THE GIRL SAID NO (and so do I)

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.

Title card

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.

William Haines portrait

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”

“overbearing wisecracker”

“conceited, obnoxious”

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.

The Girl Said No poster

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).

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LxgxwNo2QPk]

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:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKiypQAbRiA]

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.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeVHcABwLmo]

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.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eriuPUPVTpc]

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.

Screen grab

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:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=76cYqvbH1n8]

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.

30 Responses THE GIRL SAID NO (and so do I)
Posted By Tom S : February 26, 2011 1:31 pm

Do you know, that’s among the first serious pans I’ve ever read out of you, and as far as I remember one of the first out of this site.

It makes sense- there’s rarely much point to plucking a movie up out of obscurity just to slam it- but it’s nice, and I think there actually is a value to bringing up the way old movies, and the old system, were often terrible. People who watch a lot of old stuff have a tendency to start thinking “Ah! things were so much better then!”

Not, unfortunately, that the rape comedy has totally disappeared.

Posted By Tom S : February 26, 2011 1:31 pm

Do you know, that’s among the first serious pans I’ve ever read out of you, and as far as I remember one of the first out of this site.

It makes sense- there’s rarely much point to plucking a movie up out of obscurity just to slam it- but it’s nice, and I think there actually is a value to bringing up the way old movies, and the old system, were often terrible. People who watch a lot of old stuff have a tendency to start thinking “Ah! things were so much better then!”

Not, unfortunately, that the rape comedy has totally disappeared.

Posted By Medusa : February 26, 2011 1:36 pm

David, very interesting post, and particularly insightful in that you came in from one place and left at the same place, but with a deeper understanding that was consistent with your first impressions. You pegged this one on the nose, only for reasons that couldn’t have been know to audiences at the time. It’s still a little disturbing that this comedy was popular for all the wrong reasons back then.

Fascinating!

Posted By Medusa : February 26, 2011 1:36 pm

David, very interesting post, and particularly insightful in that you came in from one place and left at the same place, but with a deeper understanding that was consistent with your first impressions. You pegged this one on the nose, only for reasons that couldn’t have been know to audiences at the time. It’s still a little disturbing that this comedy was popular for all the wrong reasons back then.

Fascinating!

Posted By MDR : February 26, 2011 3:08 pm

I couldn’t agree more about William Haines and this film; offensive doesn’t even begin to describe either. It’s hard to believe that Haines had any kind of appeal back then, but especially now. After catching “The Girl Said No” on TCM some years back, I was so shocked to read the glowing praise for both by drednm and others on IMDb.com that I had to write a (counter) review for my site – http://classicfilmguide.com/index817f.html
Thanks for providing the insightful background information in your article.

Posted By MDR : February 26, 2011 3:08 pm

I couldn’t agree more about William Haines and this film; offensive doesn’t even begin to describe either. It’s hard to believe that Haines had any kind of appeal back then, but especially now. After catching “The Girl Said No” on TCM some years back, I was so shocked to read the glowing praise for both by drednm and others on IMDb.com that I had to write a (counter) review for my site – http://classicfilmguide.com/index817f.html
Thanks for providing the insightful background information in your article.

Posted By Vincent : February 26, 2011 6:05 pm

From most of the Haines movies I’ve seen on TCM’s “Silent Sunday Nights” and elsewhere, he is an acquired taste, rather obnoxious (although none of them that I’ve seen apparently descended to the depths of “The Girl Said No”). However, he does have at least one shining moment: as the male lead in the delightful Marion Davies Hollywood satire “Show People” (1928). Apparently, like Sandler in a few of his films, Haines (who was from Staunton, Va. in the Shenandoah Valley) was a good actor when used properly.

