Psychedelic Film Criticism for the Already Deranged

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Rod La Rocque, you were just born in the wrong century! (THE LOCKED DOOR - 1929)


I've been going nuts with my new DVD recorder, and burning my way through the recent flurry of pre-code Stanwycks on TCM. One maligned but lovely item - THE LOCKED DOOR (1929), one of Babs' first roles sticks out not because of her particularly, but because of Rod La Rocque as a debauched womanizing cad!

The only review I could find of it online is from Dennis Schwartz who rates it a C:
The melodrama suffers from the static, stage-like look of early sound movies; it was a time when how to use sound was first being developed and still had many kinks to be worked out. Decades later when Stanwyck became a Hollywood legend, she was asked about The Locked Door and quipped: “They never should’ve unlocked the damned thing.”
There's no denying its got its kinks (and how!) but I've got a soft spot a mile deep for these old early creaky sound films. They're windows into a bygone age, a special in-transition age. The old dark house or giant bachelor apartment or spacious mansion with multi-generations of family living in it are all so interesting as examples of the "pre-nuclear" family dynamic, a whole way of life that would be eradicated when the boys came home after WW2 and found outdated morality waiting for them back at their parent's homes; they left in droves and moved into prefabricated worlds of the future where they could have sex all the time without small town gossip.

That outdated, choking morality was the stuff of woman's pictures which were huge at the time (I'm reading Thomas Doherty's excellent Pre-Code Hollywood right now, so consider him referenced), and most of the plots revolve around vicious old bats running free-loving hotties out of town, or if its in the city, avenging the honor of so-and-so's daughter. That's the angle of THE LOCKED DOOR, which has for its centerpiece an extended scene in La Roque's swanky bi-level bachelor pad. Stanwyck was once (almost) taken advantage of by La Roque on an "outside the legal limit" party boat (all the rage during prohibition) and had her picture taken running off the boat with her dress torn under Rod's overcoat. Our story picks up years later where she's wealthy and married to some taciturn old duffer played by the soon-to-be-dead-from-drugs William Boyd.


La Rocque is hilarious fun, refusing to be pigeonholed into the role of a mere cad. One can imagine Monroe Owsley or Conrad Nagel in this part being just tedious. La Rocque will have none of it! No catalogue of sniveling blackmailer signifiers he. Unabashedly tall and fey, completely at ease in his body and with the then-new trappings of sound - more so than Babs at the time, though she would have the hang of it by 1930's TEN CENTS A DANCE--he's having a grand time. I've never really soaked him up before but he has a great Vincent Price meets Cary Grant macho fey vibe, with his huge row of teeth, ungainly tallness handled with a dancer's nimble grace. Whereas Babs and the rest of the cast seem to be acting out a drawing room drama, hitting their marks and speaking clearly and stagey, La Rocque is living his role, his sexual ease is eye-popping. He's a complex three-dimensional villain, radiating the seductive humor and "owning my own un-okayness" of a man whose love of premarital sex, drinking, and debauchery is very anathema to its stodgy time, and rather than give them up he just gives up a pretense of morality, at least how these provincial upper dregs define it. Of special interest here is Rod's rapport with his old butler, whom he treats as a co-conspiratorial equal, a mix of Leperello from DON GIOVANNI and a faux-shocked old uncle.

The ending has him even clearing all the suspects of his murder, right before he dies, as if he feels sorry for these uptight socialites for whom a whiff of scandal is so horrific that they run around beating people, waving guns, pleading and hiding corpses just to avoid it. Better a murder than a quickie for these 'moral' types. His attitude all but screams "Jesus, maybe y'all wouldn't have be so blackmailable or had to shoot me if you would all just get laid once in awhile and shut up about it!" Amen, Rod, that's real morality, and in just a 40 years or so you'd be a man of your time.

15 comments:

  1. Interesting observations, particularly on the multigenerational households pre-WW2. I've always had an interest in early sound films too - the clunkiness is part of the charm (at least when coupled with a somewhat compelling story or star turn, otherwise the clunkiness is just boring). Hollywood's style is so bent on fast-paced, disorienting mystification these days that it's pleasing to see the Wizard behind his curtain.

