The Squall (1929)

Because She’s Homeless, She’s Homeless

As Hollywood was making its transition from silent pictures to talkies, 1929 is left as a year full of oddities and curios. The Squall is a 100% talking picture and is one of the more watchable talkies from 1929. While watching The Squall or any other talkie from 1929 one must take into account the movie was presumably filmed with a camera in a soundproof box. It’s evident the actors in The Squall have been heavily coached by diction experts and instructed to say their line as clearly and enunciated as possible – a scenario which anyone who has watched Singin’ In the Rain will be familiar with. Likewise, none of the actors turn their heads when speaking to avoid going off-mike nor at any point do any of the cast simultaneously walk and talk.

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So while none of the performances in The Squall bar one certain screen siren are anything to write home about, the production values are surprisingly very high. The Squall was directed by famed Hungarian-British producer and director Alexander Korda. I can only speculate if the director’s heritage is the reason why the film takes place in Hungary whereas the play the film is based on is set in Granada, Spain. The sets and costumes are very detailed in this upper, middle-class Hungarian farm from what I assume is around the turn of the century. Complete with grand windmills, herds of animals, farm equipment and some nice miniature work, the film succeeds in creating an atmosphere. Just as significant in an unusual move for films right up until the early 1930s, is the use of a music score throughout the entire picture, suitably a heightened and melodramatic one to accommodate the sound effects of blustering storms.

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However, the real reason to watch The Squall and the film’s saving grace is the one and only Myrna Loy in the overacting triumph of her long and varied career as the scruffy, barefooted gypsy girl Nubi. The gloriously, melodramatic performance sees this seductress manipulate three men in the same household as she tears the once idyllic Lajos family apart. Particularly pathetic is the son Paul (Carroll Nye), an utter simp who buys jewellery for Nubi from money he stole from his parents. I can watch Myrna Loy in just about anything thus I can easily buy into the destructive charm of Nubi as she over emotes in broken English and always referring to herself in the third person – even in one early scene as Nubi proclaims “no more!”, it appears as if Myrna Loy is trying to hold back her laughter. The contrast to the vampish Myrna Loy is the purity and innocence of a wide-eyed Loretta Young as Irma, a mere 16 years old at the time.

It should come as no surprise for a film as melodramatic at The Squall to play big with its use of symbolism and metaphor. The film’s opening shot features a Christian cross overlooking the farm and during a dinner the family has near the film’s beginning, the grandfather states that squalls are the work of God that he “gives us shadows that we may know light. He gives us sorrow that we may know joy. And perhaps he sends the squall that we may learn the beauty of a limpid sky”. Nubi, of whom arrives at the family home during the midst of a storm, takes advantage of the Christian principle of sheltering the poor and homeless only to wreak havoc – an evil spirit if there ever was one.

The Divorce of Lady X (1938)

Heathcliff and Cathy’s Other Film

The Divorce of Lady X stands out from other screwball comedies for several reasons. Firstly it’s one of the few screwball comedies filmed in Technicolor which is complemented by the complimented by the luscious set design and brightly coloured ladies costume design. I do love that night club with its dreamlike painted backdrops as well as the miniature work of Trafalgar Square for the film’s opening shots (even if there are a bunch of empty buses driving). Second, it’s the only British screwball comedy I’ve come across to date, putting a British spin on this distinctly American genre. It’s fun watching typical screwball situations with an entirely British cast, set in Britain and with very British lines of dialogue (“You got marmalade all over your newspaper”).

Third and by far most importantly in what has to rank as one of the most bizarre of pre-stardom roles, it stars Laurence Oliver. Yes, the master of Shakespearean tragedy, perhaps the most respected and dignified actor of the 20th century as a stuffy gent who at first is delightedly full of himself but soon gets into all sorts of crazy shenanigans at the mercy of a screwy dame.  Merle Oberon plays one of the most ruthlessly manipulative characters I’ve seen in any film as she is able to weasel her way to get anything out of this man – the type of dame who destroys civilisations. Thus it doesn’t come as a surprise that Oliver goes head over heels for her despite all the anguish she causes him, likewise her previously having four husbands doesn’t help matters (also, that improvised cape made from a bedsheet she wears is such a brilliant touch). The chemistry between the performers works seamlessly and is aided by the sexual tension and undertones.

The first act of The Divorce of Lady X is one big farcical sequence centered around the sexual politics of the time; the fact that an unmarried man and woman sleeping in the same room was considered scandalous, even if there are two separate beds. This ties in nicely with how film critic Andrew Sarris defines the screwball comedy genre, “a sex comedy without the sex”.