Haines designed and decorated Carole Lombard’s famed home on Hollywood Boulevard, among his other assignments after leaving acting. For more on that house, which was recently put up for sale or rent, see http://www.zillow.com/blog/carole-lombards-party-home-for-sale-or-rent/2010/10/15/

Posted By Vincent : February 26, 2011 6:05 pm

From most of the Haines movies I’ve seen on TCM’s “Silent Sunday Nights” and elsewhere, he is an acquired taste, rather obnoxious (although none of them that I’ve seen apparently descended to the depths of “The Girl Said No”). However, he does have at least one shining moment: as the male lead in the delightful Marion Davies Hollywood satire “Show People” (1928). Apparently, like Sandler in a few of his films, Haines (who was from Staunton, Va. in the Shenandoah Valley) was a good actor when used properly.

Haines designed and decorated Carole Lombard’s famed home on Hollywood Boulevard, among his other assignments after leaving acting. For more on that house, which was recently put up for sale or rent, see http://www.zillow.com/blog/carole-lombards-party-home-for-sale-or-rent/2010/10/15/

Posted By suzidoll : February 26, 2011 6:17 pm

Very interesting post–for all the reasons already stated.

FYI: The images were so large that they did not all load for me. After a couple of attempts, I got them all to come up except the second one.

Posted By suzidoll : February 26, 2011 6:17 pm

Very interesting post–for all the reasons already stated.

FYI: The images were so large that they did not all load for me. After a couple of attempts, I got them all to come up except the second one.

Posted By Martha Clark : February 26, 2011 10:42 pm

Thanks so much for a very interesting post! I’ve enjoyed a few of William Haines’ films, not many, but a few…read a lot about his life and career. Sounds like he had many friends in Hollywood who were aghast at his treatment by the studio.

I’d love to know the whole story about his being “discovered” in Greenwich Village working as a model…I mean, no one thought that he may be gay? He had some history working as a male prostitute at one time, could Goldwyn been one of his clients? Hmmm….

Well, on another note, wonder if I could sit through 90 minutes of “The Girl Said No”…sounds awful! Ugh…rape and comedy…not a good mix.

Posted By Martha Clark : February 26, 2011 10:42 pm

Thanks so much for a very interesting post! I’ve enjoyed a few of William Haines’ films, not many, but a few…read a lot about his life and career. Sounds like he had many friends in Hollywood who were aghast at his treatment by the studio.

I’d love to know the whole story about his being “discovered” in Greenwich Village working as a model…I mean, no one thought that he may be gay? He had some history working as a male prostitute at one time, could Goldwyn been one of his clients? Hmmm….

Well, on another note, wonder if I could sit through 90 minutes of “The Girl Said No”…sounds awful! Ugh…rape and comedy…not a good mix.

Posted By Jeffrey Ford : February 27, 2011 12:04 pm

You hit another nail right on the head Mr. Kalat; I myself have always found Haines to be repulsive and resistible (the Adam Sandler correlation was a great one) except for in the Marion Davies SHOW PEOPLE, and even there he sometimes treads dangerously close to the line. Even watching him with Lon Chaney in TELL IT TO THE MARINES, I keep wishing that Chaney had given him some of the treatments he dished out in his films with Tod Browning (like sicking the gorilla on him or feeding him to cannibals!). I’ve seem some of his silents and early talkies (WEST POINT and WAY OUT WEST for example) and they all adhere to the same tired formula, which is basically — like you stated — I’ll be a conceited jerk for seven reels and find some way to redeem myself in the eighth. Except that it sounds like in THE GIRL SAID NO he doesn’t even bother to redeem himself, and stays a jerk right through to the end! Haines’s enormous popularity in the late 1920′s and early 1930′s has always been baffling to me, but hey, as you state, times and tastes have changed (nonetheless, I still adore Clara Bow, who was treated worse by her studio — Paramount — than Haines ever was by MGM). It’s interesting when the fact about Haines’s homosexuality is brought into the argument; it’s almost like the filmmakers (and the star himself for that matter) were overcompensating to try and make their star appear more “normal” to the film going public (heaven forbid if Haines’s behavior was ever considered “normal”). As a point, compare any of Haines’s performances to Rock Hudson (another homosexual) and the way he behaves in Blake Edwards’s DARLING LILY: it’s exactly the same kind of “I’m going to prove I’m a man by treating a woman terribly” garbage that you see in Haines’s films (and its suppose to be a fun-filled musical romp, and it isn’t!). And honestly, it has nothing to do with the star’s real-life sexuality or their talent — only the fact that the films they appeared in crossed way over the line in a probably mis-guided attempt to conceal it. In closing, let me note that New York’s Film Forum did present a Haines festival several years back — when a biography of him came out — and I’d be real interested to know how some of those audiences reacted to the overbearing Haines persona. To link this to one of your past articles, anyone who badmouths any of Buster Keaton’s MGM features (funny in that we’re talking about the same studio and same period) ought to be forced to sit through a series of Haines’s films. As far as I’m concerned, WHAT, NO BEER? (touche’ Mr. Kalat) and FREE AND EASY (which Haines made a guest appearance in if I’m not mistaken) look like comic masterpieces compared to any of them! (Again, SHOW PEOPLE always excepted.)

