Actress Files: Betty Compson
1) If I can squeeze 17 comments out of a write-up of Mary Pickford, the sky suddenly feels like the limit.
2) I am, at the moment, deep in the heart of actressexuality: that is, in Nathaniel's apartment, so even if I weren't already eager to write up a Best Actress profile, he'd be exacting one as a sort of friendly toll for crashing on his couch.
3) The Barker, the vehicle for Betty Compson's Oscar nomination, is available for viewing nowhere else in the world besides the UCLA Film & TV Archive, and having just visited Los Angeles for the first time in seven years, you know I made a bee-line.
4) With 41 out of 408 Best Actress nominees left to screen as of mid-March, I had exactly the last 10% to review. The combo of hitting this milestone in the project in conjunction with tracking down the most elusive outstanding title has been a great adrenaline kick for the project; I've already screened ten more since Compson. If I made you wait on full year profiles, which always entail some time-consuming returns to past viewings, I'd still be stuck with a slow roll-out, especially since "slow roll-out" is pretty much going to define this blog for the next year. Sorry, folks! BUT, hopefully I can satisfy you with a steady drip of individual performance reviews. And thus...
Betty Compson, The Barker
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(nominated for the 1928-29 Best Actress Oscar, losing to Mary Pickford in Coquette; this screen shot is from Vitaphone Varieties' excellent entry on Weary River, but just you try finding an image of Betty in The Barker)
Compson played one tough cookie in Josef von Sternberg's The Docks of New York, a masterpiece that came out the same year as The Barker but somehow didn't cross the Academy's radar at all. Even when rough, stolid George Bancroft rescues her from an attempted suicide by drowning in the beginning of the picture, she sits there in a bed, smoking a cigarette and shooting spiteful looks at Bancroft as if to say, Why the fuck did you keep me alive? She softens a bit over the course of Docks, but not a lot, and though she's gentler in her other big film of this Oscar vintage, Frank Lloyd's Weary River, she's still nobody's simp. So I cannot honestly tell whether Compson's midlevel work in The Barker bears the aroma of disappointment no matter how you look at it, or whether I'm just so taken with her usual bent toward steely composure inside those delicate, reedy looks that it's just not my cup of tea. The opening movement of The Barker is full of moments where Compson has to pout about the inattentiveness of her putative boyfriend Nifty Miller (!), the older, thicker carnival barker of the title (Milton Sills). She's stuck posing several variations on the line, "How much do you love me?" and seeming pathetically jealous as Nifty increasingly dotes on his own pretty-boy son Chris (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) instead of her. Compson hits these notes of self-pity so hard that you can tell they don't come naturally to her; she plays a cryer and a pleader with the kind of strenuous effort that gorgeous actresses often bring to impersonations of "average" women, and though she's by no means terrible, the effect is comparably flat. The only early sign of promise is that Compson's Carrie, who plays a sexy hula dancer called "Neptune's Daughter" in this traveling fair (!), has a physical ease with her body, especially when she's not performing, so that at least some undercurrent of erotic possibility clings to the character even amid her perma-pout. We first properly meet her as her head and naked shoulders peek over the top of a backstage dressing screen. When Nifty casually drapes his elbow over the screen to speak with her, Compson not only resists any glimmer of modesty or prudishness, she goes right on dressing and undressing, in spite of the old-fashioned pap that's trickling from her mouth.
Soon enough, the top will blow off any sense of Carrie's decorum. As the troupe boards a train for their next circuit date, Carrie pulls a quart of White Mule corn liquor out of her bloomers and, in her waspish inebriation, conceives a plan where her pert, tomboyish friend and co-worker Lou (Dorothy Mackaill) will seduce Chris and carry him off, so that Nifty's focus will pass back to Carrie and their frustrated engagement. Compson's barely got the tin cup in her hand before she's undoing her sad little necktie and her gaze starts to curdle. Even when Nifty catches the women sozzling young Chris on drink and definitely breaks with Carrie, which really gets her pissed, she collapses face-downward on a bed in anger rather than maudlin weakness. I don't, of course, think that acrid emotions entail automatically better acting than gentler ones, but Compson just has so much more vitality when she's seething, and it seems to free up mischief in other facets of the performance, as when she and Mackaill clearly conjure a Sapphic resonance to their scenes of conspiring, with the pajama'd Lou hopping in bed with the lingerie'd, cat-who-ate-the-canary Carrie so they can plot the stages of Chris's ruination. You can guess pretty much how this scheme works out, and though Compson's never quite as "on" or as mischievous as in the scenes of machination, she's rarely as insufferably wan as she started at the outset. True, there are some post-comeuppance scenes that get a little too Sin of Madelon Claudet for my taste, but her terror upon having her misdeeds exposed to Nifty has some real energy to it. In truth, Mackaill deserved the nod for her engagingly modern rendering of Lou, mirroring the look and the demeanor of Claudette Colbert, who originated the part of Lou onstage, though Mackaill is perhaps a more believable product of a shady past than it's easy to imagine Colbert being. Without trying, Mackaill steals a few scenes, as does some of the dialoguenothing in Compson's performance, perhaps inevitably, measures up to the joyous thrill of those delicious lines by which Nifty hawks her hula-dancing act, including "She'll show you how they shake their shredded wheat on the beach at Waikiki!" and "She shakes a mean barrel of alfalfa, folks, a mean barrel of alfalfa!" But it's nonetheless a fine turn, commemorating what's almost certainly the proudest year of Compson's career.
The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 40 to Go