Posted by David Kalat on February 26, 2011
This is the story of one of the least funny (or most not funny) comedies I’ve ever forced myself to sit through. A film so profoundly insulting and hateful that it almost exceeds my ability to imagine how anyone ever found it amusing. But they did, and so this is also the story of changing fashions, in movies and comedies and men.
William Haines was born in 1900—he was a child of the movie age. At the age of 14, he ran away from home (under circumstances I’ll explain later) and led an itinerant life until he was discovered by Samuel Goldwyn and signed to a movie contract. This was not a ticket to stardom—he proceeded to work in background roles and bit parts for years, as if destined for also-ran status.
Little by little he migrated to the front of the screen, and as he did, critics started to take notice—and as they started to take notice, they started to complain. Below are some typical descriptions of Haines’ performances, and see if they gradually cohere into a picture for you:
“brash, perennial youth”
“fresh, breezy, overconfident”
1926 was the breakthrough year. Two important things happened in 1926, of which I’ll only tell you one now (if you get the sense I’m withholding something, you’re right, I am). He starred in BROWN OF HARVARD, in which he played an obnoxious charmer—a role he inhabited so perfectly, and which audiences embraced so thoroughly, it became his personal niche. A William Haines movie was a vehicle, a justification for Haines to come on and act like a jackass. Metro’s ads plugged “the smart aleck of the screen” and “its irrepressible wisecracker.” Irving Thalberg said that Haines was what modern movie audiences wanted from a comedian—as opposed to the old-hat stuff being offered by the slapstick clowns, now increasingly seen by the big studios as passé.
Critics pretty much hated this act, while audiences embraced it. Screenland Magazine wrote of one of his flicks, “the star plays another of his cut-up roles that makes the critics gnash their teeth and audiences chortle.” Haines was his generation’s Adam Sandler.
Before I start to take apart Haines’ THE GIRL SAID NO, which may be one of the worst things I’ve ever seen, let me establish the guy’s credentials: from 1928 to 1932 he was one of the top 5 box office stars. An exhibitor poll listed him as second only to Lon Chaney in popularity. When MGM entered the talkie age, the first of their major stars to speak onscreen: Haines. He may be a forgotten name today, but his work was mainstream American comedy in its day.
Let me also state that while I chose THE GIRL SAID NO as my example to present here, I’ve seen a few other of Haine’s vehicles—enough to feel confident that I haven’t plucked one bad egg out of the bowl to unfairly denounce.
On the surface, this thing appears to have promise: its comedy pedigree is respectable. THE GIRL SAID NO was a 1930 feature directed by Sam Wood, just five years away from directing the Marx Brothers in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES. It co-stars comedienne Polly Moran and features a showstopping cameo by Marie Dressler (and it is a sign of Haines’ diminished presence in popular culture today that Warner Archive, despairing of selling this DVD on the basis of Haines’ name alone, heavily emphasizes Dressler’s, as if her brief screen time constitutes a major part of the movie).
The scene goes on as you might predict: Dressler gets increasingly drunk, and Haines takes advantage of her inebriated state to sell her some bonds.
In a way, you’ve now got an inkling of what the title means. In this case, we had a girl, or a woman, Marie Dressler, who was adamant about her desires (I won’t buy any bonds, and I hate Denver, plus I don’t like parks), and in comes Haines who steamrolls over every objection she has—literally forcing her to yield to his will. Doesn’t matter if she says no, Haines doesn’t take no for an answer.
But. . . buying a bond isn’t a bad thing, and financing a public park isn’t a bad thing, and he confesses to her and she accepts him, and we can leave that scene feeling OK. He was a good salesman, using his wiles and charm to make a sale. Society smiles on that.
Too bad the title isn’t referring to Marie Dressler. No, THE GIRL SAID NO means exactly what you think it does. This is basically a rape comedy.
