Sunday, October 05, 2008

Seven Keys to Baldpate

There are certain stories that used to get made and re-made as films seemingly countless times throughout the years. "Charley's Aunt", "Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch", and others seem to have been re-made nearly every decade throughout the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Another such example is George M. Cohan's comic play, "Seven Keys to Baldpate", from a story by Earl Derr Biggers, which was filmed several times between 1917 and 1947, including a 1934 version with Gene Raymond. Jack Benny even appeared in a Lux Radio Theatre version.

The 1929 version of "Seven Keys to Baldpate" is a fun early talkie, this one starring Richard Dix as the writer who accepts a bet that he can finish his novel in 24 hours while spending a night in a remote lodging called Baldpate, belonging to his publisher. There are plenty of twists and turns, and colorful characters and even romantic interest, as the improbable events involving stolen money hidden in the vault lead to a plot so wild that the writer is able to finish his novel on time just based on the events he's experienced in the last 24 hours. There is, of course, a big twist to the end of the film that I won't reveal here.

Richard Dix gives a strong performance in this film, while the rest of the cast feels slightly underrehearsed. Granted, the whole thing is played rather tongue-in-cheekly, such as the moment when Dix, confronting a burglar with gun in hand, leaps over a handrail on the staircase when it would have been far simpler to simply step around it. Played in this slightly over-the-top, melodramatic style, the film is quite a lot of fun. The self-reflexive nature of the plot makes for some interesting touches as well, especially at the surprise finish.

The film was directed by Reginald Barker, one of the earliest pioneers whose credits include such important, early works as "The Italian" and "Civilization", co-directed with Thomas Ince. Barker allows his actors to carry the scenes. There is some interesting, atmospheric lighting touches in the cabin scenes, but for the most part, the film is shot and acted in a very straightforward fashion that serves as evidence of its stage roots. Dix shows here what a versatile leading man he could be. Indeed, while never quite an "A-list" star, he enjoyed a brief period of success in the late silent era and made the transition to sound quite well, culminating with his finest role, the lead in Wes Ruggles' "Cimarron".

This film, which was clearly popular enough to see previous filmings in 1917, 1925, and would reach the screen again in 1934 and 1947, remains an interesting pop culture phenomenon of its time.

1 comment:

Stacia said...

Great write up! I recorded this movie to watch later, and now I can't wait. I was so hoping there would be a twist at the end; it seems that many early talkies are just so overwhelmed with the fact that they now have sound that they forget to work on the plot. The recent Richard Dix marathon on TCM has made me a big fan!