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In watching Rudy Vallee in his first feature film, The Vagabond Lover, no one would believe he would go on to enjoy a 55-year career in theater, film, and television. His impressive if uneven career included a critically acclaimed comeback in the 1960s in the Broadway hit How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. However, in The Vagabond Lover, he was stiff, wooden, and uncharismatic. As the reviewer for The Spectator pointed out in 1929, Vallee looked glum for most of the movie, his "face set in perpetual sorrow." He was trying to convey the gentility and sincerity of his singing style, but performing in front of the camera is not as spontaneous as singing live in front of an audience. Vallee did not yet have the experience to translate his image from ballroom to big screen.
The Vagabond Lover opens with a title card that neatly summarizes this slight musical romance: "Every small town has its small town band with big ideas." The title card references Vallee the bandleader, thus telegraphing to audiences that The Vagabond Lover will be a vehicle shaped to the crooner's talents. Vallee stars as singer-saxophonist Rudy Bronson who has learned everything he knows about the instrument via a correspondence course with the illustrious Ted Grant. Bronson and his band decide to visit Grant at his home on Long Island to see if the musician can help them get their start in show biz. After the arrogant, self-centered Grant turns them down, he immediately leaves for the road, stranding Rudy and the band on the grounds of his estate. Complications occur when a wealthy neighbor, Mrs. Whitehall, and her niece show up and suspect that the boys are burglars. Quick on his feet, a band member pipes up to claim that Rudy is Ted Grant and the rest of them are Grant's orchestra. This act of mistaken identity, a staple of comedy for centuries, fuels the rest of the slight story, with Rudy torn between enjoying the acclaim as Ted Grant and wanting to come clean for the sake of Mrs. Whitehall's pretty niece.
Tillie's Punctured RomanceM/I> with Chaplin in 1914, Dressler enjoyed her greatest popularity in the early sound era when she was in her sixties. Tall and hefty, with craggy features, she was an unlikely movie star. However, according to biographers, her movies outgrossed those of Garbo during the early 1930s. Dressler's talent as a comic actress was likely behind her enormous popularity. Having honed her craft for decades in stock companies, in vaudeville, and on Broadway, she understood how to use her highly expressive face and her well-trained voice to milk a line--an important asset in the early talkie era when actors struggled to conquer the new sound medium. She also employed exquisite timing, giving a deliberate rhythm to her lines that made them funnier than on the written page.
The Vagabond Lover, Dressler employs a higher-pitched voice than her normal resonant tones, and she trills when she laughs. It's a strategy used to perfectly capture the wealthy matron archetype often found in American comedies. It's a different vocal mannerism than the rich dulcet tones she used to play the acting diva in Dinner at Eight a few years later. She also employed other tricks in The Vagabond Lover that helped her steal her scenes. After speaking an important line of her dialogue, she sometimes repeated a phrase while raising her eyebrows or offering an expression to add emphasis or humor to her bit. She relied on props, such as a chiffon handkerchief, to help construct her character or to accent the meaning of her dialogue--a strategy method actors would exploit years later. Dressler may have been several decades older than Vallee, but she exhibited a vitality or vigor in their scenes together that overshadowed the crooner as well as his romantic lead, Sally Blane (Loretta Young's sister) .
The New York TimesM/I> declared, "Miss Dressler is really funny. . . .," while The Spectator claimed, "She convulses the audience every time she opens her mouth." Rudy Vallee may have made The Vagabond Lover a box-office hit in 1929, but it is Marie Dressler that makes the film worthwhile viewing today.
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