Sunday, August 09, 2020

Tonight's Movie: It's Tough to Be Famous (1932) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. wrestles with the perils of celebrity in IT’S TOUGH TO BE FAMOUS (1932), available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

Fairbanks plays Scott “Scotty” McLenahan, a U.S. naval officer who as the movie begins is in the midst of a crisis.  The submarine he commands is crippled and can’t surface, and oxygen is running low.

In a sequence with some similarity to the later British film MORNING DEPARTURE (1950), Scotty comes up with a plan for his crew to escape the sub one by one, being picked up by rescue ships as they emerge on the surface, but of necessity he must remain behind.  A rescue crew reaches the submarine, and Scotty manages to alert them to his location before passing out from lack of oxygen.

Scotty is saved and becomes a huge hero for having been willing to sacrifice his life for the men under his command.  He had planned to retire and become an engineer, but in no time he finds himself with a manager (Walter Catlett) and speechwriter (Harold Minjer); a ticker tape parade is followed by speaking engagements, endless news coverage, and a “make work” job for an employer who capitalizes on Scotty’s fame.  He’s paid a handsome salary but his desire to actually work for a living is thwarted.

Scotty marries his longtime sweetheart Janet (charming Mary Brian of the silent film PETER PAN), but eventually the demands on his time for publicity appearances, combined with career frustrations, causes cracks in the marriage.  Scotty lashes out at everyone, initially unable to decide how to handle a life quickly spinning out of control.  Gradually he figures out what’s most important and realizes changes will need to be made...

This interesting film, written by Robert Lord based on a story by Mary McCall, was made in the wake of Charles Lindbergh’s mega-celebrity, dating from his famous flight half a decade before, and it remains highly relevant today.  It’s a bracing take on “celebrity” and being a cog in the wheel of a publicity machine, with snippets of one’s personal life being spun into stories. It seems particularly timely in an age of reality TV, when it seems some people are famous merely for being...famous.

The performances are uniformly good, with Brian particularly delightful as Scotty’s long-suffering wife.  Fairbanks isn’t afraid to let his character slide into unlikeable territory as he wrestles with confusion and the temptations of good money versus loss of privacy; even when it seems past time for Scotty to wake up and smell the proverbial coffee, Fairbanks remains interesting to watch.

The supporting cast includes David Landau, Emma Dunn, Oscar Apfel, and Louise Beavers.

IT’S TOUGH TO BE FAMOUS was directed by Alfred E. Green.  It was filmed by Byron Haskin and Sol Polito.  The running time is 79 minutes.

The Warner Archive DVD print has some periodic lines and speckles, but for the most part it looks quite good.  I thought the soundtrack was particularly strong for a film of this vintage. There are no extras on the disc.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.


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