Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Joan Dances Crazy and Robert Sings Badly

Untamed  from 1929 is a peculiar movie!  It stars Joan Crawford as Alice "Bingo" Dowling and Robert Montgomery as her love interest, Andy MacAllister, and was the first talkie to be released by MGM  - they were the last studio to abandon silent films - as well as Crawford's first featured sound film. 

Untamed opens in South America, where Bingo Dowling is living with her ne'er-do-well father. Dad obviously doesn't supervise his child all that much.  She's off with the natives, singing and dancing wildly.  As you will see in the clip below, Crawford really is no singer, and her dancing is odd, at best.  We discussed her dancing some time ago, when she appeared with Fred Astaire in Dancing Lady.  While her dancing there was energetic, here she is all angular knees and elbows.  It's rather frenetic and crazy, but it sets the tone for the character of Bingo, who is at heart a wild child. 

Enter Ben Murchison (Ernest Torrence) and Howard Presley (Holmes Herbert), old friends of Bingo's dad (Lloyd Ingraham).  They find him gambling and drunk (his normal pass-times), but they have news.  They have struck oil, and he is a partner in the endeavor.  No sooner does Papa Dowling get the news than he is shot.  He begs his old friends to look after his daughter, hears her voice, and dies.  Being genuinely good men, "Uncle" Ben and "Uncle" Howard determine to bring Bingo to New York, where she can have a life proper to that of an oil heiress.  However, Ben is not prepared for the trip to New York City, for on the boat, Bingo meets, and become immediately smitten with Andy MacAllister, a poor but noble young man (with an equally bad singing voice). 

Since Bingo has spent her life in the jungle alone with only her father as a role-model (and he's no exemplar), her reactions to a man are rather unique and inappropriate.   She sees nothing wrong with being alone in a man's room; she peers into his room without permission - Bingo has no sense of propriety. Crawford does a nice job of taking the wild child and transitioning her into a New York sophisticate.  From rebelling at the prospect of shoes on her trip over, she wears the height of fashion.  Bingo is shown as friendly (and seeming liked by "The Kids" who become her circle), yet Crawford is able to show the wild child is still bubbling within. For those of us used to the Crawford of the late 1930s and 1940s, this is a very different actress. Even Crawford's posture is different than in her later career.  We really are seeing the silent screen actress that she was, as she begins to grow into the dramatic actress she would become.  
It's always a pleasure to see Robert Montgomery, always a consummate actor, in anything.  We've seen some of his later films with Crawford (Forsaking All Others and The Last of Mrs. Cheyney), so we knew that the pair are excellent together.  This film did not disappoint.   His Andy is a "good man"; even though it would be easy for him to take advantage of Bingo, he is careful of her.  So, when "Uncle" Ben forms a dislike for Andy, it's really hard to understand why.  We understand that he is reluctant for Bingo to marry the first man she's ever met, but Ben is wise enough to know that Andy is not after her money.  Yes, he knows that Howard is very attracted to Bingo, and hopes perhaps they will make a match.  But knowing the individuals involved (and he does), it's hard to understand why he keeps trying to force Andy and Bingo apart.
The island where the film opens is dark and dingy. This makes a nice counterpoint as Bingo moves from that dark jungle to Park Avenue.  Having seen where she began, it is not hard to understand that a bit of the jungle is still in Bingo - she is quite temperamental and often violent. Watch Crawford's eyes during a boxing match - they positively glow with delight as the two men pound on one another.  She also seems to know the rules of fighting - maybe the one thing her father taught her!

Another interesting aspect of the film is the amount of drinking that goes on.  Prohibition won't end for another four year, yet there is a constant flow of alcohol.  In one scene, Bingo's pet monkey breaks the only bottle of alcohol on the boat, so the two gentlemen are going to save it by soaking it up with a sponge.

While the film is a talking, it includes periodic explanatory cards, a hangover from the silent era, as well as being heavy visual.  The actors still sport the heavy makeup (lipsticks and eye shadows) that were a staple of the silent era.   It looks very much like a silent film, with words stuck into it;  but what we are seeing is the birth of the sound film, with silent motifs aplenty amid the sound, and actors and crew still learning their new craft.  For a more complete discussion of this topic, please stop by the TCM website for this article, which looks at this film in the context of the beginnings of the sound era. 

In the meantime, we will leave you with Robert Montgomery (badly) serenading Joan Crawford.  



  1. Hi, Patricia!
    It's been a few years since I've seen Untamed but your descriptions of all of the madness had me reminiscing and wishing I could watch it again.

    I love early Joanie and your description "here she is all angular knees and elbows. It's rather frenetic and crazy" has me cracking up over here. So true and why I love her!

    Her transformation throughout her career is amazing and so very interesting to me. Not just her looks but how she carried herself, emoted, voice inflection. She really was one of the most dedicated actresses in Hollywood like her or not.

    Now that I've read your fun review of Untamed it really has made me want to do a snarky photo review of it. A gangly legged Joanie is always good for a few laughs then her handsome sidekick Robert would be a lot of fun. Hmmm. I'll have to see if I can find it.

    Thanks for the laughs! : )

    1. We were really taken with the way Crawford morphs throughout her career. We tried to watch every Crawford movie we could get hold of (except her really late horror stuff. I can't even watch the commercial for "Baby Jane", much less the movie!), and we found her growth as an actress truly amazing. When you look at something like "Untamed", and compare it to a piece like "Autumn Leaves", her metamorphosis as a performer is just palpable.


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