Now, Haines doesn’t actually rape Leila Hyams. But watch this clip and tell me if you think I’m exaggerating:
I don’t know about you, but watching him make sport of her crying gives me the willies. I felt like I needed to shower after watching this thing. Haines’ behavior throughout the film violates all manner of laws, norms, and social convention regarding sexual harassment. He cajoles, threatens, taunts, and manipulates Leila relentlessly.
This is just a taste of Haines’ idea of courtship.
At any given moment in the film, Leila’s face is contorted with horror or revulsion. It goes on like this for 90 minutes! All the way to the damn ending! In screwball comedies, the playful hostility between boy and girl melts into romance by the final reel, but that moment of conciliation almost never occurs here. Even as late as THE GIRL SAID NO‘s finale (am I SPOILING this for you?) he literally ties her up and gags her, to drag her unwillingly from her wedding.
And to this we are expected to laugh, and cheer. By all evidence, audiences in 1930 did.
I was so appalled by all this, I pulled out The Funsters, edited by James Robert Parish and William T. Leonard, to get some background and context on Haines. I needed to understand, seriously, how did anybody ever enjoy this? The biographical essay didn’t help much in answering this question—reading those things about Haines being a top box office star, hailed by Thalberg as the Next Big Thing in Comedy. . . I mean, it just got me depressed.
At the same time, the book’s entry on Haines asked a new question, one that hadn’t occurred to me before. There was something more to Haines, that Parish et al found problematic. They clearly didn’t want to address it but couldn’t entirely avoid it–so they did the literary equivalent of mumbling something under their breath and coughing into their collective hand. There it was–a fleeting aside in a throwaway sentence–and it changed my impression of Haines.
That passing comment prompted me to do some more research, some more digging—because I was realizing that it wasn’t just that THE GIRL SAID NO seemed to wallow in the obsolete sexual mores of a different age, the fate of Mr. Haines overall did.
When Haines ran away from home at the age of fourteen, he did so in the arms of another boy, a lad Haines called his boyfriend. When he was discovered by Goldwyn in 1922, Haines was working as a model, living in the nascent gay community of Greenwich Village. The second important thing that happened to him in 1926 was that he met Jimmie Shields, who became his committed partner. They lived together for nearly fifty years.
Haines’ homosexuality was no secret to the studio, but the studio hoped to keep it a secret from audiences. His oversexed screen persona was one way of projecting a straight image onto comic mannerisms that, if you rewatch the clips above with this new information, may now seem effete. Studio PR hacks invented gossip linking him with Peggy Hopkins Joyce and Barbara LaMour. To which Haines told the press, he preferred the company of Polly Moran.
Let’s run a clip of Polly Moran to clarify that reference:
I don’t doubt that Haines enjoyed Moran’s company. I don’t doubt the experienced comedienne would have been enjoyable company for anyone—but for studio publicists trying to establish Haines’ heterosexual bona fides, he wasn’t helping.
Nor was he helping when he was arrested for soliciting sex with a sailor in a YMCA in 1933. Newspapers got wind of this, and MGM realized the genie was out of the bottle. Haines was presented with an ultimatum: he could maintain his career if he squelched these “rumors,” and the only way to do that definitively (in the studio’s estimation) was a sham marriage. To his credit, Haines didn’t blink. He walked out of the studio, forever, with Shields’ hand in his, and never looked back.
Now, none of this changes the fact that THE GIRL SAID NO tries to make jokes out of ignoring that a girl said “no” (and even puts it in the title!) None of it makes Haines’ excessive mugging funny. But, it does put Haines’ behavior into a social context: he lived in an age where America was much more comfortable with joking about rape than it was admitting that two men could be in love. And in a world of such upside-down values, he stayed true to who he was–and accepted the consequence of his decisions.
So, I’ll still rank Haines as one of the least funny and most annoying screen comedians of all time, but he another side as well: he and Shields founded an interior design company, and among their clients were such Hollywood luminaries as Joan Crawford, Constance Bennett, Nunnally Johnson, and Jack L. Warner. Their firm still exists: www.williamhaines.com, and it seems all his talent was in design. He wasn’t funny, but he had a good eye.
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