I took a break from loving the 20s film movement, but now I’m back on board after watching The Patent Leather Kid. One thing is for sure: Richard Barthelmess could teach today’s actors a thing or two about acting with nothing but their face. For some who think that silent films are overacted, Barthelmess might be the one to change your mind. His costar and love interest Molly O’Day falls into this trap on more than one occasion, but the Kid more than makes up for her excessive movements.
Barthelmess and the Kid are two cinematic characters of history that many of today’s actors are attempting to live up to. One of two men nominated for the best actor award, I can see fully and completely why this is considered the best performance of his career. A story that is typical these days, one should note that this is the story that it originates from–a cocky fighter who only thinks of himself and his career learns that life is more meaningful, and that his courage is only a front for the fear that hides beneath.
It is 1917 in New York and Curley Boyle (O’Day) is going to a fight with the wealthy Hugo Breen (Lawford Davidson). Everyone is cheering for anyone but The Patent Leather Kid because he is so cocky. We see immediately that Curley is a fiery personality. A lone woman among men spectators, she heckles the Kid ruthlessly. After knocking down his opponent, he shouts at her to meet him outside. Driven by curiosity, she does, and a few minutes later he’s told her that she is his girl and no one else’s. Their strong personalities, as well as a constant comedic tension between Curley and the Kid’s manager populate the first half of the film well.
As is a common theme among the early movies of the twentieth century, America goes to war. This is when we see the true colors of the Kid. He can be in the ring and knock down his opponents over and over, but the prospect of guns and bayonets terrifies him. He refuses to salute the flag, and despises the love that Curley has for the men in uniform. Finally, after Breen shows up as a Lieutenant, and the Kid’s trainers join the fight, Curley tells the Kid that she’s going to France to dance and nurse so that she can cheer up the boys. Still, his fear rules him, and he only goes to war when he is drafted.
Inevitably, this is where he finally finds his courage. Placed on the front lines, he is forced to overcome the walls he has constructed and pull off a rescue mission only the Kid could do.
Despite O’Day’s exaggerated movements, she plays her difficult character well and makes her witty gumption very powerful and endearing. She is a fitting costar for Barthelmess, although I wish Janet Gaynor had played the role.
The only negative side of this beautiful film was its length–well over two hours, no matter which version you watch. If you have the time and the patience (I watched it in two sittings), please add The Patent Leather Kid to your repertoire!
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