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"pre-nuclear" family dynamic, a whole way of life that would be eradicated when the boys came home after WW2 and found outdated morality waiting for them back at their parent's homes; they left in droves and moved into prefabricated worlds of the future where they could have sex all the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That outdated, choking morality was the stuff of woman's pictures which were huge at the time (I'm reading Thomas Doherty's excellent Pre-Code Hollywood right now, so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.