Whatever became of the gentleman thief? The silk-hatted crook, who brought such debonair gallantry to his work that it would be a pleasure to be relieved of your jewelry by him, was once common on the silver screen—Raymond Griffith in Paths to Paradise(1925), HerbertMarshall in Trouble in Paradise (1932), and William Powell in Jewel Robbery(1932) all embodied the type with light-fingered aplomb. Alas, he seems to have gone the way of heliotrope, a scent that plays a starring role in Forgotten Faces. Here, the suavely unflappable Clive Brook, he of the adamantine upper lip, plays“Heliotrope” Harry, an honorable man of immaculate manners and grooming who just happens to steal for a living. Victor Schertzinger’s film, one of four movie adaptations of Richard WashburnChild’s 1919 story“A Whiff of Heliotrope,” uses clever flourishes of style and a slyly tongue-in-cheek tone to glide through the story’s more far-fetched or cloyingly sentimental passages, like someone treading carefully up a creaky staircase.
Forgotten Faces was a milestone in the career of producer David O. Selznick, who later called it his “first real production” after moving to Paramount. The film kicks off with a magnificently staged casino heist, introduced by a boldly stylized shot looking up through a roulette wheel ringed by the faces of gamblers. The camera then floats through the room in a fluid crane shot, mirroring the restless movements of women in sparkling, beaded gowns—until they all suddenly stop and raise their hands, startled by the holdup men, still off screen. Surveying the haul of jewelry, Harry disdainfully tosses back a dowager’s paste pearls and respectfully returns another woman’s wedding ring, telling her that marriage is “the one human institution I believe in.” This is an ironic cue for acut to his wife back home, drunkenly banging a piano and carousing with a sleazy lover, while ignoring the cries of her neglected child and gleefully recounting how she tipped off the cops to her husband’s planned robbery.
Olga Baclanova sinks her teeth into the role of Lily—the world’s worst wife and mother—and chews it to bits. Pinballing between demonic laughter, eye-bugging terror, and a resplendent funk of dissipation, she turns out another in her series of deliciously depraved villainesses (the same year, she played the heavy-breathing Duchess Josiana in The Man Who Laughs). Para- mount’s publicity department, which dubbed her “the Russian tigress,” claimed that during the big confrontation scene in Forgotten Faces she hurled expletives at Brook in her native tongue. When sound came in, Baclanova’s heavy Slavic accent slowed her career in Hollywood; ironically, this decline may have driven her to take the role for which she is best remembered, as the despicable, ill-fated trapeze artist Cleopatra in Tod Browning’s once-reviled, now-classic Freaks (1932).
When Harry arrives home to find his wife in bed with another man, he is framed in the doorway, face rigid with cold fury. A cloud of smoke suddenly envelops him, conveying with elegant economy that he has shot his rival, the crime for which he will be sent to jail. Fromhere, the story becomes an unusual melodrama of father-love, as Harry devotes himself to saving his daughter, Alice, from his wife’smalevolent schemes. Brook is tender and playful in scenes with the infant Alice (Brook’s charming, natural warmth with children also comes out in the progressive domestic drama from 1925, The Home Maker, which features perhaps his finest performance), though his mooning over her once she is grown up (now played by Mary Brian) comes off as slightly creepy. The passage of years while Harry languishes in prison is deftly illustrated through a succession of photographs of Alice sent to him by his faithful partner, Froggy (William Powell). Powell, who later became the epitome of urbane sophistication once the talkies introduced his warm, attractive voice and witty line delivery, here gives a rather broadly comic performance as Harry’s déclassé sidekick, though his good-heart- ed character is a change from the heavies he often played at this stage in his career.
Victor Schertzinger took an unusual path to becoming a film director. A child prodigy on the violin, he first came to the film industry as a com- poser, hired by Thomas H. Ince to write a score for Civilization (1916). While he became a prolific director, he continued to compose film scores and popular songs, the best-known of which are “I Remember You” and “Tangerine,” both with lyricist Johnny Mercer. Fittingly, he ended his career (he died in 1941) with a series of musicals starring Bing Crosby, including Rhythm on the River, The Birth of the Blues, and two “Road” pictures with Hope and Crosby. Schertzinger saw a connection between cinema and music, stating in 1918: “The photo-play, which has become distinctive art, is developed much along the same lines as a musical composition … The composer must use the variations of tone, the divisions of time, the modulations of volume, the crescendo, the diminuendo, etc. The director has at his command the diversity of scenery, the various modes of expression in living beings, the effects of lights, the contrasting of locations and character, etc. But in the picture as in music there must be harmony.”
Forgotten Faces amply illustrates this theory, moving between contrasting locations: from a swank casino to a stark, cheerless jail; from a shabby room in a boardinghouse, where a disheveled Lily wakes with a bottle of gin and an ashtray full of cigarette butts by her bed, to the lofty mansion where Alice is raised by her wealthy adoptive parents, and where Harry insinuates himself by posing as a butler. There are lighting effects, including some marvelous proto-noir shots of shadowy staircases, which display the skills of cinematographer J. Roy Hunt. There are variations in tone, setting up a counterpoint between the sweet and the bitter, the tender and the cruel, the lightly comic and the tensely dramatic. Harry even loses his cool at one point, flailing and clawing at the wire mesh in the prison visiting room when his wife taunts him with her plan to ruin their daughter out of pure spite.
Desperate to escape so he can thwart her, Harry tries to take advantage of an attempted jailbreak by a brutal inmate known as “Spider,” played by the unforgettably mean-faced Fred Kohler, who had appeared as gang boss Buck Mulligan the year before in Josef von Sternberg’s dazzling gangster drama Underworld with Brook. That film kicked off Sternberg’s golden period at Paramount: in 1928, he made The Last Command, costarring a villainous William Powell, and Docks of New York, in which Baclanova gives one of her most appeal- ing and sympathetic performances. Sternberg’s influence on Forgotten Faces is felt in the expressionistic shadows and jazzy camera angles, though this innovative style is applied to an old-fashioned story of redemption through self-sacrifice, with a plot that topples over into the charmingly ludicrous as Harry masterminds a scheme to terrorize Lily with the scent of heliotrope.
Reviews of Forgotten Faces were split between praise for the quality of the acting, cinematography, and general stylishness, and raspberries for the credulity-straining plot and stale whiff of Victorian sentiment. Despite this, the story, which had already been filmed in 1920, was remade twice more: in 1936, starring Herbert Marshall and directed by E.A. Dupont, and as a B-picture in 1942. Richard Washburn Child, meanwhile, moved on from crime fiction to become a propagandist for Mussolini, ghost-writing an “autobiography” serialized in the Saturday Evening Post and shilling for Il Duce in the Hearst press, until he had a change of heart and started the Republicans for Roosevelt League in 1932. If only the fascist strongman were as quaint a relic as the gentleman thief.
Presented at A Day of Silents 2023 with live musical accompaniment by the Sascha Jacobsen Ensemble