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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer transitioned from silent pictures to talkies during the year 1929, the last of the major studios to commit fully to the new medium. MGM executive Harry Rapf produced Hollywood Revue of 1929 as a way of introducing moviegoers to the talking and singing talents of the MGM roster of stars, which included John Gilbert, Norma Shearer, Marion Davies, Lionel Barrymore, Buster Keaton, and Joan Crawford. Crawford sang and tap-danced in Hollywood Revue, and appeared again in the finale as one of the many stars seen "Singin' in the Rain." The jungle-to-city drama Untamed (1929) was filmed after Hollywood Revue, but managed to see release one month earlier, in November of 1929. For audiences of the day, it proved to be a showcase for fan-favorite Crawford and it provided an early leading man role for Robert Montgomery as well.
Crawford plays Alice Dowling, nicknamed "Bingo," a girl raised in the wild tropics of South America by her father. Henry Dowling (Lloyd Ingram) is an oil prospector, but also a drinker with a weak heart. He calls on his friend Ben Murchison (Ernest Torrence) to work with him on oil lands that have finally paid off, but just as Ben arrives with Howard Presley (Holmes Herbert) Dowling is killed by a transient oil worker with designs on Bingo. Bingo is suddenly in the position of being a wealthy heiress, and Ben is appointed as the girl's guardian. "Uncle" Ben and "Uncle" Howard decide to take Bingo, who is wild and ignorant of civilized ways, to New York for refinement. On the ship en route, Bingo falls in love with Andy (Robert Montgomery), a well-educated charmer with no money. In New York, Andy returns Bingo's love but stops short of marriage, as his pride will not allow him to live off her money. Bingo must deal with Andy's position, with the over-protection of her "Uncles," and with her own temper and untamed nature.
Joan Crawford was in a huge media spotlight in 1929. She was featured in newspapers and fan magazines regularly, although not necessarily because of her films; on June 3rd of that year, in St. Malachy's Roman Catholic Church in New York, she was married to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. As a result, Crawford became the daughter-in-law of Hollywood's reigning First Couple, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Whether true or not, the fan press reported that Pickford was less than thrilled with her stepson's new wife. For her part, Crawford seems to have thrived on the publicity, and she exhibited a sense of humor about the supposed rift, as when she and her husband moved into their new home together in Brentwood, California. As Alexander Walker noted in Joan Crawford:The Ultimate Star, "The house was called 'El Jodo,' a playful amalgam of Joan's own name and her nickname for Doug 'Dodo.' One wonders if the gracious couple up the hill, in the mansion called 'Pickfair,' took this as a compliment or as a slightly disrespectful joke..." The lack of comings and goings between the two houses was duly noted by the fan press, and apparently several months went by before Joan and Doug were invited to a dinner party at Pickfair.
During this period, Crawford took an understandable interest in Untamed, as it was to be her featured sound debut. Biographer Walker wrote, "Crawford never doubted her ability to talk, but she bought a Dictaphone in 1929 and Doug supervised her reading verse into it - the English love-poets, of course....She had lowered the timbre of her voice, and it recorded well..and some people at MGM spoke of a new singing star." The film, in fact, opens with a song and dance by Crawford, "Chant of the Jungle," written by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. Crawford certainly never became known for those abilities, though her throaty vocals and clunky dancing fit the "wild child" nature of her character in this film.
Untamed was a box-office success, but not much of a hit with the critics. In The New York Times, Mordaunt Hall seemed to be taking the opportunity to also critique the new sound films when he said, "...this pictorial effusion never really appears to get outside the wall of a Hollywood studio. It does wander, however, from anything real, and the trite dialogue and vacillating natures of some of the persons involved make one shudder to think to what queer lengths producers can go with their relatively new vocalized toy." Common with film reviews of this transition period, space is given over to commenting on the vocal talents of established actors. To this end, Hall comments that "Miss Crawford has a good voice, but she never strikes one as a girl who has been away from civilization for most of her life. There are moments when the fault is with Miss Crawford, and then there are instances where one is impelled to sympathize with her because of her lines."
The critic in the Brooklyn Eagle weighed in: "If Untamed does little else for Miss Crawford, it proves that she is an actress for whom the microphones should hold no fear. Her diction is clear and unaffected and while there is nothing in the lines that offers her opportunity for exceptional acting, she managed to make the impulsive heroine of the story somewhat more credible than the part deserves." The writer for New York Star gushed a bit: "Miss Crawford sings appealingly and dances thrillingly as usual; her voice is alluring and her dramatic efforts in the difficult role she portrays are at all times convincing." Clearly, Crawford made an effective transition to sound pictures, and though dated today, Untamed proved to be an important milestone for the ever-durable star.
Director: Jack Conway
Screenplay: Sylvia Thalberg, Frank Butler, Willard Mack
Story: Charles E. Scoggins
Cinematography: Oliver Marsh
Film Editing: William S. Gray
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Van Nest Polglase
Costume Design: Adrian
Music: Louis Alter, Nacio Herb Brown
Cast: Joan Crawford (Alice 'Bingo' Dowling), Robert Montgomery (Andy McAllister), Ernest Torrence (Ben Murchison), Holmes Herbert (Howard Presley), John Miljan (Bennock), Gwen Lee (Marge), Edward Nugent (Paul).
by John M. Miller