Posted By Jeffrey Ford : February 27, 2011 12:04 pm

You hit another nail right on the head Mr. Kalat; I myself have always found Haines to be repulsive and resistible (the Adam Sandler correlation was a great one) except for in the Marion Davies SHOW PEOPLE, and even there he sometimes treads dangerously close to the line. Even watching him with Lon Chaney in TELL IT TO THE MARINES, I keep wishing that Chaney had given him some of the treatments he dished out in his films with Tod Browning (like sicking the gorilla on him or feeding him to cannibals!). I’ve seem some of his silents and early talkies (WEST POINT and WAY OUT WEST for example) and they all adhere to the same tired formula, which is basically — like you stated — I’ll be a conceited jerk for seven reels and find some way to redeem myself in the eighth. Except that it sounds like in THE GIRL SAID NO he doesn’t even bother to redeem himself, and stays a jerk right through to the end! Haines’s enormous popularity in the late 1920′s and early 1930′s has always been baffling to me, but hey, as you state, times and tastes have changed (nonetheless, I still adore Clara Bow, who was treated worse by her studio — Paramount — than Haines ever was by MGM). It’s interesting when the fact about Haines’s homosexuality is brought into the argument; it’s almost like the filmmakers (and the star himself for that matter) were overcompensating to try and make their star appear more “normal” to the film going public (heaven forbid if Haines’s behavior was ever considered “normal”). As a point, compare any of Haines’s performances to Rock Hudson (another homosexual) and the way he behaves in Blake Edwards’s DARLING LILY: it’s exactly the same kind of “I’m going to prove I’m a man by treating a woman terribly” garbage that you see in Haines’s films (and its suppose to be a fun-filled musical romp, and it isn’t!). And honestly, it has nothing to do with the star’s real-life sexuality or their talent — only the fact that the films they appeared in crossed way over the line in a probably mis-guided attempt to conceal it. In closing, let me note that New York’s Film Forum did present a Haines festival several years back — when a biography of him came out — and I’d be real interested to know how some of those audiences reacted to the overbearing Haines persona. To link this to one of your past articles, anyone who badmouths any of Buster Keaton’s MGM features (funny in that we’re talking about the same studio and same period) ought to be forced to sit through a series of Haines’s films. As far as I’m concerned, WHAT, NO BEER? (touche’ Mr. Kalat) and FREE AND EASY (which Haines made a guest appearance in if I’m not mistaken) look like comic masterpieces compared to any of them! (Again, SHOW PEOPLE always excepted.)

Posted By ggreen : February 27, 2011 2:28 pm

Of course Haines wrote, directed and edited all of his films. So this criticism of his on screen characterizations is completely warranted, because he had complete control over everything that went into the finished product. And in 1930 he had the benefit of being able to read the minds of addlepated bloggers in the next century so he could tailor his performances to meet and exceed their prejudices and preconceived notions of just what comedic acting was all about 80 years prior. Oh brother.

Posted By ggreen : February 27, 2011 2:28 pm

Of course Haines wrote, directed and edited all of his films. So this criticism of his on screen characterizations is completely warranted, because he had complete control over everything that went into the finished product. And in 1930 he had the benefit of being able to read the minds of addlepated bloggers in the next century so he could tailor his performances to meet and exceed their prejudices and preconceived notions of just what comedic acting was all about 80 years prior. Oh brother.