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  2. It's hard for me to see La Rocque's charm after having just seen "Let Us Be Gay" (1930) where he was completely unsympathetic as a wandering husband desperate to win back Norma Shearer and willing to trample all over a young, if irritating, woman's affections to get it. He did seem "at ease" (or did next to Shearer's incessant giggling) but when [spoiler alert] she goes back to him in the last 20 seconds, I wanted to throw a chair at the screen. I gather not what the audience of the time was supposed to feel.

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  3. yeah, I can imagine how obnoxious that can be. The reason he's cool in The Locked Door is because he's the cad-villain, and winds up shot and dying-dead. That adds to his sympathy. If he'd have ended up winning out in the end it would be a different story.

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  4. Rod LaRocque was a cousin of mine.....

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    1. YOU SAY YOU ARE A COUSIN OF ROD'S.DID YOU READ THE BIOGRAPHY ABOUT HIS WIFE VILMA BANKY?WHAT DID YOU THINK OF IT?

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  5. Can La Rocque films such as "The Delightful Rogue" be obtained anywhere?----they are not on home video.

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  6. I saw him in a movie with Lillian Gish today...I really thought he was Gay...

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  7. You mean that 'One Romantic Night"? He definitely plays it off a bit like that, but in a way he acts too gay to be really gay, I mean Rock Hudson would never dare act like that.

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  8. Rod LaRocque & Vilma Banky were in a lavender marriage.

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    1. I HEARD THAT THE BANKY-LAROCQUE MARRIAGE WAS A LAVENDER/TWILIGHT TANDEM MARRIAGE.I BELIEVE IT WAS TOO.A BIOGRAPHY ABOUT BANKY CAME OUT IN 2010.THE AUTHOR BELIEVES THAT IT WAS THE TRUE THING THEIR MARRIAGE AND THAT BOTH WRE NOT GAY.I DISAGREE WITH THE AUTHOR.I BELIEVE THEY WERE BOTH GAY.

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    2. Who cares? Your source is probably as valid as your clever and creative usernames.

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  9. Wow, can we just enjoy this film w/o commenting on someone's perceived sexuality, for once??

    I'm pleased to see that some one else enjoyed this film. Out of the five La Rocque talkies from 1929-30 that I've viewed, this is his most natural performance. So much for not being at ease in front of the microphones: he is perfectly so, especially in the scenes onboard ship. Too bad he took, basically, a five-year hiatus in mid-1930.

    Ironic that LaRocque is the cad, and yet was married to Vilma Banky for over forty years, while William Boyd plays the true-as-steel husband, and had run-ins with the law.

    Love that opening credit music, too!

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    1. right on Jon. To me the lavender thing is interesting only sociologically as far as my own valuing platonic male-female pair bonding, as in those marriages seem to last much longer than 'regular' ones, if there is such a thing. To me it's the closet that's the enemy, as someone like Rod in these films is so free and in the moment he transcends all labels, he's totally himself even as other characters, vs. someone who's closeted to himself and the world who seems at all times even in roles mirroring his own persona, limited, curtailed, repressed... it works if that's their character, as in all Rock's cockblocked Day wooers in the early 60s (see my BL piece on MAN'S FAVORITE SPORT!?), vs. the kind of passive-aggressive womanizing burlesque we see in, say, Lubitsch's MONTE CARLO or Olivier's HAMLET.

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  10. Love Rod LaRoque! Watching "Let Us Be Gay?" right now, had recorded this week from TCM. Agree with an earlier commenter, he's such a cad, you're very disappointed when Norma Shearer takes him back. He WAS very apologetic about the whole affair when she caught him at beginning, but still... :D

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  11. I saw that too but wasn't disappointed at all - who WOULDN'T have an affair if your wife insisted on being such a buzzkill - not wearing make-up or spending any of a sizable bankroll on decent clothes yet insisting on following you around to golf, bridge and other high profile social events and embarrassing you like some provincial albatross stalker?

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