Daybreak - 1931
Daybreak - Released May 2, 1931. Directed by Jacques Feyder
Ramon Novarro is "Willi," a care-free and well-connected officer in the Austrian Imperial Guard. His uncle is General von Hertz (C. Aubrey Smith) who is regularly coming up with small amounts of money to get the brash young man out of trouble, one of the most dangerous being incurring an unpayable financial debt, an absolute no-no against the honor of an Imperial officer (their code is strict, and if a man cannot cover his personal debts, his only 'honorable' way out is a revolver to the head).
The men of the guard are a close-knit group, and when Willi himself is not in trouble, he has used his gambling skills to come to the aid of his brother officers when they get into a jam. None of them are wealthy but enjoy a high position in Austrian society by way of their military service and connections to the aristocracy, and the expected goal of each man is to marry a woman within the richer classes of the land, in fact this is the stated plan of WIlli's uncle, the General having already picked out the girl for his wayward nephew and throwing an engagement party (which Willi escapes midway by concocting fake orders to report for duty).
Later, at an exclusive gambling house called Madame Zasuggs, Willi comes to the aid of a children's piano teacher (Helen Chandler as Laura Taub) who is trying to perform a simple errand in the employ of Herr Schnabel (Jean Hersholt), a wealthy customer at the place. Schnabel is in the process of forcing himself upon the young woman when Willi promptly knocks him out for his efforts. Willi then escorts Laura from the establishment, but intrigued by her, comes to find her the next evening while she is giving piano lessons and invents a wild story about being her cousin and needing to take her away to a birthday party in her honor. She leaves with Willi, but in a state of outrage at his lies, and once they are alone, she declares she never wants to see him again. Eventually, she calms down and the two spend the rest of the evening and night together, visiting the parks of the city and traveling in a horsedrawn carriage, cuddled together beneath Willi's officer cloak.
In the morning he leaves money for her on her apartment kitchen table, a reflexive habit of his, and this insults and hurts the young woman as she had quickly fallen in love with the dashing young man. Willi is feeling the same affection, but a working-class piano teacher is absolutely too far below his position to be pursued. He proposes to nonetheless carry on an affair with her, a plan of action which makes Laura Taub feel cheapened and suddenly aware of the vastly different position in society that she now has fallen into.
The remainder of the story is about how they work out both the class expectations pressuring them, and with Laura dealing with the personal insult to her honor (Laura has a fair amount, too, which she inverts and uses as a bludgeon to punish herself and to make Willi to eventually realize what he has done by seducing her. None of this is explicitly stated, only hinted at. The script by Arthur Schnitzler and Cyril Hume, based on the novel Daybreak by Schnitzler, 1927, has to be careful to not exactly spell out what's happened, even though this is a pre-code film and would be virtually unmakeable in just a few short years when the Hayes Code arrived.)
The direction by Jacques Feyder is well done and usually keeps up speed and handling of the material in a way that was cutting-edge for 1931. This production is listed as utilizing a new kind of film stock from the Eastman company that allowed for better handling of lighting on movie sets, especially simulated night scenes. Feyder takes time arranging his settings and compositions and moves the camera around, though most of the film is spent looking at Ramon Novarro, at first slightly odd as an Austrian officer with a Mexican accent, but then Helen Chandler, who is quite effective as a woman of injured innocence, hardly sounds Austrian either. Once this melodrama has developed its quagmire of complications for the young lovers, these minor peculiarities are of no importance and the real problem of getting the two back together is attacked with a clever series of events, and Novarro carries this all forward with a nicely modulated performance as the tale becomes darker and desperate.
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