'Son of Universal' at MoMA uncovers more movie rarities

ScreenerBlog

After the success of last year's Universal Studios retrospective, the Museum of Modern Art in New York is offering another deep dive into the vaults with “Son of Universal: More Rediscovered Gems from the Laemmle Years.” Running May 5-16, the series includes nine features and eleven shorts that spotlight the adventurous side of a studio that later became known for its monster movies and B-westerns.

Ranging from 1927 to 1936, the titles cover a transitional period for Universal as the industry as a whole moved from silent movies to talkies. It was a transition for performers as well, with an older generation of silent stars being replaced by younger actors, usually with more theatrical experience. In the series you can spot both rookies on the verge of the big time and veterans facing forced retirement.

Sensation Seekers (May 6 & 9) is being screened in a new, digital restoration by Universal and with live musical accompaniment by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks Orchestra. The oldest film in the series, it stars Billie Dove as a hard-living Long Island socialite and Raymond Bloomer as the handsome parson who sets out to tame her.

The Jazz Age melodrama was written and directed by Lois Weber, one of the silent era's most famous auteurs. Promoted in Universal publicity a decade earlier as the equal to D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, she helmed a series of message dramas that revolved around issues like birth control, prostitution, drug addiction and women's suffrage.

Coming after a commercial dry spell, Sensation Seekers was Weber's contribution to a popular cycle of movies about flappers that included Our Dancing Daughters and It. The movie has upgraded production values—better film stock, lighting, lenses, even to an extent actors—but features the same moralistic streak Weber displayed in titles like Where Are My Children? and Hypocrites.

The transition to sound, the growth of radio and the looming Depression threw the movie industry into disarray in the early 1930s, with three of the five major studios falling into bankruptcy or receivership. You can sense studio executives like Universal's Carl Laemmle, Jr., willing to try anything to entice young viewers into theaters.

In “Son of Universal” you can spot future stars like Ginger Rogers (Don't Bet on Love, May 10 & 13), about to sign with RKO and team with Fred Astaire; Edward G. Robinson (Outside the Law, May 5 & 14), who would electrify Hollywood as Rico in Little Caesar; raconteur Robert Benchley (Your Technocracy or Mine, May 7 & 15); and John Wayne (Sea Spoilers, May 8), still stuck in B-movies until his breakthrough in Stagecoach three years later.

The series also highlights some less fortunate celebrities, like poor Mary Nolan, a victim of cascading tragedies. A former Ziegfeld Follies dancer known as "Bubbles" Wilson, she fled to Europe to avoid publicity about her affair with an abusive comedian. Returning to America years later with a new name, Nolan began an affair with MGM executive Eddie Mannix that led to roles in films with Lon Chaney and John Gilbert. Beaten viciously when she threatened to reveal the relationship, she became addicted to morphine while recovering in a hospital.

Nolan can be seen opposite Edward G. Robinson in Outside the Law, co-written and directed by Tod Browning just before he made Dracula for the studio. Browning had a long career at Universal in which he and Lon Chaney built the foundations of the horror genre. Outside the Law is set in his favorite milieu of grifters and con men, bootleg liquor and illicit sex.

Nolan was top-billed in Young Desire, Universal's take on the "fallen woman" genre, playing a carnival dancer who's given a chance at happiness with a naive young heir. The movie is pre-Code enough to show how women are victimized by sex, but puritanical enough to punish them for it anyway.

Like the Warner Bros. hit Three on a Match, Ladies Who Love (May 7 & 12) follows three Broadway gold-diggers looking for money more than love. Famous around the world for titles like Variety and Picadilly, director E.A. Dupont may have seemed overqualified for a romantic trifle. But as curator Dave Kehr points out, Ladies Who Love turns dark and cynical as the leads find work as "hostesses" in a nightclub.

Tay Garnett directed the well-regarded Her Man in the last Universal series; here he's represented by Destination Unknown (May 12 & 15), a somber, mysterious allegory set aboard a becalmed yacht filled with rum runners. Like the ocean liner in One Way Passage, the yacht lets Garnett and his screenwriter Tom Buckingham examine a microcosm of society struggling with the effects of the Depression.

“Son of Universal” includes three features directed by Murray Roth: Don't Bet on Love with Rogers and Lew Ayres; Million Dollar Ransom (May 9 & 12), based on a Damon Runyon story; and his last film, Chinatown Squad (May 13 & 16), written in part by future MGM head Dore Schary. The latter is a cheerfully racist murder mystery with a tongue-in-cheek plot lifted from The Maltese Falcon.

In his press notes, Kehr writes that Roth had a varied career as lyricist, screenwriter and director of Vitaphone shorts at its Brooklyn studio. According to Ron Hutchinson of The Vitaphone Project, New York City helps explain an overlap between shorts made by Warner Bros. (which owned Vitaphone) and those by Universal, some of which were shot in Long Island City.

Hutchinson will be introducing two programs of Universal shorts (part one, May 6 & 10; part two, May 7 & 15), and for fans these are the real finds in the series. "Universal turned out about fifty non-cartoon shorts a year," he wrote in an e-mail. "None were ever released to television or the home market, which is why they have remained unseen for eight-plus decades."

The 11 shorts in the series are so rare that even Hutchinson has only seen two of them, The Big Benefit with dancing star Bill Robinson and Benchley's Your Technocracy or Mine. I Know Everybody and Everybody's Racket stars pop singer Ruth Etting and Paul "King of Jazz" Whiteman; Hunting Trouble features vaudeville legends Shaw and Lee; and Ed Sullivan's Headliners (yes, that Ed Sullivan) has drummer and bandleader Ben Pollack and vaudeville sweethearts Sully and Block.

"I was lucky to work with Mike Feinberg at Universal, who was instrumental in the King of Jazz restoration as well as the five Marx Brothers for Paramount," Hutchinson went on. "I gave him a 'wish list' of about thirty Universal shorts. In addition to the eleven we are showing in the MoMA series, there are another ten or so for which both picture and sound elements survive, and for which he made prints for future shows."

The promise of more rarities from the Universal vaults can only be good news for film buffs. Until then, “Son of Universal” offers fascinating glimpses into the movie industry during one of its most tumultuous periods.