Posted By thomas_meighan : February 27, 2011 4:40 pm

This whole article is wildly, wildly off-base in addition to containing a few factual errors:

-Haines did not “work in background roles and bit parts for years”; as far as anyone knows, he had only a few such parts in 1922-23, not for an extended period of time;

-There was no such actress as “Barbara LaMoure”; the writer presumably is mis-spelling the name of Barbara LaMarr.

The writer claims that Haines’s behavior in THE GIRL SAID NO “violates all manner of laws, norms, and social convention regarding sexual harassment”. But *comedy* violates all those things, about sexual harassment and anything else society places on some kind of pedestal. Comics are *supposed* to act in outrageous ways that upraid someone’s norms. Whatever norms regarding sexual harassment (a term that wasn’t coined until 1973) existed in 1930, we can be sure that they are quite different than those of today; audiences who originally watched Haines’s films couldn’t possibly be judging his actions from a contemporary feminist perspective. Whether his films should be judged that way or not isn’t the question; if the writer is seeking to understand what made filmgoers of 1930 respond to Haines, he’s going about it in decisevely the wrong manner.

The slapstick comedians that the writer lauds also sometimes engaged in behavior that could be considered more offensive than average: Harry Langdon tries to kill Priscilla Bonner in LONG PANTS. Harold Lloyd steals and wrecks other people’s cars, farm implements and other vehicles in the final chase of GIRL SHY (he also cons his way into an ambulance in SAFETY LAST). The Three Stooges gave each other smacks to the head that could send someone to the hospital or result in assult charges if applied in real life. Why should they be given a pass while William Haines is denounced so puritanically?

Moreover, Haines’s behavior usually wasn’t allowed to stand without being challenged; his characters nearly always had to eat some humble pie and make amends for their arrogance. It’s precisely because his actions *are* so arrogant and his comeuppances so well-deserved that make his films entertaining. He generally did learn his lessons, and in the process demonstrated some fine dramatic talent that should have been exploited more frequently. Even if this formula lends a sameness to his vehicles, we can enjoy his silly comic touches: in THE GIRL SAID NO, for instance, he borrows a whisk broom from Leila Hyams, uses it as a sporran, and sings “The Campbells are Coming”. His rivalry with Ralph Bushman (aka Francis X. Bushman Jr.) also provides interest and allows the audience to root against someone.

The idea that MGM wrote plots for Haines that showed him as aggressively heterosexual in order to distract attention from his personal life does not stand up to empirical evidence: on the writer’s theory, why wasn’t Ramon Novarro given similar approaches towards women?

It can require varying levels of effort to understand and appreciate screen players or other entertainers of former times. Clearly this writer has done no such thing and offers a markedly superficial and implausible account of–and ill-informed attack on–a screen star not at all worthy of such contempt.

Posted By thomas_meighan : February 27, 2011 4:40 pm

This whole article is wildly, wildly off-base in addition to containing a few factual errors:

-Haines did not “work in background roles and bit parts for years”; as far as anyone knows, he had only a few such parts in 1922-23, not for an extended period of time;

-There was no such actress as “Barbara LaMoure”; the writer presumably is mis-spelling the name of Barbara LaMarr.

The writer claims that Haines’s behavior in THE GIRL SAID NO “violates all manner of laws, norms, and social convention regarding sexual harassment”. But *comedy* violates all those things, about sexual harassment and anything else society places on some kind of pedestal. Comics are *supposed* to act in outrageous ways that upraid someone’s norms. Whatever norms regarding sexual harassment (a term that wasn’t coined until 1973) existed in 1930, we can be sure that they are quite different than those of today; audiences who originally watched Haines’s films couldn’t possibly be judging his actions from a contemporary feminist perspective. Whether his films should be judged that way or not isn’t the question; if the writer is seeking to understand what made filmgoers of 1930 respond to Haines, he’s going about it in decisevely the wrong manner.

