Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Silent film star William Haines

William Haines (shown at left with Joan Crawford) was the top grossing male film star of 1930. Mostly unknown today, he was born in Staunton on January 1, 1900, at the birth of a new century. He went to local schools and even sang in the choir of the Episcopal Church. Deciding early on that Staunton was too small a town for the likes of him, he ran away from home at age 14 and never looked back. With no training as an actor, he became an MGM contract player in 1922, and "Brown of Harvard" (1926) was his star-making movie role. The house he was born in still stands at 419 N. New Street.

BROWN OF HARVARD (1926) MGM silent film
86 minutes; Black & White; 8 reels

An early example of the “buddy film” genre. Starring William Haines, Jack Pickford (brother of Mary), Mary Brian, Francis X. Bushman Jr., Mary Alden, David Torrence. Adapted from the 1909 stage play by Rida Johnson Young, directed by Jack Conway. This is a silent film rendering of Young’s play, a drama about friendship, loyalty, compassion and growing up from a boy to a man.

Haines plays Tom Brown, a breezy youth with a Don Juan reputation who is a freshman at Harvard. He soon locks horns with Bob McAndrews, a studious, reserved boy who becomes his chief rival for the affections of Mary Abbott, a professor's daughter. Brown rooms with Jed Doolittle, an awkward but good-hearted youth who comes to idolize him. At a party, Brown forcibly kisses Mary, and a tussle with McAndrews follows. Brown challenges MacAndrews as stroker on the college rowing team but loses. When Brown replaces MacAndrews in a rowing match against Yale, Tom is disgraced and decides not to return to Harvard the next year. However, he is persuaded by his father to go back to fight for the girl. During the following semester Brown believes that he has been cut from the football team and leaves campus. Jed Doolittle, his "half-pint" roommate, learns that the coach wants Brown to play and gets out of bed to find him, even though he is sick with fever. In a deluge of rain, after riding on the outside of a train, he eventually finds Brown and gets him to report to the coach for the big Harvard-Yale game, which is the climax of the film. Doolittle, by this time in grave physical condition, checks himself into the hospital while the game is on. At a crucial moment in the game Brown gives his rival MacAndrews a chance to score. After injuring his ankle, Brown captures the honors of the game, is acclaimed a hero and is happily united with Mary. When he goes to tell Doolittle of the victory, Brown learns that his roommate has died.

This silent film is a pot-boiler of suspense, maudlin sentiment and comedy – and of lessons painfully learned. Haines reworked this winning buddy-film formula in several subsequent films: “Tell it to the Marines” with Lon Chaney and “West Point” with Joan Crawford, who became Haines’s best friend in Hollywood. In each he plays a brash smart aleck who takes nothing seriously until he is rejected, then wises up and becomes a man/hero and wins the girl.

Trivia: The football scenes and those of the boat race are real. The football game includes actual footage from a Harvard football match. In addition, we are treated to an uncredited cameo by John Wayne, which is widely regarded as Wayne's first-ever appearance on film, playing the part of a Yale football player (Wayne was a player for USC in real life).
Jack Pickford (half-pint Doolittle) was the established star of the cast (Haines had heretofore played only secondary roles). At only 29 years old when the film was made, Pickford's star was already in decline due to acute alcoholism; he was dead by the age of 37. Haines stole the movie from Pickford.
Some of the witty silent film titles (by famed humorist Donald Ogden Stewart) were inspired by Haines' own ad-libbing on the set, and the entire film was shot in just three weeks.

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