Dynamite (1929)

This post is a consequence of the last film review I did: that of the 1966 Dharmendra-Rajshree starrer, Mohabbat Zindagi Hai. A ‘marriage of convenience’ theme about an heiress who must marry in a hurry in order to inherit the wealth due to her—and chooses a man on death row as her husband, so that she can legally get her money, but is conveniently widowed. Only to find that things don’t quite work out the way she’d expected.

The connection with Dynamite, made nearly 40 years earlier, by the legendary Cecil B DeMille? This film, DeMille’s first full-length sound feature, has several similarities to Mohabbat Zindagi Hai: the rich female lead; the clause in a dead relative’s will requiring her to marry in order to inherit; the down-to-earth coal miner who is accused (and convicted) of murder and is chosen by the heiress as a temporary husband so that she can get her money…

Charles Bickford and Kay Johnson in Dynamite

But there are differences, and they make for interesting viewing. Especially when one compares the two films and tries to see how they reflect their respective geographic and chronological settings.

Dynamite begins in court, with coal miner Hagon Derk (Charles Bickford, in one of his very first films) being convicted for murder. He is to be imprisoned in the state penitentiary for a few days, then hanged. Derk has obviously tried to deny the accusations and plead his innocence, but it appears all the evidence is against him, and he comes across as both bitter and resigned. The façade cracks a little, though, when his little sister Katie (Muriel McCormack) comes running to hug him.

Derk's little sister Katie hugs him
Derk is the only person she has in the world, and the realization hits Derk: with him dead, Katie will end up in the orphanage. He tries to appeal to the judge one last time, but nothing comes of it. Derk is carted off to prison.

The scene now shifts to a lawyers’ office, where the very wealthy Cynthia Crothers (Kay Johnson), about to turn 23, is in consultation with three lawyers. Cynthia’s grandfather’s will bequeaths a vast fortune to Cynthia, but on one condition: that Cynthia be married by the time she is 23. The lawyers are pleading with Cynthia: it should not be a problem for her to get married, and it’s about time she did, too.

Cynthia meets three lawyers
Cynthia is non-committal, but in leaving, springs a surprise that shocks these staid old gentlemen: she is engaged. And that too to a married man.

We meet Cynthia’s ‘fiancé’ in the next scene. Roger Towne (Conrad Nagel) is much like Cynthia herself, at least superficially: frivolous, romantic, not given to much thought. Certainly not one of the working classes. He and Cynthia have made no pretense about their relationship: they hug and kiss in public, and speak openly of getting married as soon as Roger’s wife Marcia (Julia Faye) has granted Roger a divorce.

Cynthia with her lover, Roger
Which Marcia staunchly refuses to do (and, since Cynthia is too moral to live in sin with Roger, thus effectively puts the Roger-Cynthia relationship pretty much on hold).

At an outdoor soiree with all their friends (including Marcia’s lover Marco—played by a young and handsome Joel McCrea):

... and Roger's wife Marcia with hers, Marco
… we get a closer glimpse of the motivations of these people, especially of the two women in question. Marcia, seeing the canoodling going on between Cynthia and Roger, tears herself away from Marco and comes over to chat. There seems an (un)easy camaraderie between the two women and the man, and when Roger leaves, Marcia and Cynthia have a heart to heart chat.

Marcia comes over to chat
It emerges that Marcia has been holding back on the divorce because she knows Cynthia wants Roger very badly, and she knows Cynthia is very rich. Marcia phrases it along the lines of ‘Where will I get alimony if I divorce Roger?’ (since Roger isn’t especially wealthy). The end result of this conversation is that the two of them reach a decision: Cynthia will pay Marcia to divorce Roger. They bargain: Marcia says $2,00,000, with an advance of $50,000 up front; Cynthia tries to halve that, and as things pan out, Marcia ends up having to agree to the $100,000 Cynthia offers her.

Cynthia and Marcia strike a deal
The problem is that Cynthia, for all her money, doesn’t yet have $100,000 to give Marcia to divorce Roger. To get that amount, she must first inherit the sum left to her in her grandfather’s will. And in order to do that, she must marry. And she cannot marry Roger, because Marcia will not divorce him until she’s received her money from Cynthia…

Amidst all this muddle, Cynthia sees an advertisement in the newspaper. A prisoner due to be executed is offering to leave his body to medical clinics in exchange for $10,000—the amount required to ensure that his little sister does not need to go to an orphanage after he’s dead.

It’s Derk, of course, and Cynthia, desperate as she is (and mercenary as she is) goes to meet him in prison with an offer: if Derk marries her, she will pay him the $10,000. She does not, of course, tell him the whole truth of why she wants the money: only that she needs to be married in order to inherit. Derk does think she’s mercenary, but eventually gives in. He realises, after all, that Katie’s future will be bleak if he turns down this opportunity.