The slapstick comedians that the writer lauds also sometimes engaged in behavior that could be considered more offensive than average: Harry Langdon tries to kill Priscilla Bonner in LONG PANTS. Harold Lloyd steals and wrecks other people’s cars, farm implements and other vehicles in the final chase of GIRL SHY (he also cons his way into an ambulance in SAFETY LAST). The Three Stooges gave each other smacks to the head that could send someone to the hospital or result in assult charges if applied in real life. Why should they be given a pass while William Haines is denounced so puritanically?

Moreover, Haines’s behavior usually wasn’t allowed to stand without being challenged; his characters nearly always had to eat some humble pie and make amends for their arrogance. It’s precisely because his actions *are* so arrogant and his comeuppances so well-deserved that make his films entertaining. He generally did learn his lessons, and in the process demonstrated some fine dramatic talent that should have been exploited more frequently. Even if this formula lends a sameness to his vehicles, we can enjoy his silly comic touches: in THE GIRL SAID NO, for instance, he borrows a whisk broom from Leila Hyams, uses it as a sporran, and sings “The Campbells are Coming”. His rivalry with Ralph Bushman (aka Francis X. Bushman Jr.) also provides interest and allows the audience to root against someone.

The idea that MGM wrote plots for Haines that showed him as aggressively heterosexual in order to distract attention from his personal life does not stand up to empirical evidence: on the writer’s theory, why wasn’t Ramon Novarro given similar approaches towards women?

It can require varying levels of effort to understand and appreciate screen players or other entertainers of former times. Clearly this writer has done no such thing and offers a markedly superficial and implausible account of–and ill-informed attack on–a screen star not at all worthy of such contempt.

Posted By davidkalat : February 27, 2011 5:06 pm

Thomas Meighan,

Thank you for your impassioned reply–I do appreciate it. And because I know that tone can often carry very poorly in online communication, I’d like to state clearly I am not trying to be sarcastic–I do genuinely appreciate these kinds of arguments.

Mr. Meighan makes several excellent points–most significantly, the distinction between responding to a movie from a contemporary perspective, and trying to put oneself in the head of audiences “back in the day.”

I think for all of us, the first response to any movie is our own reaction, inevitably informed by our modern perspective. And then, maybe, we can undertake the intellectual exercise of projecting ourselves into a perspective more in common with the original audience’s.

When I first saw THE GIRL SAID NO, I was upset by the sexist attitude of the film. And, yes, I felt something different than the pass I admittedly give other comedians of the day. You’re absolutely right–I can watch Groucho Marx insult and harass people til the cows come home, and laugh all the while. But there was something that prevented me from experiencing Haines’ comedy in the same way.

(There’s another scene in THE GIRL SAID NO I almost posted in the piece, but I felt the text was running too long so I pruned it back. The gag involved Haines harassing an old man who was waiting to talk to his banker. The kind of abuse Haines heaped on this guy wasn’t all that different from the abuse Groucho would fling at his victims–but the difference, to me, was that the Marx Bros. films set up his victims so they seem to ask for abuse–by behaving with pomposity and affected dignity, waiting for someone like Groucho to come along and bring them down to Earth. This old fella was just a nice old codger who’d done nothing to anybody, and suddenly is treated rudely–and even though the joke itself was Marxian in a sense, that small distinction killed the humor for me–I think this part of what I find objectionable about Haines, and why I respond differently to him than I do, say, Harold Lloyd–who, I’ll admit, plays a fairly similar character)

That’s when I set out to research his life and work, in the hopes of coming to an understanding of what 1930s audiences enjoyed (or didn’t) about these things. I didn’t find what I was looking for, and what I wrote here was just my reporting of what I did find (with, sadly, a few factual errors–sorry ’bout those). And what I found, about his sex life, deepened my appreciation of him, but didn’t bridge the gulf needed for me to find him funny.

I’m glad to hear the perspective of those who do enjoy his films and do find him funny–whether that comes from your genuinely enjoying him at face value, or an intellectual appreciation of how other people in the past enjoyed him at face value.

