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The Great Divide

The Great Divide(1929)

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teaser The Great Divide (1929)

A 1929 film fraught with the problems of early sound movies, The Great Divide might have been lost to cinema history if not for the appearance of Myrna Loy. The actress received third billing for her secondary role as Manuella, the proverbial hot-blooded Mexican spitfire who makes trouble for mine operator Steven Ghent.

Ian Keith, a forgotten leading man of the silent era, stars as Ghent. The equally unknown Dorothy Mackaill costars as Ruth Jordan, who is the daughter of Ghent's deceased partner. Ruth, who has been living the high life in the big city, does not realize that Ghent has been supporting her as a favor to her father. Ruth and Steven accidentally bump into each other in a small western town near the Mexican border. He is shocked to discover that Ruth has become a hard-drinking flapper, traveling cross-country by train with her spoiled, flighty friends. Steven believes that her attitude and behavior needs adjusting. His solution is to expose her to the simple life of the West and the beauty of the great outdoors. Disguised as a Mexican bandit, he kidnaps her and whisks her away to an isolated cabin. Jealous of Steven's interest in Ruth, the volatile servant Manuella tries to come between the cowboy and the city girl.

Five years after the release of The Great Divide, Myrna Loy would become a star playing opposite William Powell in The Thin Man (1934), which constructed her well-known star image as the perfect wife. Loy rarely portrayed domestic housewives in her decades-long career; instead, her characters were witty, sophisticated, and articulate partners to husbands who respected their wives' resourcefulness and intelligence. Director W.S. Van Dyke had noticed the rapport between Powell and Loy in his 1934 gangster drama Manhattan Melodrama and decided to reteam them for The Thin Man, which was based on Dashiell Hammett's series of mystery novels featuring Nick and Nora Charles. The film launched Loy's stardom and secured her image, which she was able to adjust as she matured over the decades. But, long before her fortuitous casting in Manhattan Melodrama, Loy had been typed as the exotic femme fatale or wicked vamp--the exact opposite of Nora Charles. Her character Manuella in The Great Divide is a prime example of her early roles.

Loy had been discovered by Rudolph Valentino and his wife Natacha Rambova while dancing in the chorus line at Grauman's Chinese Theater as Myrna Williams. Through their intervention, Loy was given a screen test and then cast in tiny roles, including a bit part in Cecil B. DeMille's Ben-Hur (1925). When stills of Loy dressed in an exotic costume appeared in a fanzine, Warner Bros. signed her to a contract, and she began playing gun molls, wicked vamps, gypsies, and Eurasian femme fatales. After appearing in Across the Pacific (1926), A Girl in Every Port (1928), and The Black Watch (1929), among others, she was typed by Warners as the exotic. Even after signing with MGM in 1932, she appeared in the lurid Thirteen Women as a vindictive half-caste with hypnotic powers who exacted revenge on her white sorority sisters and in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) as the title character's evil daughter.

Loy's unique beauty and lidded eyes could be easily appropriated for roles as exotic sirens in silent movies; however, the coming of sound meant speaking with an accent in these types of parts, which was not her forte. In The Great Divide, Loy struggles with a heavy Mexican accent that is anything but authentic. She pronounces "think" as "theenk," "yes" as "jess," and "you" as "joo," while resorting to the poor grammar often used by characters who are supposed to be from foreign countries. "I no sleep, I no eat," Manuella says to Steven when confessing her love for him. Her exaggerated inflections and enunciations are only surpassed by Ian Keith's intentionally fake accent when he disguises himself as a Mexican bandit. To complete the transformation to Mexican villager, Loy is slathered in dark make up and dressed in a colorful costume with a peasant-style blouse.

The western setting and cowboy archetypes clash with the modern, urban characters in the film, which fits the storyline to some degree, but the addition of several pop-style musical numbers and comedy routines muddle the narrative. The result is a crazy quilt of genre conventions and character types in which rugged cowboys harmonize like a collegiate choir one minute and perform vaudeville-style routines with Keith as the straight man the next. In particular, the film spotlights Lucien Littlefield and Ben Hendricks, Jr., who play cowhands Texas Tommy and Dutch Romero, as they banter like a vaudeville duo and sing comic tunes in which horses are deemed preferable to women. The Great Divide also includes several less-than-authentic dance numbers. For example, the local Mexican villagers are erroneously depicted dancing a flamenco, which is actually a dance from Spain, while Myrna Loy sings "Si, Si Senor" as she performs her own spirited interpretation of a Mexican dance. Jazz baby Dorothy Mackaill fares better dancing a decent Charleston for her sophisticated city friends.

The Great Divide suffers from the problems and weak technology of the early sound era. Ian Keith lip-synchs the movie's big number, "The End of the Lonesome Trail," but he is out of synchronization with the playback. Though the film is a western, there are very few scenes shot in the wide open spaces of the Wild West. The film's few long shots of actual western landscapes are intercut with medium shots of dialogue exchanges that were clearly performed on a sound stage dressed to look like the outdoors. Too much of the plot is revealed through dialogue at the expense of action, and characters tend to be blocked based on where the microphones are hidden. Groups of characters huddle near tables and bars, where mikes were stashed in props or in lights hovering just above the actors' heads. Those actors who are farthest from the mikes are less audible than those closest.

Despite the concessions to accommodate sound, The Great Divide was actually released in both a silent and sound version. The talkie was released on September 15, 1929; the silent version five weeks later on October 27. Supposedly, the silent version was made for small-town theaters not yet equipped with sound technology. Directed by Reginald Barker, this interpretation of the 1906 play by William Vaughn Moody marked the third time the story had been filmed. In 1931, it would have one more cinematic incarnation as Woman Hungry.

Producer: Robert North
Director: Reginald Barker
Screenplay: Fred Myton, Paul Perez (screenplay and titles); William Vaughn Moody (story)
Cinematography: Lee Garmes, Alvin Knechtel
Music: Ray Perkins
Cast: Dorothy Mackaill (Ruth Jordan), Ian Keith (Steven Ghent), Myrna Loy (Manuella), Lucien Littlefield (Texas Tommy), Creighton Hale (Edgar Blossom), George Fawcett (Macgregor), Claude Gillingwater (Winthrop Amesbury), Roy Stewart (Joe Morgan), Ben Hendricks, Jr. (Dutch Romero), Jean Laverty (Verna).

by Susan Doll

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