Skyline (Sam Taylor, 1931)
Fox Film Corp. in 1931 took on another version of Felix Reisenberg’s novel East Side West Side, which the studio previously produced in a 1927 silent adaptation directed by Allen Dwan. The first half of the 1930s was rife with talkie remakes of successful silent films. Now that the original silents had no marketable value whatsoever, it made sense to re-adapt existing, already-owned properties.
Sam Taylor directed the new version. Taylor, who got his start directing pictures for Harold Lloyd, was not an imaginative director and whatever name recognition still exists for Taylor a century after his heyday comes from an apocryphal tale from his 1929 Mary Pickford-Douglas Fairbanks version of The Taming of the Shrew that the credits read “By William Shakespeare, with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.” Alas, untrue, no matter how amusing. Taylor, a well-respected comedy director, wound up merely as the footnote of a punch line.
Myrna Loy has a relatively minor role in this melodrama. Donning a platinum blonde wig, her character of Paula Lambert is, at first glance, merely a pale version of her exotic femme fatale, but Loy imbues the character with more subtlety than one would expect.
John Breen has grown up on a barge in the East River in New York City, lamenting his life hauling bricks up the river with his abusive father. He gazes longingly at the sea of skyscrapers above: “I wanna see what they do with all those bricks.” When his mother on her deathbed reveals Cap’n Breen is not his real father and that his real father abandoned her, John decides to leave the barge. He and the father proceed to a brutal fistfight, filmed surprisingly deftly by the maligned Taylor, in long takes, the sounds of their fists beating into each other punctuated by the occasional boat whistle. When John finally beats Cap’n Breen into unconsciousness, he swims across the river and climbs exhausted onto the dock and collapses into the bed of a truck that drives away. The drivers notice him and dump him in the middle of the street.
John Wanders around and sees machines working in a great big quarry. The camera pans up to see the top of the Empire State Building and he immediately collapses. When kindly Mr. Kearney gives him food and boasts of his association with the great builder Gordon A. McClellan, John decides to go to the top man for a job and cons his way into delivering blueprints to McClellan, who’s hanging out on the top of his newest skyscraper under construction. In the strongest sequence of the film, Taylor gives us an extraordinarily long shot of John going up the open elevator as he quickly buckles with fear. When he needs to walk along a steel girder to hand McClellan the blueprints, his overwhelming fear is palpable. Director Sam Taylor had guided Harold Lloyd through his great stunts in Safety Last! eight years previously, featuring the immortal shot of Lloyd hanging from the hands of a clock, and here is the flip side of Lloyd’s adventure. The tension of John’s simple terror of being up high is surprisingly effective, even with the primitive back projection employed here.
This is, however, melodrama, and through a series of misadventures, Breen winds up becoming McClellan’s protégé and romances Mr. Kearney’s daughter Kathleen, played by a very young and winsome Maureen O’Sullivan, still finding her footing as an actor. We first see a peculiarly platinum-blonde Myrna Loy as Paula visiting George McClellan at the construction site. She’s adorned in furs, and when the friend accompanying her reminds her a love affair with McClellan is over, Loy meows playfully. Here, she’s clearly established as glamorous, catty, probably a woman to inspire a little fear, but those rough edges are smoothed by what is clearly Loy’s developing ability to exude a casual, simple charm on screen. She’s a party girl here, out for a good time, not the malicious harpy role in which she’s been miscast for years. If Loy in signing with Fox was hoping to move beyond the exotic roles, Skyline showed it may be a possibility.
In her autobiography, Loy dismisses Skyline saying that “all that comes to mind is that I played Thomas Meighan’s mistress in a blonde wig.” Loy does add, however, that she was surprised later to learn that supposedly, MGM signed her a year later based on the strength of the role.
The melodrama of Skyline comes full force with the revelation – a most peculiar and unlikely coincidence – when Breen shows McClellan his locket McClellan remarkably realizes that Breen is really his son. And, as with all melodrama, all tension in the plot is created by one character being too frightened to tell another character the truth.
Breen, by the way, is played by Hardie Albright, a very inadequate leading man and one with whom I’m completely unfamiliar. Smugly, of course, I assumed he was some kind of sad actor whose career collapsed after attempts to make him a leading man in early talking pictures, but a quick glance at The IMDB shows he was a working actor in movies and television for 35 years. Not bad!
Skyline is inferior to Dwan’s silent East Side, West Side four years earlier and in retrospect while it seems silly for a studio to remake a film made so recently, today’s Hollywood is a lot more similar to the early talking era than you might think. “Franchises” are “rebooted” incessantly now that the DVD market blew up and viewers forget movies that were made just a few years ago. Anything that isn’t brand new (like the way the early talking era dismissed silent films) is worthless now. So we’re seeing talk of “reboots” of Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek and more films that seem like they were originally made just a heartbeat ago.