July 7th, 2007

carole lombard 05
  • vp19

"High Voltage," few sparks

The previous entry discussed a few of Carole Lombard's films now in the public domain, and another one that presumably falls into this category is her first all-talking picture, "High Voltage," a Pathe film that premiered in late June of 1929. It's not much of a movie, but is nonetheless interesting to analyze.

It wasn't the first time Carol (the "e" wouldn't come until 1930) talked on screen -- that came the year before, in a dialogue segment of Pathe's part-talkie "Show Folks." But from here on in, title cards were a part of Lombard's past.

By its nature, technology always brings a multitude of changes, and so it was with the film industry in 1929. Studios large and small (Pathe was in the middle tier, despite a name that harked back to the dawn of commercial film) tried to adapt to the new medium as best they could, and many things were seemingly done on the fly.

Pathe, headed by the ambitious Joseph P. Kennedy, was hoping to move up in the Hollywood hierarchy. But its resources were meager compared to the big boys at Paramount, Fox and M-G-M, and it showed.

Much of "High Voltage" was shot on one set, which both kept the budget in check and made it easier to work with the cumbersome new sound equipment. But, like so many other early talkies, it slows the action to a crawl; it's no wonder some critics of the time decried the innovation of dialogue. For the most part, however, audiences loved sound films...though not that many of them went to see this programmer. And based upon what transpires in the film, "High Voltage" could have ran afoul of truth-in-advertising regulations, had they existed then.

Slow and stilted, “High Voltage” stars Carol as a recaptured prisoner being sent back to jail; a snowstorm in the Sierra Nevada strands her, a sheriff portrayed by Owen Moore (Mary Pickford’s first husband) and several other bus passengers in a cold former church building occupied by a stranger (William Boyd, for whom Hopalong Cassidy was still several years away). When food runs out, tensions run high before the group is rescued by airplane, but not before the Boyd and Lombard characters fall for each other.

Lombard (shown here held by Boyd, while Moore points the gun) is competent in the film, but shows little more in her first real foray into sound. She has good chemistry with Boyd, with whom she had worked the year before in "Power." However, Howard Higgin's direction is rather pedestrian, helping explain why this film sank without a trace. (It was issued on video in the late eighties and is now reportedly on DVD, though I've never come across a copy.)

A few other things of note about this film:

* Its dialogue was written by none other than James Gleason, who many years later would be nominated for best supporting actor in 1941's "Here Comes Mr. Jordan." Gleason was both a writer (with a few stage plays to his credit) and actor, although he more or less stopped writing by the mid-thirties.

* The supporting female role in this film is played by Diane Ellis, who had become Lombard's best friend on the Pathe lot. "High Voltage" turned out to be her last film at the studio. She and Lombard would be dropped by Pathe, reportedly so Kennedy could sign Constance Bennett, who regarded both blondes as competition. After moving to Paramount, Lombard helped Ellis get a supporting role there in the 1930 comedy "Laughter," starring Nancy Carroll and Fredric March. Soon after the film was released, Ellis (who had played a bride-to-be in "High Voltage") married a wealthy New Yorker, fell ill on their honeymoon while in India, and died in December 1930, shortly before her 21st birthday. Her death was one of several among close friends that often led Lombard to consider herself a jinx.