The Man and the Moment
Reviewed by Darragh O’Donoghue
Produced by Richard A. Rowland; directed by George Fitzmaurice; screenplay by Agnes Christine Johnson and Paul Perez, based on a story by Elinor Glyn; cinematography by Sol Polito; starring Billie Dove, Rod la Rocque, Gwen Lee, and Robert Schable. DVD, B&W, part-silent, 79 min., 1929. A Warner Archive release.
The Man and the Moment DVD is released just as Warner Archive comes to the end of its Forbidden Hollywood series of films from the Pre-Code period, when writers and producers were emboldened to dramatize subjects that would soon become taboo, such as sexual activity and violence. The Forbidden Hollywood films come from the early talkie era (1930–1934), and so leave out works from that crucial time of transition when sound film was consolidated, and films shot silent were given a “talkie” makeover, with synched soundtracks and newly shot dialogue scenes. The Man and the Moment did not, however, need the addition of sassy and suggestive repartee to be blatantly concerned with sex—indeed, the would-be humorous dialogue is the weakest part of the film, with Joan Winslow (Billie Dove) frequently pleading with Michael Towne (Rod la Roque) to “stop trying to be funny.”
The Man and the Moment begins as a satire of the self-consciously “daring” Jazz Age lifestyle, caught just before the Wall Street Crash would turn it into an inconceivable memory. The film’s first intertitle proclaims, “No person ever dashed his brains out playing Polo Boat—because no person with any brains ever played Polo Boat.” It seems to posit a generation carelessly indulging in hedonism and promiscuity (one marvelous shot shows a crowd of hangers-on watching an accident during the polo match, while an unconcerned couple get down to lovemaking). This is the sort of society where marriage is nothing more than a business transaction. The one character here who does use her brains is Viola Hatfield (Gwen Lee), that classic projection of wealthy misogynists, a hard-as-nails flapper blackmailing the multimillionaire playboy Michael into marrying her after she divorces a husband who has clearly outlived his usefulness.
We should not feel too sorry for Michael; he is introduced as a heel and gets worse. He is first seen in beret, singlet, and pencil moustache, manically driving his motorboat, with a swim-suited beauty straddling the deck like a figurehead—the fact that only her bottom half is visible tells us all we need to know about Michael’s attitude to women. His barely remembered fling with Viola was clearly one of many; it is just that she was smart enough to retain his compromising “love” letters.
Into this sordid, “fallen” world literally falls Joan—having lost control of her airplane, she crashes into Michael’s boat. She is like Icarus, having flown too close to the sun in a symbolic bid for freedom from a mean-spirited guardian (Charles Sellon) who disapproves of her flying. He is the first, we later perceive, of many creepy men who try to catch or control Joan, the most persistent of whom is Michael. It is significant that Joan is often figured as a mythological figure—Icarus, Sleeping Beauty, Venus Anadyomene, a mermaid—at a point where her private identity as a young woman confronts a public world of gazing, desiring men.
Michael proposes a pact—they will marry each other, in form only, so Joan can escape her guardian, and Michael his gold-digging ex-mistress. No sex, he promises as Joan hesitates—this will be a purely platonic union in the name of “freedom.” Needless to say, a platonic relationship is the last thing on Michael’s mind. It is at this point that the opening intertitle takes on its double meaning. “With[out] any brains” can also mean “without consciousness,” and The Man and the Moment is structured as a conflict between the conscious exhibitionof mastery and the unwitting relinquishment of control. When Michael reaches the cockpit of the crashed airplane, he realizes that the pilot is a woman—unconscious, her beauty helmeted by her pilot cap, Joan resembles the Surrealist muses of the era, such as Lee Miller or Kiki de Montparnasse as photographed by Man Ray. This icon literally freezes the hectic movement that had hitherto dominated the film, and it is this unthinking passivity Michael wants to exploit. In his desire to sexually possess a comatose beauty, he foreshadows many of Buñuel’s antiheroes, most obviously Don Jaime in Viridiana, who drugs his niece after she wears his dead wife’s wedding dress. It is worth noting that The Man and the Moment was released the same year as Un Chien Andalou, made by the Hollywood-crazed Buñuel with Salvador Dalí.
In the film’s central, most jaw-dropping sequence, Michael stages an elaborate rape. Having married Joan on his yacht—far from any help—he plies her with drink and softens her resistance with lilting Hawaiian balladry performed by an oblivious quartet. Brilliantly, director George Fitzmaurice—a veteran of the charged actor–audience relationship, having directed Valentino in The Son of the Sheik (1926)—implicates the audience in this perfumed assault, using swooning dissolves, shots of the cloudy moonlight, and bizarre images of seagulls flying in slow motion, possibly in negative, all combining to conjure a romantic reverie. It is only after the violation itself is elided, and Joan’s distress is evident that the meaning of the preceding images becomes clear. Like the seagulls who scan the sea for food, like the polo players trying to spear the oversized beach ball like prehistoric hunters, Michael is exposed as a predator. That he remains the lead in a romantic comedy with a happy ending is not the least of the film’s subversions.
The Man and the Moment was a long “lost” First National film found in Europe, and may be one of the most remarkable films ever produced in Hollywood. That sounds like a preposterous assertion—surely we would have heard of such a film by now, even if only by reputation. I can only surmise that it is because its stars and director are not among those names from the silent era that have passed into legend. The Man and the Moment was not just overlooked; it was not even looked for. It is time we had a look now.
Darragh O’Donoghue is a Cineaste Contributing Writer and works as an archivist at Tate Britain.
To purchase The Man and the Moment, click here.