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Thanksgiving Turkeys: The Right of Way (1931)

Rodney and Samantha discuss this creaky early talkie.

S: The Right of Way is about a prominent lawyer whose marriage is falling apart and whose brother-in-law is a gambling addict. He gets into a bar fight and is left for dead, but a thug he represented takes pity on him and nurses him back to health with the help of the postmaster's daughter. He wakes up with amnesia and falls in love with the girl, having no memory of his previous life.

R: “We may not have Convention City, but at least we have The Right of Way!” said no film buff ever. It dawned on me about halfway through this movie that after spending a lifetime extolling the virtues of vintage cinema, that this one movie contains all the traits that so many people think old movies are like. The dialogue is ludicrous, the pace is lethargic (which really says something because the film is only an hour long), and every emotion in every scene is incredibly overacted.

S: The Right of Way is often cited as a great example of a creaky early talkie, a film crippled by sound. You can see the heavy influence of the silent era. There are numerous title cards to give us exposition. The scene between Nagel and his wife begins just like a silent movie would have. In fact, the flowery dialogue in this scene hurts it tremendously. The whole scene in the saloon would have benefitted from silence as well. The characters look menacing but when they open their mouths they become comic.

I’ve always liked Conrad Nagel, especially in the silents. He was one of the most prolific actors of the early talkie period, making 30 movies in a two year time span, but his name is mostly forgotten today. I don’t think this film is a good indicator of his talent. His character is flamboyant. Unfortunately paired with the wooden auxiliary players, he comes off as a major ham. In the scene where he turns to drink, he’s playing for the nosebleeds. He is also caked in makeup. I could see Clark Gable playing this role more successfully. He had the right amount of swagger and subtlety to pull it off.

I’ve seen most of Loretta Young’s pre-code films. She was gorgeous in this period, and often played innocents who become wise during the course of a film. Her characters walked a slippery slope, sin beckoning them below. This part is fully innocent and she looks like a tween, so her balding potential suitor is a cringe-worthy match.

R: To your point regarding Nagel and Young, another part of what makes this such a stinker is that we all know that they are capable of much better and were in much better films around this same time. It is difficult to know exactly who to pin the blame of this one on. Maybe (director) Frank Lloyd? I’ll admit that I’m not overly familiar with his catalog besides Mutiny on the Bounty, but this flicker doesn’t exactly compel me to do a deep dive any time soon.

S: I've seen several Frank Lloyd films and they're good ones, although most of them were silent. I want to blame the writer of the adaptation Francis Edward Faragoh, and maybe the editor Terry Morse. Considering this was a well-known story based on a novel, (which is available to read for free online through Project Gutenberg) it is odd that the movie is only about an hour. The actors recite their dialogue with long pauses between the lines, so it could have been even shorter. It needed more time to develop. The major decisions the characters make feel impromptu and unmotivated. This adds to the unreality of the whole movie.

R: It does seem like you’re watching a filmed stage play, and not a particularly good one at that, although it was all so bizarre that it did keep my interest for the entirety of the running time. Loretta Young is always lovely during this time in her career although, to your point, it’s difficult to overlook her choice of husbands as being “the old guy” and “the older guy”, but that’s often par for the course in these types of films.

S: I did spot a fun cameo. Gus Leonard, better known to me as Old Cap from Mush and Milk, shows up in a crowd scene near the end.

Two turkeys. You can't go lower than that considering the star potential here.

R: I’m also going to go with two turkeys on this one. Some turkeys are deliciously off the wall and fun. This one just lays flat.

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1 Comment

Adam Williams
Adam Williams
Nov 19, 2020

Just from this discussion and the screenshots, I feel like I've labored through this movie. Now I need a strong cup of coffee.

Frank Lloyd's style and choice of material is definitely out of fashion. Of all the filmmakers who have won more than one Oscar for Best Director, he is without a doubt the least known. Naming his two wins would be a really tough Jeopardy question.

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