Conrad Nagel — Too Good to Be Romantic (1928) 🇺🇸
It can’t be true that there’s such a thing as having too spotless a reputation! That, despite what all the copy-book maxims tell us, there might be times when it doesn’t pay to be too good — when goodness is a handicap.
by Alma Talley
Look at Conrad Nagel. Indeed, he’s very nice to look at — Conrad, of the irreproachable reputation. In fact, that’s the trouble, that irreproachable reputation, Not, of course, that he regrets his quiet, domestic life, and the absence of any scandal in his career. Conrad is not a young man to go around with regrets. A high sense of honor is inherent in him. He wouldn’t know how to go wrong, even if, by a sudden miracle, he wanted to. It just isn’t in him.
But virtue, along with — no doubt — its own reward, has brought him one distinct annoyance. That is, the fact that his private life has been so mixed up with his career.
Some one once said about Conrad that he went to Christian Endeavor meeting every Sunday night. Perhaps he does, perhaps not. But the fact that such a story was published about him made it as good as true, so far as the public was concerned. It expressed the popular conception of Mr. Nagel.
Well, that’s all right with Conrad. That’s okay with him, as they say on Broadway. But it isn’t all right that the public should label him as that type for screen purposes, that they should consider his screen personality “too good to be romantic.”
“What is an actor anyway?” he demanded. “Isn’t an actor a man who can adjust his stage or screen personality to the demands of a role? Who, in other words, can bury himself entirely and become, temporarily, an altogether different kind of person?
“Well, all these years I’ve tried to be an actor. I’ve played every type, of role in the whole category. Yet the public persists in cataloguing me as a definite type, as the kind of man they imagine I am in real life. What have I got to do — go out and stir up some sort of scandal?”
This outburst was occasioned by my comment that suddenly, after some years, Metro-Goldwyn thought Conrad romantic enough to play opposite Greta Garbo in “The Mysterious Lady.”
Conrad has been under contract to the Goldwyn half of Metro-Goldwyn since the days before all the big companies ran around asking other big companies to merge with them. He has played all kinds of roles, but the illusion has persisted that he was the type for the noble hero oh — such a noble hero.
After Conrad’s famous and heroic defense of the actors, last year, in the general Hollywood mêlée over cutting salaries, Metro-Goldwyn became annoyed with him. They had him under contract, but they lent him to Warner Brothers most of the time.
He played in one Warner picture after another and then, perhaps because he had a good Vitaphone voice, trained for the stage, he was cast opposite Dolores Costello, in Tenderloin, and then in Glorious Betsy.
Then it was that the Metro-Goldwyn executives woke up to Conrad’s possibilities. They saw him in Glorious Betsy, in which he achieved a personal success. “Why,” they marveled, “what a romantic screen-lover he is!” It was like the sudden discovery that a piece of furniture that has been in the family for years, and relegated to the barn, is really very valuable.
Metro-Goldwyn suddenly realized that this young man, whom they had been lending so willingly to other companies, was really quite an asset to their roster of romantic heroes.
So, promptly after the release of Glorious Betsy, Conrad was recalled to the home lot, and was given the prize romantic role, opposite Greta Garbo.
In his European military costume, with the high collar so frequently inflicted on John Gilbert, and with lots of gold braid, I must say that Conrad looked very handsome indeed. There seemed to be no reason at all why Greta, on the screen, shouldn’t fall heavily in love with him.
I congratulated Conrad on the fact that at last he had been found out. Here, all this time, this romantic lover had been, so far as films were concerned, smothered under that spotless reputation of his, and now it had come to light. He could sigh and look as sultry as any Romeo.
“But I’ve always played romantic roles, off and on, all during my career,” he insisted. “And I don’t see why this to-do; why this sudden discovery that I can make love on the screen.”
I distinctly got the impression that, under his quiet exterior, his always courteous manner, Mr. Nagel was a little annoyed. He very much disliked his belated acceptance as a romantic type. Well, what young man wouldn’t?
“The trouble is,” he complained, “the public persists in fitting you into a type, in identifying you with the kind of person they imagine you are in real life. Now, take my case.
