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Jack Smith

When lip reading between the lines had the subtitles beat by a long sight

July 20, 1987|Jack Smith

In writing recently about obscenity in movies, I recalled the silent version of "What Price Glory?" which used no obscene words in its titles.

"Remember how Edmund Lowe and Victor McLaglen as Sgt. Quirt and Capt. Flagg burned up the screen . . . with their pugnacious dialogue, delivered with snarling faces chin to chin, and without a single obscenity?"

I would have been about 10 years old when that film was made, and evidently I was more innocent than I remember.

Bob Epstein of Loyola Marymount University writes that if I had been able to read lips, I would have been shocked by the language Lowe and McLaglen were using.

"I suspect," Epstein says, "that you were both young and innocent at the time. While it is true that we never hear this combative duo utter a single word, obscene or otherwise, those nasty words are certainly there, and in vast number and variety.

"They are not indicated in the dialogue intertitles, but anyone with the slightest talent for lip reading cannot miss them. (You were very young, weren't you?)"

Epstein adds that audiences in 1926 were delighted by the obscenities they could see coming from the actors' lips, just as audiences are today when the film is shown. "The unheard but clearly spoken details of the Quirt-Flagg exchanges are nearly impossible to miss."

Epstein says he knew Edmund Lowe in the 1950s, and that the actor liked to recall how he and McLaglen (and director Raoul Walsh) got away with their sport, and how hampered they felt years later when they did a remake of the story in sound.

I have no doubt that Epstein is right about "What Price Glory?" The movie about soldiers in World War I was based on a stage play, which evidently was relatively unrestrained. "The Movies," by Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer (Bonanza), reports that in the 1920s two little old ladies attended a performance of the Broadway version, and that after the curtain they were overheard in the following dialogue:

"Shall we get the hell out of here?"

"As soon as I find my damn glasses."

Such frank language as that story implies could not be transplanted to the screen in those days, but Lowe and McLaglen evidently managed to give the movie the authenticity it deserved, if only for lip readers.

Eric Heath of San Diego also recalls that Lowe and McLaglen used dirty words, even if the subtitles didn't. "I don't think the silent original of 'What Price Glory?' was without obscenity even if not audible. I believe there were complaints from lip readers at the time."

I wonder whether "What Price Glory?" was the only silent movie in which the actors, and actresses, let fly with expletives. Given the constant opportunity, it seems unlikely that such misanthropes as John Barrymore and W. C. Fields could have resisted breaking the monotony with an occasional blasphemy.

I remember that the actress Aileen Pringle, who was hand-picked by novelist Elinor Glyn to play the sensual heroine in the silent movie of her racy novel, "Three Weeks," was notorious for making licentious wisecracks when she was working before the cameras, especially during love scenes.

"The Movies" says "Miss Pringle spent most of the rest of her starring career prone on tiger skins, chin cupped in hand, staring at the camera with eyes that promised nameless pleasures."

Miss Pringle was a true aristocrat, having been educated in Europe and married to Lord Pringle, governor of the Bahamas. She was said to be "urbane, witty and caustic" in her comments on Hollywood, her associates, and especially on her roles.

She was the darling of such literary figures as H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, and when a new writer came to town the studio sent her to greet him, trusting her to prove that Hollywood was not filled entirely with illiterates.

Like the dialogue between Lowe and McLaglen, Miss Pringle's best lines never appeared in the titles. It is said that a national society of the deaf officially protested some of her off-color remarks, which they of course could lip-read.

"The Movies" shows a photograph--a still from "Three Weeks"--in which Miss Pringle is being carried horizontally in the arms of Conrad Nagel. What she was actually saying, it reveals, was, "If you drop me, you bastard, I'll break your neck."

Considering the kind of movies Miss Pringle made, she must have had many opportunities for salacious lines.

Meanwhile, Angelo A. De Gennaro, professor of romance languages and philosophy at Loyola Marymount, writes that he thinks the origin of "offensive language" is in religious culture.

"It is worth pointing out that the mention of bodily function is likely to be more shocking in a Protestant than in a Catholic culture. It has often seemed to me that the offensive language of Protestantism is obscenity, the offensive language of Catholicism is profanity or blasphemy. . . . "

He notes that modern English readers (being mostly Protestant) find nothing wrong with Chaucer's profanity, but they are fascinated by his obscenity.

In the light of my confession that I am more given to profanity than to obscenity, Prof. De Gennaro concludes that I am "more Catholic than Protestant."

Being neither, I must try to be less profane, because I don't want to send the wrong signal.

On the subject of women's swearing, which they now do freely, Daniel A. Jenkins of Pacific Palisades recalls Mark Twain's comment: "They know the words but they don't know the music."

I wonder what Miss Pringle would say about that.

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