Behind the Make-Up
Hal Skelly plays Hap, a well-named vaudeville bicycle-clown eking out a meager living. He takes in another vaudeville performer named Gardoni (just Gardoni—like Bono or Madonna), played with an Italian accent by William Powell.
Gardoni convinces Hap to team-up, abandon his hokum act, and put on a high-brow show. The show bombs. With the pair broke, Gardoni vanishes and Hap gets a job at the local diner where he develops a crush on a waitress named Marie played by Fay Wray.
Time passes. Having abandoned his high-brow intentions to great financial success, Gardoni returns. He takes a liking to Marie and convinces Hap to re-team, this time giving the people the hokum they demand. The new act proves a hit and Marie marries Gardoni.
More time passes and the pair are playing the big theaters of New York City. Gardoni has fallen for a gold-digging man-eater named Kitty, played by Kay Francis. Hap resents Gardoni’s behavior but covers for him to protect Marie’s feelings. The story wraps on a convenient but somber note that stuck with me because of Powell’s performance.
Powell charms as Gardoni. He shows us how Hap and Marie could fall for him. His Gardoni isn’t evil, just self-absorbed. His actions aren’t motivated by malice, but by his unshakable faith in his own greatness. As the film opens, Gardoni hasn’t eaten in four days, yet he still views himself as a superstar. That’s the upside of ego. But Powell’s performance also hints at an insatiable need for recognition. We sense he’ll never be good enough for the constant cheerleader inside him. He’ll never be happy.
And about Powell’s accent. It’s ridiculous, yes, but crucial. It lends a sense of “other” to the Gardoni character. Without it, Powell would be more relatable, and the film would suffer. Part of Gardoni’s charm lies in his infectious conviction that everything will turn out great. Like he’s already read the last chapter of his own life story.
I’d love to revisit a better print. The scan on archive.org is so dark, the film’s opening half seems lit by flashlight. Looking at the stills on pre-code.com, the early darkness appears intentional, just magnified by the low-quality print. Fortunately, the sound is solid.