silent Film Review

The smash hit operetta came to the screen but it’s mainly noted today for casting an unknown Clara Bow as the second female lead. One of those cross-generational love affair pictures, it leans heavily into its stage roots.

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During the silent era, producers constantly looked to the stage for popular material that could be adapted to the screen. Despite the lack of synchronized scores, musicals and operettas, particularly in the German language, remained popular targets for adaptation with pictures based on The Merry Widow and Die Fledermaus proving to be smash hits.

Show off that sheet music, baby!

On paper, Maytime had every qualification. It was based on the German operetta Wie einst im Mai. The American stage adaptation had been a sensation, running for over 400 performances, and everyone loved its theme song, Will You Remember (Sweetheart)?

Independent producer B.P. Schulberg obtained the rights to the musical and poured lavish amounts of money into the tale of Old New York. The film didn’t make the hoped-for impact and that would have been the end of the story but for the fact that Schulberg cast an unknown Clara Bow as the second female lead.

That Bow kid has something, she just might make it big!

The film opens in 1850s New York—nostalgia for the Big Apple pre-Civil War was also at an all-time high—and introduces its lovers: the wealthy Ottilie (Ethel Shannon) and the broke Richard (Harrison Ford, not that one). Ottilie’s father wants her to marry her cousin but she vows her eternal love to Richard and the pair bury their written vows under a tree in the garden.

But then Richard must go west to seek his fortune and when he returns, he finds that Ottilie has wed her cousin for (mumble, mumble) reasons. Heartbroken, he marries Alice Tremaine (Clara Bow) on the rebound. Everyone has kids, Richard saves Ottilie from losing her house and the decades pass. Soon, Ottilie and Richard have doppelganger grandchildren, Ottilie and Dick, a pair of jazz babies. Will they be able to find the love that eluded their nana and pop-pop?

An older Richard and Ottilie still can’t get their act together.

Let’s get down to brass tacks: Maytime is boring as heck. Even in its truncated form, it’s two reels of plot in a four-reel sack. Cecil B. DeMille would have included an attempted murder and a coup de tat at least in the same amount of film. If it was meant to be a contemplative picture on the changing nature of love, there needed to be a lot more character building front-loaded into the story. (The Enchanted Cottage and The Canadian are terrific examples of this done well.) If it was meant to be an emotional romance, we needed something to get emotional about. “They’re both kinda nice but not terribly assertive” ain’t it if you’re not Merchant Ivory. Veteran director Louis J. Gasnier didn’t seem to be able to pick a Maytime lane.

But let’s move onto the most important topic: Clara Bow.

Only second choice.

Bow had appeared in Down to the Sea in Ships as a teenage tomboy character but Maytime is a chance to see her play an early grownup role. When watching the early work of a major star, it’s important to understand that we have the benefit of hindsight. I’m always a bit sad for the original stars of a film when they are shoved aside for the future acting legend. That being said, Bow’s charisma is quite evident and Ethel Shannon cannot compete. Bow is lively and appealing, if still obviously inexperienced.

It’s a pity that she wasn’t given more screentime. You see, Alice was one of the most interesting characters in Maytime. Richard and Ottilie are pretty bland romantic characters but Alice spends the story being their emotional support and accepting Richard’s offer of marriage knowing full well that he does not love her and is only proposing to save Ottilie from a scandal. Her apparent offscreen death and/or retirement from the tale (the surviving footage does not make it clear) adds insult to injury.

We built this set and we’re going to use it, dadgummit!

It is safe to say that this is not a terrific Clara Bow film. Schulberg seems to have adopted the “if it ain’t broke” philosophy and adapted the stage version quite literally. The surviving footage reveals no particular efforts to “open up” the play by adding additional scenery or only-in-the-movies sequences. Stage plays have to plan their scenes around scenery usage but movies can zip about at will and keeping a production set-bound must be a conscientious choice, not a lazy default.

For example, remaining limited to just a few sets was fine in a play that was claustrophobic by design (think the madhouse of Arsenic and Old Lace or the sweaty deliberation room of Twelve Angry Men) but Maytime was meant to be a lush nostalgia fest and there were many inexpensive options to make the picture feel more expansive. For example, how about some scenes of Richard pining and dreaming of Ottilie while he was out west? Or, instead of hanging around her dad’s house all the time, the young lovers dash off to a secluded and romantic park?

The grandkids giving it a whirl. (Note the nitrate damage.)

Further, the plot of Maytime was not a particularly strong one. “We failed, let’s see if our grandkids can do it” was a reasonably popular trope for sentimental entertainment but Maytime doesn’t add anything particularly interesting to the mix, nor does it really establish by Richard and Ottilie cannot get together as mature adults. “Well, it didn’t work when we were twenty-five, so let’s give up forever” is not very compelling.

In short, Schulberg took for granted that people went to Maytime for the story when they really went for the music. And the music is on the screen constantly as characters play the piano with sheet music on display. But Maytime’s score reveals that there were constant refrains of Will You Remember (Sweetheart) throughout the play. It was soaked in the song. Without a synchronized score, Schulberg was relying on the hit-or-miss music provided by theaters, which could range from a professional orchestra to Old Mr. Brown on the out-of-tune church piano.

Counterpoint: The audience could buy the phonograph record.

(The subsequent 1937 talkie adaptation with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald jettisoned both plot and score, with the exception of Will You Remember, and made millions. The 2004 stage revival streamlined the show and made the wise decision to drop the minstrel-inspired number Jump, Jim Crow. The 1923 film included the number via title card.)

The possibly-sketchy musical presentation might not have mattered but neither Ethel Shannon nor Harrison Ford had the chops to give some oomph to their characters. Shannon is just dull and it’s never properly established why she went from “No, no, never!” to “Sure, okay” about marrying her cousin. Ford was known as a reliable male lead to bigger female stars and he could be good in the right role but generally speaking, he was the kind of pleasant young fellow you sort of hoped would end up with Constance Talmadge but if not, no harm, no foul. We needed some decent histrionics to pull this bland story off and Shannon and Ford were not up to the challenge.

You might say she has “IT”

Maytime wasn’t a box office smash but her first Hollywood sojourn wasn’t all bad news for Clara Bow. Schulberg realized he had an up-and-coming talent and arranged to loan her out to play a major supporting role in The Black Oxen for First National, which helped establish her as a name in the movies. Her talents in flapper roles led to a long run of independent youth films before making the jump to the big time.

The film itself became a trivia item until the first four reels were discovered in New Zealand in 2009. They were subsequently restored, repatriated and released and a small piece of film history has been returned to us. Unfortunately, it did not include the Technicolor sequence that was originally included near the end of the film. Here’s hoping it still survives somewhere.

Maytime wedding day.

Maytime is a rather dull affair and, unfortunately, deserves its reputation of only being worth the view for Clara Bow. However, as with all recovered films, the fact that we can watch it for ourselves and come to that conclusion based on our own experiences and not hearsay is worth its weight in gold.

Where can I see it?

Stream courtesy of the National Film Preservation Foundation.


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