I’ve been mulling over writing about blackface comics of the 1920s and 30s, because it’s a similar issue–there are some I really enjoy, and there are some that make my skin crawl, but those reactions are of a 21st century person. Once again, it’d be a story of a disjointed set of reactions, contemporary and historical, that conflict with each other over values.

I never meant to imply that 1930s audiences OUGHT to have perceived these comedies from a post-women’s rights era perspective–that’d be silly. But I also can’t fully disconnect myself from my own post-women’s rights era perspective to watch THE GIRL SAID NO without it. I regret if I didn’t make that clearer in my essay.

Posted By davidkalat : February 27, 2011 5:06 pm

Thomas Meighan,

Thank you for your impassioned reply–I do appreciate it. And because I know that tone can often carry very poorly in online communication, I’d like to state clearly I am not trying to be sarcastic–I do genuinely appreciate these kinds of arguments.

Mr. Meighan makes several excellent points–most significantly, the distinction between responding to a movie from a contemporary perspective, and trying to put oneself in the head of audiences “back in the day.”

I think for all of us, the first response to any movie is our own reaction, inevitably informed by our modern perspective. And then, maybe, we can undertake the intellectual exercise of projecting ourselves into a perspective more in common with the original audience’s.

When I first saw THE GIRL SAID NO, I was upset by the sexist attitude of the film. And, yes, I felt something different than the pass I admittedly give other comedians of the day. You’re absolutely right–I can watch Groucho Marx insult and harass people til the cows come home, and laugh all the while. But there was something that prevented me from experiencing Haines’ comedy in the same way.

(There’s another scene in THE GIRL SAID NO I almost posted in the piece, but I felt the text was running too long so I pruned it back. The gag involved Haines harassing an old man who was waiting to talk to his banker. The kind of abuse Haines heaped on this guy wasn’t all that different from the abuse Groucho would fling at his victims–but the difference, to me, was that the Marx Bros. films set up his victims so they seem to ask for abuse–by behaving with pomposity and affected dignity, waiting for someone like Groucho to come along and bring them down to Earth. This old fella was just a nice old codger who’d done nothing to anybody, and suddenly is treated rudely–and even though the joke itself was Marxian in a sense, that small distinction killed the humor for me–I think this part of what I find objectionable about Haines, and why I respond differently to him than I do, say, Harold Lloyd–who, I’ll admit, plays a fairly similar character)

That’s when I set out to research his life and work, in the hopes of coming to an understanding of what 1930s audiences enjoyed (or didn’t) about these things. I didn’t find what I was looking for, and what I wrote here was just my reporting of what I did find (with, sadly, a few factual errors–sorry ’bout those). And what I found, about his sex life, deepened my appreciation of him, but didn’t bridge the gulf needed for me to find him funny.

I’m glad to hear the perspective of those who do enjoy his films and do find him funny–whether that comes from your genuinely enjoying him at face value, or an intellectual appreciation of how other people in the past enjoyed him at face value.

I’ve been mulling over writing about blackface comics of the 1920s and 30s, because it’s a similar issue–there are some I really enjoy, and there are some that make my skin crawl, but those reactions are of a 21st century person. Once again, it’d be a story of a disjointed set of reactions, contemporary and historical, that conflict with each other over values.

I never meant to imply that 1930s audiences OUGHT to have perceived these comedies from a post-women’s rights era perspective–that’d be silly. But I also can’t fully disconnect myself from my own post-women’s rights era perspective to watch THE GIRL SAID NO without it. I regret if I didn’t make that clearer in my essay.

Posted By thomas_meighan : February 27, 2011 5:27 pm

And I regret it if I came across as rude or aggressive–I’m not as mean as William Haines, really I’m not! ;-)

Posted By thomas_meighan : February 27, 2011 5:27 pm

And I regret it if I came across as rude or aggressive–I’m not as mean as William Haines, really I’m not! ;-)

Posted By drednm : February 27, 2011 5:36 pm

What a hateful review. I agree with “Thomas Meighan” that the Haines formula required Haines to start off as the brash smart ass but that he always is redeemed through some sort of “rite of passage” into adulthood/manhood. These films boast the buffoonish Haines as a silly ass but they also show Haines the actor who wins the girl in the end.

