Directed by George Fitzmaurice, by then already a film veteran, The Barker is one of those strange hybrids made at the dawn of the sound era: some sequences feature dialogue, others have intertitles and musical accompaniment. The Barker, in fact, is perhaps stranger than most for the dialogue isn’t restricted to one specific reel or two. Characters start talking unexpectedly, only to go silent again a few scenes later. Besides its historical importance as one of those transitional curiosities, this B-movie melodrama produced with a mostly A-class talent has enough intriguing elements to keep viewers at least moderately entertained.
The basic plot, from Kenyon Nicholson’s 1927 play starring Walter Huston and Claudette Colbert, is inconsequential. A carnival barker (Milton Sills) does his best to ensure that his wet-behind-the-ears son (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) will become an attorney, all the while trying to prevent a tough carnival girl (Dorothy Mackaill) from eloping with the boy. The son’s presence also incites the wrath of the barker’s girlfriend, the show’s hula dancer (Betty Compson). It doesn’t take long before all those flaming passions explode.
Frank Borzage might have turned The Barker into a grade-A romantic melodrama, while Erich von Stroheim and Tod Browning would probably have turned it into a deliciously seedy and decadent tragedy. But in George Fitzmaurice’s competent but uninspired hands, The Barker never quite reaches those dramatic heights.
Technical limitations may have been an issue. In a couple of pivotal talking scenes – e.g., the moment when the barker almost sends the hula dancer to the Great Beyond – the set up is incongruously static. That quite possibly happened because the actors were stuck in place so their voices could be picked up by the temperamental microphone. (The dialogue sequences were shot after initial production had been completed. They’re unusual in that the score can be heard in the background during the talking bits, an uncommon practice at the time.)
Another of the film’s handicaps is non-technical. In the title (and biggest) role, Milton Sills is an effective presence in the silent scenes, but his lackluster line delivery makes him woefully inadequate in the talking sequences. In the few Sills vehicles I’ve seen – besides The Barker, The Sea Hawk and The Valley of the Giants come to mind – this tall, imposing actor displays a commanding physical presence on screen but his acting has failed to leave much of an impression. (Edward G. Robinson would have been great as the strong-willed barker.)
A very young Douglas Fairbanks Jr., on the other hand, is surprisingly believable as the innocent teenager in love, and so is Betty Compson as the scheming hula dancer. Compson, whose career had hit hard times in the late 1920s, was reportedly cast in The Barker after George Fitzmaurice saw her stuck in a traffic jam along Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Fitzmaurice’s gamble paid off; in “The Girl Who Came Back,” Photoplay columnist Adela Rogers St. Johns wrote: “If you didn’t see The Barker, you missed a great moment in screen history. The first-night audience in Los Angeles greeted that comeback of Compson’s with cheers that must have been very dear to her.”
Indeed, the by-then veteran actress received most of the critical acclaim when The Barker came out. Compson was also “considered” for a Best Actress Academy Award. (No official nominations were announced that year.)
Yet, watching The Barker today its scene stealer is not Betty Compson, but Dorothy Mackaill. Sporting a hairdo currently associated with chic butch lesbians, Mackaill’s tough, masculine vibes and her husky voice make her more alluring – and more modern – than any of the other performers in the film (and than most other performers of that period, including the revered Louise Brooks.) Without any of the exaggerated mannerisms that plagued most silent film performers, Mackaill manages to fully convey both her character’s outward toughness and her vulnerable, sensitive core.
Additionally, even though Betty Compson is the one wearing skimpy clothes, it is the fully dressed Mackaill who has The Barker‘s sexiest scene: while lying with Douglas Fairbanks in an orchard, she determinedly places his hand on her breasts. That moment is as effective today as it must have been eight decades ago. (Indeed, the orchard scene was deemed obscene by several state censors in the U.S.)
Though hardly a great drama – the pat happy ending, in particular, is a major letdown – The Barker is a perfectly serviceable melodrama that brings to life a long-lost era, while offering the chance for modern audiences (hopefully this film will turn up on Turner Classic Movies one of these days) to rediscover a long-forgotten actress in top form.
THE BARKER (1928). Director: George Fitzmaurice. Cast: Milton Sills, Dorothy Mackaill, Betty Compson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Sylvia Ashton, George Cooper. Screenplay: Benjamin Glazer; dialogue by Joseph Jackson; titles by Herman J. Mankiewicz, from Kenyon Nicholson’s 1927 play.