“I just discovered something. Something I never realized. I know what woman means. She’s not just the sort of thing that you pursue and love and hold. She’s something that leans over and whispers in your ear what you are, what you can do… and what you’re going to do.” ~Larry Day (Douglas Fairbanks) to Vivian (Bebe Daniels) in Reaching For the Moon (1930)
Reaching For the Moon is a relatively minor film in the grand scheme of things, but it is a masterpiece of Art Deco design. It’s main interest for most film buffs is the fact that it stars one of the great silent performers, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Fairbanks had always brought a boy’s sense of wonder to his adventure films in the 1920s. They were make-believe delights. Robin Hood and The Thief of Bagdad remain two of my favorite silent films of all-time thanks to the direction of Allan Dwan and Raoul Walsh, respectively. But by 1930, the legendary Fairbanks was winding down and merely fulfilling contractual obligations as a partner in the UA organization. Besides containing some of the old Fairbanks acrobatics, Reaching For the Moon has something novel: his voice. It was actually his second talkie. But this voice wasn’t very good– and it wasn’t getting any better. It was thin and whiny and aurally grating. What had made him so charming in silence– his boisterous laughter– is incessant and annoying in sound. It would be Fairbanks Jr. who would speak with elegance.
If only the prints looked as good as these stills…
Fairbanks plays Wall Street tycoon Larry Day. He knows how to make millions, but he’s socially bankrupt when it comes to the ladies. He’s a bit bashful, if you can believe that. So it takes his valet, Roger (Edward Everett Horton), to advise him on the art of lovemaking. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Along comes aviatrix Vivian (Bebe Daniels) into his life. She has fun making a fool out of him and then forgetting their date. Day won’t let it go and so pursues her to the L’Amerique ocean liner which is sailing for England. Once onboard, he discovers that she’s already engaged to a pompous ass, Sir Horace Partington Chelmsford (Claud Allister). This doesn’t stop Doug from having “beautiful fun” with Vivian while they cross the Atlantic.
The film moves, and it needs to with a weak script. Some of the highlights include Roger mixing a potent cocktail called “Angel’s Breath,” which unleashes the beast within. Roger, Larry, Horace and even Vivian all drink this concoction with the expected results. (Another excuse for Doug to show off his physicality by climbing walls.) Later, Bing Crosby makes his movie debut during a shipboard party and croons “Lower Than Lowdown”– the only musical number in a film that originally contained about five or six more. One was reportedly sung by Fairbanks himself! (The original running time was in fact 91 minutes– not the 74 minute version that exists today.) However, it was decided that the public at this time had grown weary of musicals, and so the filmmakers cut out all the other numbers. It wouldn’t be until 42nd Street (1933) that the genre would be revived. (As a bit of trivia, Busby Berkeley was originally slated to choreograph the Fairbanks film.) The story of Reaching For the Moon is actually based on a song by Irving Berlin. He was given story credit but reportedly walked off the production after a clash with director Edmund Goulding. Berlin later condemned the film altogether.
Reaching For the Moon is an eclectic mix of farce and musical comedy. With generally weak dialogue and little music, it fails at both. It’s also an early talkie with crude dubbing effects. Despite these weaknesses, it is one of the great Art Deco films of the period. In the December 30, 1930 New York Times review of the film, Mordaunt Hall calls attention to the “clever modernistic settings.” The sets were done by the great production designer William Cameron Menzies. (Menzies had also worked on 1924’s The Thief of Bagdad.) The film opens with the camera travelling through a miniature of New York’s skyline at night. The rest of the film, however, is not as cinematic. There are wonderful sets involving offices, penthouse apartments, and an ultra modern luxury liner. Since Reaching For the Moon is only a curio for historians, it’s never been restored. The public domain prints of the film, such as the one released by Synergy Entertainment, fail to do it justice. Cleaned up, this film would be more entertaining to modern audiences. It’s a fascinating example of how visual design alone can carry a film.
The effects of “Angel’s Breath”…
My favorite Deco moment is the brief scene in the ship’s “Marconi Room” in which Larry receives the message that he’s been wiped out by the Stock Market Crash. Horton, who gives the best performance in the film, is faithfully there at his side when he receives the bad news that his empire has shattered. Not much happens in the scene in terms of action. Though it’s dramatically a turning point in the film, I was struck more by the visual quality of what was around them. Like most props of the time period, there is a real weight to objects. The telephone that Larry picks up in this scene is something solid, not flimsy like today’s phones. You can almost feel the weight of props and furniture in these films. The sets and environments give the impression of durability– not like a cubicle that can be folded up. Even the lettering around the Marconi Room– the “trans-Atlantic telephone service”– is designed in a bold, Deco font that suggests both style and permanence.
I first discovered the existence of this movie when I read Screen Deco, which contains some terrific stills from the film. Authors Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers write: “Production designer William Cameron Menzies created a ship of fantasy proportions. Scenes taking place on the promenade decks have an almost surreal quality due to their obvious soundstage locations. Rather than detracting from the film, this studio-bound quality adds to its appealing otherworldliness. The entire story appears to be unfolding on a distant Art Deco planet.”
We’ll be exploring our own Art Deco planet in 2012 with modernist films set all over the world– but made in Hollywood. Unfortunately, due to the mediocre quality of the Reaching For the Moon dvd, I will not be able to christen the upcoming Screen Deco series with a trip aboard the L’Amerique. I will, however, play a segment from it prior to another Edmund Goulding film I will most definitely be showing. So make your reservations now.