Yes Haines was gay. Get over it. Unlike so many other gay actors of his time, Haines was honest enough to be in an openly gay relationship rather than be bullied by the despicable LB Mayer and retain his stardom. The hypocrisy of this “golden era” is appalling. The system tolerated the closeted actors and directors but couldn’t really handle the truth. As long as Haines was a box office draw, Mayer gritted his teeth and “tolerated” the situation.

After the snarky caricatures of gay characters onscreen, dating back to the beginning of films, perhaps Haines’ exaggerated “straight” performances were his way of hitting back at phonies like Gable, Cagney, Grant, and the odious Robert Montgomery.

The incident spoken of where Haines was picked up for soiliciting (and for which he was demoted from “star” to “featured player,”) also included George Cukor. Of course Cukor’s career was not harmed by this incident.

The bottom line here here is that perhaps the reviewer can’t accept the gay characteristics as played by a gay man. Too much reality? It would be more acceptable as played by a straight man because the insult would be greater?

Of course gay characters were traditionally sidelined by playing supporting parts, exaggerated for comic effect. This was ok. But Haines was the first openly gay star, using his own comic talent to lampoon himself and basically defusing the offensiveness of the stereotype. He took control of the stereotype.

In a film where Haines bypassed the swish act, like JUST A GIGOLO, he shows that he could easily have played the game like so many others did, and that he could have “passed” as a conventional leading man. Haines didn’t want to “pass” any more than Lena Horne did a decade later.

The Polly Moran thing was a long-standing inside joke used by Haines to sidestep the idiotic questions about his unmarried state by picking the hilariously unsuitable Moran as his heart’s desire. This seems more palatable to me than Ramon Novarro’s unctuous pious lies about his faithfulness to his family and religion as reasons for his unmarried state. But of course even Novarro looks good compared the the many many stars in “lavender” marriages.

Haines was a major star of his time. I’ve never read of any other contemporaries who refused to work with him. Indeed, he was held in high esteem by his peers and remained a vital part of the film community long after his departure from the silver screen.

Posted By drednm : February 27, 2011 5:36 pm

What a hateful review. I agree with “Thomas Meighan” that the Haines formula required Haines to start off as the brash smart ass but that he always is redeemed through some sort of “rite of passage” into adulthood/manhood. These films boast the buffoonish Haines as a silly ass but they also show Haines the actor who wins the girl in the end.

Yes Haines was gay. Get over it. Unlike so many other gay actors of his time, Haines was honest enough to be in an openly gay relationship rather than be bullied by the despicable LB Mayer and retain his stardom. The hypocrisy of this “golden era” is appalling. The system tolerated the closeted actors and directors but couldn’t really handle the truth. As long as Haines was a box office draw, Mayer gritted his teeth and “tolerated” the situation.

After the snarky caricatures of gay characters onscreen, dating back to the beginning of films, perhaps Haines’ exaggerated “straight” performances were his way of hitting back at phonies like Gable, Cagney, Grant, and the odious Robert Montgomery.

The incident spoken of where Haines was picked up for soiliciting (and for which he was demoted from “star” to “featured player,”) also included George Cukor. Of course Cukor’s career was not harmed by this incident.

The bottom line here here is that perhaps the reviewer can’t accept the gay characteristics as played by a gay man. Too much reality? It would be more acceptable as played by a straight man because the insult would be greater?

Of course gay characters were traditionally sidelined by playing supporting parts, exaggerated for comic effect. This was ok. But Haines was the first openly gay star, using his own comic talent to lampoon himself and basically defusing the offensiveness of the stereotype. He took control of the stereotype.

In a film where Haines bypassed the swish act, like JUST A GIGOLO, he shows that he could easily have played the game like so many others did, and that he could have “passed” as a conventional leading man. Haines didn’t want to “pass” any more than Lena Horne did a decade later.

