You Never Know Women Gets "The Silent Treatment" at the Cinefamily
June 18, 2015
Once a month, the Cinefamily hosts a series called “The Silent Treatment." The venue is quite appropriate, as the Cinefamily is the old Silent Movie Theatre and large portraits of silent film stars adorn the walls inside.
Growing up, silent films were never my favorite, but viewing them in a theater has certainly changed the experience for me. In particular, most all silent film screenings in LA feature live musical accompaniment of some sort, which helps; I definitely need something other than the action on screen to keep me focused.
Back in January, “The Silent Treatment” screened William Wellman’s scarcely seen 1926 dramedy You Never Know Women. The title enticed me to read further, which was when I spotted this description on the Cinefamily’s website: “highly unusual circus romance.” The words 'circus' and 'unusual' written together makes my mind drift to the likes of Freaks (1932) and The Unknown (1927), which “The Silent Treatment” actually screened a few months before as part of a Lon Chaney double feature.
In reality, though, You Never Know Women is nowhere near as bizarre as either of those films. In fact, the “circus” is actually set in a theater as opposed to, say, a fairground, which adds some flavor of respectability to the proceedings. If the action on stage wasn’t enough to show that, every crowd shot reminds the viewer of the difference, with upper class patrons dressed to the nines as was the norm for theater outings back in the day.
Another insanely interesting fact tied to the film is that the picture was deemed lost until 2001, when a 35mm positive print was uncovered in the Library of Congress. Discovery stories like this make me think about how many more of the 80-90% thought lost silent films are hiding in basements, attics, archives, etc. When a title like You Never Know Women is rescued, restored, and finally able to flicker again on the big screen after so many decades, I silently cheer inside; the movie has found its way back home!
Anyways, onto the film...
"One of Paramount's 15th Birthday Group." Wow, that's a long time ago!
The story begins with Vera (Florence Vidor) being narrowly rescued from falling debris near a construction site by workers. At that same moment, Eugene Foster (Lowell Sherman) pops his head out of his car to see what the commotion is about. One look at the beautiful Vera possesses him to stop the vehicle and valiantly come to her rescue: “I think I can handle this better than you can,” he tells the workers who swept in to save Vera. When she comes to, Eugene asks her if he can drive her anywhere, but she declines and continues on her way.
Turns out that Vera is part of a circus troupe. She arrives at the theater and tells everyone about her near-death experience, which rattles them all, especially Norodin (Clive Brook). The show goes on – albeit late – with Vera in attendance, and guess who’s in one of the front rows? None other than Eugene.
Eugene sends a note to Vera backstage with a gift: a new umbrella, hers having been destroyed in the accident. From there, the wealthy Eugene begins to court Vera, much to the chagrin of Norodin, who is secretly in love with her. Both men vie for her attention in between the performances, with Eugene edging ahead when he commissions the troupe to put on a special performance in his home!
Norodin finally confesses his feelings to Vera, but she replies that she’s always viewed him as a brother. In despair, Norodin attempts his infamous Houdini-esque trick – escaping from a locked underwater box in chains – in the local harbor instead of an enclosed case on stage. The stunt is kept secret from Vera, but when she finds out, she finally recognizes her true feelings for Norodin and races to the harbor. After three minutes, Norodin fails to appear. Divers jump in to the rescue, but his body is not found.
Vera (Florence Vidor) and Norodin (Clive Brook). Did Norodin survive his daring stunt?
Vera is devastated, and Eugene uses the opportunity to swoop in. Vera tries her best to get rid of Eugene, but he proves resilient, and a bit pushy too. In a noirish thriller-like climax, Eugene makes sure he is alone with Vera in the dark theater “so if you scream, no one will hear you.” That's not menacing or anything, right? He chases her around the locked theater while she desperately tries to grab the attention of unsuspecting passersbys outside. When that doesn't work, Vera finds herself back on stage in a weird disappearing box type structure. The light shines on her and she disappears – and in her place appears Norodin, who walks out to meet his nemesis! Vera happily reappears while Norodin pins Eugene against a wall with a variety of knives: “I have one knife left,” he tells him. “I see the point,” Eugene replies. Eugene resigns himself to Norodin, who finally wins Vera in the end.
Director William Wellman would later go on to helm classics such as Wings (1927), The Public Enemy (1931), and A Star is Born (1937), among several others. Wellman made You Never Know Women right after his first Paramount film, The Cat's Pajamas (1926), flopped. Though he was about to be fired from the studio, producer B. P. Schulberg fought for Wellman to direct this picture, and luckily he won. According to Wellman's autobiography A Short Time for Insanity, "the gods smiled: it won the artistic award of the year, and the bum got a twenty-five-dollar-a-week raise and Wings for his effort" (162). What artistic award he was talking about, I'm not sure, since the first Oscar ceremony wouldn't take place until 1929.
Side note: Wellman's next movie, Wings, did receive the first Oscar for Best Picture, Production, as opposed to Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production, which went to Sunrise that year.
I absolutely love this artwork.
In regards to the cast, I liked Sherman and Brook in the male leads, but Vidor...not as much. I had never seen her act before, but I felt she overplayed it as the girl caught in between both men. Again, I remind myself that this is a silent film, and the acting style was different - namely, more prone to exaggeration to get the emotion across without spoken dialogue. However, I still felt many of her actions came across as unbelievable; for example, when she suddenly realized she was in love with Norodin all along, her reaction popped up out of nowhere and appeared rather forced.
As far as the men go, I’m used to seeing Sherman portray haughty upper class men in pre-codes, and his role here fell right into line with that memory I had of him, which fit well with his role as the slick and abominable Eugene. In my opinion, though, it was ageless Clive Brook, who I’ve only seen in 1944's terrific On Approval (which he acted and directed in), who gave the best performance. His Norodin was clearly the better man, just the right combination of outwardly strong and inwardly soft and supportive as Vera's unrequited (for most of the picture) love.
You Never Know Women features some spectacular visuals, through both the action on screen and the cinematography. For example, several daring circus stunts are wonderfully (and probably terrifyingly) captured from the performer’s points of view, mainly when they are flying high above the crowd. In one scene in particular, the camera was placed behind a clown who sways precariously atop a pile of barrels, about to topple over. The clown's head tips back and forth high above the audience, in and out of the frame, which increases the apprehension of the sequence significantly. I'm not sure how this particular shot was achieved, though I hope it was with rear projection or something of that sort; images like this always make me wonder what the safety requirements were back then!
The film is also skillfully shot, but the final sequence in particular displays a fantastic use of black and white cinematography. Norodin’s trick re-entry and Eugene’s attack on him are intercut with the shadows of the two male figures on the wall. As if Norodin's spectacular re-appearance wasn't enough, the sleek, minimal production design in the scene and the high contrast lighting heightens the tension between the two men who are fighting - literally - for Vera's love.
Unfortunately, You Never Know Women is not available on DVD or streaming (to my knowledge). If you ever have the chance to watch it in a theater, I recommend catching it, if only for the fact that you'd be one of the few who've had the chance to see it in decades.