Pointed Heels (1929) ***


First, an exercise in the maintaining of critical restraint.
Wish me luck...

Pointed Heels is a romantic light backstage drama with musical numbers, revolving around a chorus girl and her troubled marriage to a disinherited millionaire composer, her irritating brother and his wife, performing together as a lowbrow vaudeville duo, and the Broadway producer who is staging a show for the latter purely so as to tempt the former away from her husband.

Now, with all the cold objectivity I can muster, I shall begin by observing that this film is:
a) Fascinating, as an artifact of early talking cinema, with all of its frustrations and opportunities,
b) Delightful as a record of late twenties fashions, slang, mores and tastes, and
c) A charming romantic comedy, studded with evocative song numbers.
To anyone that has an affection for or interest in the style, flavour or mechanics of early Hollywood cinema, this should be enough to justify two stars' worth of value.

Of course, if none of the above is of especial interest, this will perhaps seem a primitive and unrewarding experience, tolerable if at all only by virtue of its short running time.

There, that's the middle ground and the lunatic fringe taken care of, now I shall preach to my real congregation, and we can start by scrubbing out those three stars. On a one-to-four star scale, this is a twelve-star movie at the very least.

Pointed Heels is a film to be found near the top of my all time top ten (to get a sense of which of my prejudices are most likely to conflict with my reason, there's a handy list here) and each repeated viewing increases my love for it. It's a gourmet feast of theatrical style, cloche hats and beautifully tentative early-talkie film technique (some of the dialogue, particularly in early scenes, is only just caught by the recording equipment).
The trappings, settings and preoccupations are like fizzy champagne, and the cast is a dream.
As well as William Powell as the suave producer putting on the show and Skeets Gallagher as his male lead, the film preserves a once in a lifetime pairing of Helen Kane and Fay Wray. They play sisters-in law; their bantering relationship is a treat throughout, and they even get a scene in bed together. (When Fay says that her husband is leaving for Europe, Helen replies: "Europe? That's in England isn't it?")
Kane is as wonderful as ever, in a screenplay that gives her the chance to do a bit of everything - singing, dancing, comedy and character acting. She gets to sing two of her best numbers, Aintcha and I Have To Have You, the latter of which she sings in a hilarious 'highbrow' manner when her character, suddenly struck pretentious, decides to cultivate a new sophisticated image, then again in knockabout fashion after Powell deliberately gets her drunk to cure her of her affectations. This latter performance is perhaps her most physically uninhibited in any film; at the end she falls on her behind with such force she visibly bounces.
And Fay, her hair flapper-styled and almost black, her deep-red lipstick coming out matching in the beautiful monochrome photography, has simply never been more gorgeous. (Director Sutherland, the man who took home the cheque for the arduous task of filming her here, in and out of costume, had just come out of a two year marriage to Louise Brooks: a reminder that we are not all created equal.)
To Fay is given the film's main dramatic portion, such as it is, and there are a few genuinely affecting and poignant moments in the domestic scenes with her frustrated husband.

It all ends happily but a little anti-climactically, since the print we have today is tragically missing a Technicolor sequence of the climactic show, presumably of the costume number we see Fay dressed for. Whether this lost scene therefore featured the film's only glimpse of supposed chorine Fay actually kicking her pointed heels on stage is therefore too heartbreaking to consider for more than a second or two.
I also remember my disappointment, after seeing that Fay's and Helen's characters have the same surname, on discovering that they were playing sisters in law and not, as they should have been, sisters. This would have made the inter-relationships even more interesting, as well as obviously a delightful notion in and of itself.
But that's the most I can come up with by way of negative criticism, I'm afraid. That aside, Pointed Heels is perfection.