The Polly Moran thing was a long-standing inside joke used by Haines to sidestep the idiotic questions about his unmarried state by picking the hilariously unsuitable Moran as his heart’s desire. This seems more palatable to me than Ramon Novarro’s unctuous pious lies about his faithfulness to his family and religion as reasons for his unmarried state. But of course even Novarro looks good compared the the many many stars in “lavender” marriages.

Haines was a major star of his time. I’ve never read of any other contemporaries who refused to work with him. Indeed, he was held in high esteem by his peers and remained a vital part of the film community long after his departure from the silver screen.

Posted By drednm : February 27, 2011 5:46 pm

One final thought here: William Haines was an excellent actor.

In film after film, while he exploited the smart ass character to fullest comic effect to set up his own “fall,” Haines was able to switch gears in an instant and change his entire demeanor and character to that of a serious actor.

Okay, second final thought. The Haines formula was so successful that Frank Capra reworked it in a series of films that starred Jack Holt and Ralph Graves (in the Haines role). The formula was toned down, but it’s unmistakable in early Capra films like FLIGHT, DIRIGIBLE, and SUBMARINE.

Posted By drednm : February 27, 2011 5:46 pm

One final thought here: William Haines was an excellent actor.

In film after film, while he exploited the smart ass character to fullest comic effect to set up his own “fall,” Haines was able to switch gears in an instant and change his entire demeanor and character to that of a serious actor.

Okay, second final thought. The Haines formula was so successful that Frank Capra reworked it in a series of films that starred Jack Holt and Ralph Graves (in the Haines role). The formula was toned down, but it’s unmistakable in early Capra films like FLIGHT, DIRIGIBLE, and SUBMARINE.

Posted By dennis mount : February 28, 2011 1:54 pm

I haven’t watched any of his movies so I can’t comment on them. But I’ve noticed that some old films can be hard to watch with modern morals attached. Watching any of the old foreign legion, british empire or even calvary pictures you realize now that you’re cheering for the wrong side. The Indians, arabs, whatever are fighting to live their lives on their land their own way.

Of the old comedians the one I find the hardest to take is Joe E. Brown. He starts out as a conceited jerk and continues right to the end the same way. I kept expecting some kind of revelation to hit him before the end of the movie. I think only once did that happen.

Posted By dennis mount : February 28, 2011 1:54 pm

I haven’t watched any of his movies so I can’t comment on them. But I’ve noticed that some old films can be hard to watch with modern morals attached. Watching any of the old foreign legion, british empire or even calvary pictures you realize now that you’re cheering for the wrong side. The Indians, arabs, whatever are fighting to live their lives on their land their own way.

Of the old comedians the one I find the hardest to take is Joe E. Brown. He starts out as a conceited jerk and continues right to the end the same way. I kept expecting some kind of revelation to hit him before the end of the movie. I think only once did that happen.

Posted By Neville Ross : March 5, 2011 8:34 pm

Sorry, but I like Adam Sandler, and unlike Mr. Haines, he doesn’t rape, or nearly rape, women in his movies: he’s just a ‘smart guy/wise-guy’ and that’s about it.

@dennis mount: you’re right about some old films being hard to take, that’s why most younger people, especially people of color and women, don’t care for them that much, as I’ve said before, and tend to stick to newer movies. This trumpeting of The White Man’s Burden on screen isn’t encouraging to them, nor should it be to anybody else, and what should be taken into account when wondering why the young watch mostly newer films and not older ones, as Suzidoll loves to lament.

Posted By Neville Ross : March 5, 2011 8:34 pm

Sorry, but I like Adam Sandler, and unlike Mr. Haines, he doesn’t rape, or nearly rape, women in his movies: he’s just a ‘smart guy/wise-guy’ and that’s about it.

@dennis mount: you’re right about some old films being hard to take, that’s why most younger people, especially people of color and women, don’t care for them that much, as I’ve said before, and tend to stick to newer movies. This trumpeting of The White Man’s Burden on screen isn’t encouraging to them, nor should it be to anybody else, and what should be taken into account when wondering why the young watch mostly newer films and not older ones, as Suzidoll loves to lament.

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