Somehow the notion has got about that I’m a sort of goody-goody, so that apparently I’m only looked at as an actor in that light. No one ever stops to think of the varied roles I’ve played. Yet, on the screen, and on the stage as well, I’ve been all kinds of bums.
“One of the first things I ever did, on the stage, was The Man Who Came Back. In that, I was probably the worst bum that ever lived. Drink, dope, seduction — I went in for every vice there is.
“In my earliest pictures, it was the same. In ‘The Fighting Chance’ I was a drunkard. The whole film was a story of my regeneration.
“In What Every Woman Knows, I, as a married man, fell in love with another woman, which isn’t considered a very moral thing to do.”
He went on, considering the various and varied roles he had played in the past. In “Sacred and Profane Love” he was an absinthe addict, who seduced the heroine. In Saturday Night he and his wife were divorced so that each could marry some one else. He played Paul, in “Three Weeks,” one of the most luridly romantic characters in what might be called literature. Again he played an Elinor Glyn hero in “The Only Thing”; Madame Glyn, an authority, must have thought that he had It.
Yet, despite his hectic screen past, Metro-Goldwyn was inclined to cast him in rather sugary roles. A district attorney in “The Waning Sex,” a nice young business man in “Heaven on Earth,” and a young gentleman in “London After Midnight.” Then along came the vogue for underworld pictures, and Warner Brothers, who took over part of Mr. Nagel’s contract, began casting him as a gangster in, for example, The Girl from Chicago, and Tenderloin. The cycle of types was completed again for Conrad in Glorious Betsy, with the rediscovery that Conrad can be as heavily romantic as any one on the screen.
Well, as the Pollyannas are constantly telling us, there’s always a good break around the corner. Conrad’s good break has arrived. Just at the time when he is coming into his own again as a romantic lover, the talking movie has come along and given him another boost.
Conrad is in luck. Lionel Barrymore, who has also been buried more than his talents warranted, is also in luck. All the players who have had stage training are in luck.
One of Mr. Nagel’s greatest charms lies in his voice. Full, resonant, trained to carry on the stage, it is ideal for a talking picture. In a Vitaphone film his voice puts to shame the feeble sounds brought forth by mere movie players.
As a result, he is much in demand for talking pictures. Warner Brothers have arranged a split contract with Metro-Goldwyn, whereby Conrad Nagel is to work half the time for each of them. Yes, now that talking movies have arrived, Conrad is sitting pretty.
That is no mean feat, when one considers the consternation thrown into the motion-picture ranks with the advent of speaking pictures. The brows of beauty-contest winners are furrowed with worry. There is a sudden rush, in California, to elocution and voice placement teachers. Distinguished services are offered for vaudeville, usually the last resort after a player is “through,” even on Poverty Row. For now the briefest vaudeville engagement enables a film player to lay claim to stage experience.
“So far,” said Mr. Nagel, “talking pictures have gone over because of their novelty, but they won’t be a novelty much longer. Producers will have to realize that, and arrange for more skillful dialogue.”
The occasion for this was my comment on the Broadway fate of Tenderloin, in which the spoken passages seemed like excerpts from a ten-twenty-thirty melodrama of twenty years ago. It was, indeed, so crude that it was laughed off the Broadway stage, and much of it was deleted.
“Up to now,” continued Mr. Nagel, “the dialogue was written — thrown in, you might say — by subtitle writers. In the future, talking pictures will have to follow the stage technique for spoken lines. They will require the services of skilled playwrights to put them over, with lines that are amusing and carry along the story.”
For when stage presence, poise, experience and trained speaking voices are part of the requisites for a screen career, then untried youth had better watch out, or where will our new faces be then, poor things?
Yes, Conrad Nagel is coming back into his own!
“The notion has got about that I’m a sort of goody-goody.” — Conrad Nagel.
Too long Conrad Nagel has been misjudged by those who insist that he play roles in keeping with his exemplary character off the screen. This is the gist of Alma Talley’s story opposite, in which the popular leading man explains himself.
Photo by: Ruth Harriet Louise (1903–1940)
Collection: Picture Play Magazine, November 1928