Starring Jean Parker, Tom Brown, Arthur Byron, Beulah Bondi, and Zasu Pitts
My rating: ★★★ 1/2 stars
Entertaining pre-code melodrama.
Two Alone, an adaptation of Dan Totheroh’s 1922 play Wild Birds, is a little-seen RKO release. In the film, Jean Parker stars as Mazie, an orphan fostered out to a farm couple, the Slags (Arthur Byron and Beulah Bondi). She falls in love with Adam Larson (Tom Brown), a teenage runaway from a nearby reform school, who is exploited as slave labor by Mr. Slag, who is jealous of their relationship—he has his own designs on Mazie. The only person who can help the young lovers is George Marshall (Willard Robetson), a former employee of Slag.
Although it’s highly melodramatic and clearly an antique, Two Alone introduces a number of concepts that would become staples of the teen movie romance in the future, most importantly, the persecution of youth, who have little recourse in a society that ignores their needs. Mazie and Adam have no ability to ameliorate their condition on their own. In the movie, only the intervention of Marshall, the one sympathetic adult, can aid the two.
Two Alone is also an example of the bad boy-good girl romance that characterizes many later teen movies. The film sets up the idea that the two teens are similar because they do not “belong” in the place they find themselves. Mazie, as sweet as she is, does not deserve the treatment she receives from the Slags. Adam finds himself in reform school for beating his father, an action he took in response to his father’s beating of Adam’s mother. This background that exonerates him morally, establishes a key component in the rebel archetype that would develop later—the rebel is not really bad, just misunderstood.
The film came out during the pre-code era, a time when Hollywood self-censorship standards were notably relaxed. It includes elements that modern audiences might find surprising in an old black & white movie, for example a nude scene, a sympathetic attitude to premarital sex, and a criticism of small town morality as hypocritical.
Yet, despite its relatively modern sensibility, the film may appear silly to today’s audiences. The acting is exaggerated. The characterizations are black & white. The dialogue is old-fashioned. The most obvious aspects by which casual moviegoers judge films are creaky. Viewers have to be willing to set aside modern critical standards in order to appreciate the film.
Part of the problem is the genre of the film. It’s a melodrama. Today’s audiences might find that genre unfamiliar. The term “melodramatic” has come to be pejorative, denoting superficiality and a lack of subtlety. Much of the criticism of the genre stems from its identification as a genre that primarily appeals to females. Melodrama is intended to produce an emotional response. Outside of melodrama, characters like the Slags, who come off as exaggerated and one-note, might be credited as allegorical, representing the harshness of provincial judgment and the cruelty wielded by those in power. But melodrama gets little credit for enough intellectual depth to be able to contain allegory.
The ending is also an area for potential criticism. The film changes the relentlessly grim ending of the play to one that it almost perfectly happy and hopeful. Yes, the timely intervention of an outside character is clearly a deus ex machina and not an organic development of the story. However, the positive ending suggests a rejection of the values of the Slags and a rejection of the idea that sexuality deserves punishment. In this way, the film is forward-looking.
Yet, Two Alone provides an interesting document of the time of the film’s production. Much of Slag’s power comes from his financial stability. He can exploit the need of the people around him. The world outside of Slag’s farm is one of want and, more importantly, one of uncertainty. Surprisingly, the play that the film was based on was written and produced prior to the Crash and the Great Depression. The film highlights the economic issues of the play ever-so-slightly. But the treatment is not heavy-handed, containing just enough emphasis to mark the film as one from the Depression-era.
Two Alone is not the kind of film that can be shown to a classic movie neophyte; the story and style would be too foreign, too old-fashioned for someone to view without an understanding of the context of the film and the moment in film history from which it arises. Nevertheless, for those of us who like classic films, Two Alone is entertaining and worthwhile.