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Sixty-nine years before there was Runaway Bride, the 1999 romantic comedy with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere, there was The Runaway Bride, a 1930 comedy-drama with Mary Astor and Natalie Moorhead as a nice woman and a naughty woman, respectively. Except for their titles, the pictures are as unrelated and unalike as a couple of rom-coms can be. The one from 1999 was directed by Garry Marshall, who used his crowd-pleasing expertise to score a solid hit, while the one from 1930 was directed by Donald Crisp, who learned the filmmaking trade on silent-movie sets and never got the hang of talkies. His work here is creaky, but the picture has its pleasures nonetheless.
The action begins in a car racing down a highway at sixty, evidently a nerve-jangling speed in 1930. Behind the wheel is Dick Mercer (David Newell) and next to him is Mary Gray (Astor), who wishes he'd slow down. She'd wish even harder if she knew what's ahead for her. Turns out they've run off to get married, and they want to tie the knot before Mary's rich family learns about the plan. Before the ceremony they stop at the little apartment she's rented for their first days of wedded bliss. It's a honeymoon hideaway worthy of The Honeymooners, the old TV show, with drab furnishings and little elbow room. Dick wants to trade it for a fancy hotel suite, but Mary loves its humble charm, and she also wants Dick to get a job and pay for it. They quarrel and Dick walks out, leaving Mary locked in the living room.
New characters now appear, including Clara Muldoon (Moorhead), a lazy maid; Sergeant Daly (Paul Hurst), a cop hunting a deadly crook; and Red Dugan (Maurice Black), the crook, who promptly gets killed in a shootout, but not before planting a stolen necklace in Mary's purse. The scene then shifts to a new locale where handsome bachelor George Blaine (Lloyd Hughes) is enjoying a quiet evening until Mary arrives, hiding from Dick and Daly by posing as a cook named Sally Fairchild and asking for a job. The plot thickens further when Clara and her gangster friends trace the stolen necklace to George's home. Will they find it in Mary's purse? Will the sergeant get there first? Will the make-believe cook and the handsome bachelor fall in love? And where is Dick all this time? These questions drive the rest of the story.
Elopement! Romance! Murder! Disguise! With so many rousing ingredients packed into a brief sixty-nine minutes, you'd expect The Runaway Bride to be the "blazing front page story of modern youth and love" touted by an RKO lobby card promoting it. The film isn't quite that thrilling, though, and the director deserves much of the blame. Crisp was a wonderful actor, with credits ranging from D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Frank Lloyd's Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) to William Wyler's Wuthering Heights (1939) and John Ford's The Last Hurrah (1958), among scores of other films; everyone has favorite Crisp performances, and mine include Battling Burrows in Griffith's Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919) and of course Mr. Morgan in Ford's How Green Was My Valley (1941), which earned him an Academy Award for best supporting actor. He is less widely known as a director, although he helmed dozens and dozens of films, beginning with twenty for Biograph and other companies in 1914 alone.
Crisp kept acting in movies through the early 1960s, but his last film as a director was, you guessed it, The Runaway Bride, which was also his only sound picture. Although talkies were still new in 1930, some directors were already handling the format dexterously and even brilliantly - think of Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front or Alfred Hitchcock's Murder! or Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel, all released the same year as The Runaway Bride. As an actor, Crisp made a smooth and successful transition from silents to talkies. As an actor, though, one sound production was enough. The performers say their lines too carefully, as if they feared the nearest microphone might be too far away, and there's no rhythm to the dialogue, which wobbles ungracefully from one beat to another. You'd never guess that Astor was just a few years away from such major films as Fleming's Red Dust (1932), Wyler's Dodsworth (1936), John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Edmund Goulding's The Great Lie (1941), which brought her an Oscar for best supporting actress. Moorhead's career was shorter, but she also moved quickly ahead, appearing with Buster Keaton in Edward Sedgwick's Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931) and with William Powell and Myrna Loy in W.S. Van Dyke's The Thin Man (1934). In sum, these are highly talented folks, and it's a pity that Crisp didn't draw more out of them. I'm not just imposing today's standards on an old-time movie, either; when it premiered, the New York Times critic called The Runaway Bride a "poorly directed film...jumping illogically from sequence to sequence."
Despite its drawbacks, The Runaway Bride is kind of fun if you have a taste for vintage movies. The cinematographer, Leo Tover, comes up with some nicely atmospheric lighting effects. The stars are appealing to see even when they're not exciting to hear, and Moorhead's transformation from mousy, slovenly maid to brassy, swaggering moll is as sprightly as it is surprising. Best of all is George's aging butler, Williams, played by Edgar Norton, a butler specialist who portrayed gentlemen's gentlemen (and an occasional gentleman) in pictures as different as John M. Stahl's Imitation of Life (1934) and Victor Fleming's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941). He's quite a riot in The Runaway Bride, lending wry humor when it's needed most. The movie also has occasional frisky touches - for instance, when Dick tells Mary that she'd better marry him or face a "scandal" for having spent the night with him - that might not have gotten past the censors when Hollywood's Production Code acquired teeth in 1934. Few would call The Runaway Bride a great movie, but adjust your standards accordingly and you'll have a good time while it lasts.
Director: Donald Crisp
Producer: William LeBaron
Screenplay: Jane Murfin; based on a play by H.H. Van Loan and Lolita Ann Westman
Cinematographer: Leo Tover
Film Editing: Archie F. Marshek
Art Direction: Max Re
With: Mary Astor (Mary Gray), Lloyd Hughes (George Blaine), Paul Hurst (Sergeant Daly), David Newell (Dick Mercer), Natalie Moorhead (Clara Muldoon), Edgar Norton (Williams), Francis McDonald (Barney Black)
by David Sterritt