Cynthia goes to Derk with a proposition
So, the day before Derk is to be hanged, Cynthia arrives, and they’re married by the chaplain, with Derk behind bars and two prison guards acting as witnesses. Two very different but intrusive sounds act as a constant backdrop to the wedding ceremony: the hammering of the scaffold being erected, from which Derk will be hanged the next day; and the soulful love song being sung by a prisoner in a neighbouring cell.

Between them, these two sounds serve to remind Cynthia of the gravity of what she’s doing. Her love (which is really what marriage symbolizes—she has, after all, vowed to love this man) is a sham, and one shouldn’t be marrying for reasons other than love. And that Derk, even if she doesn’t love him, is going to be dead tomorrow.

Cynthia and Derk are married
It leaves her feeling guilty and distressed, so that she ends up going home, mission accomplished but feeling horrible about it.
So horrible that she cries through most of the night, dreading 5 o’clock, which is when Derk will be hanged…

Meanwhile, in another part of town, two well-dressed men are sitting at a table in a restaurant. One of them is needling the other, who is getting increasingly jittery. From their conversation, it soon transpires that the nervous one is the actual culprit of the murder for which Derk is going to be hanged—in about 15 minutes’ time. The other man knows him well enough to know that this is the guilty party. And he’s trying, by constantly heckling the other man and reminding him that Derk is going to hang for his crime, to provoke him into bursting out with a public confession.

A murderer is heckled...
In this he is, hard though it may be to believe, successful. (With the help of a bullet, fired in the heat of the moment, which makes the murderer lose his nerve and start screaming. This attracts other people, including a cop, and the murderer—a weak-kneed sort, who perhaps feels he must make a clean breast of things, now that he’s in danger of dying—confesses all). The other man is quick to egg the cop on to inform the prison authorities to stop Derk’s execution.

... and confesses
That evening, Cynthia, still down in the dumps, is lounging about alone at home, certain she’s a widow and not particularly cheered by the idea. In the midst of her moping, she receives a little bunch of flowers from Roger, and this serves to perk her up a bit.

Cynthia, suddenly reminded that Roger is the man she loves—no matter if Derk is the man she’s married, and whose widow she is by now—cheers up at the sight of the flowers and is getting ready to pin them to her bodice, when who should arrive but Derk? He’s been freed by the police, and has come to meet Cynthia. She is shocked out of her wits and close to collapse (this is absolutely not what she’d been expecting). She tells Derk so, and he agrees; yes, this was certainly not what she’d planned. But would she be willing, now that this has happened, to actually give their marriage a try?

Derk comes to meet Cynthia
Cynthia’s barely even managed to squeak a protest when there’s a ring at the doorbell. The butler comes to announce the unexpected arrival of a bunch of Cynthia’s mad friends. They’re all in a mood to party, are looking to get tipsy, and know that Cynthia has a speakeasy at home. Cynthia barely has time to hide Derk in a room nearby—she begs him to stay hidden; they will discuss this fiasco later— before her friends enter.

Among the friends who’ve arrived are Roger and Marcia. While everybody else is surrounding the bar, getting drunk, and dancing, Marcia corners Cynthia and asks her when she’s going to be handing over the $25,000 promised as down payment for Roger. Cynthia scurries off to write a cheque for Marcia and the sordid deal is done. Little do the two women realise that someone’s seen it all: Derk.

Cynthia gives Marcia a cheque for Roger
Shortly after, things pan out in such a way that Marcia discovers Derk and realises who he is. Derk, in turn, reveals, in Roger’s presence, what he’s just witnessed: in effect, Marcia selling Roger off to Cynthia. Roger is, unsurprisingly, hurt that Cynthia could be so cold-blooded. Marcia, in the meantime, announces to the rest of the crowd who Derk is.

Marcia spills the beans
Cynthia has to end up admitting (much to Roger’s shock) that she is indeed married to Derk. She’s red-faced and sheepish about it, but her madcap friends seem to think this is all a gay lark. They literally assault Derk, hauling him up (the women jump on him and try kissing him), congratulating him and making rude jokes in a drunken frenzy.

Cynthia's friends attack Derk
Derk’s patience with this mad crowd has run out. He, anyway, cannot see eye to eye with them: their values, thoughts, beliefs and aspirations are diametrically opposite to his own. He loses his temper, thrashes out at them, and evicts them from the house. Cynthia is furious: how dare he throw her friends out of her house? She yells at him, too, to go. She doesn’t want to ever see him again. Cynthia rushes off into her own room and locks the door, and when Derk follows, asking her to let him in because he has something to say to her, Cynthia refuses.

So, after giving her prior warning, he breaks down the door. And shows her why he wanted to meet her: to hand her back the $10,000 she had paid him to marry her. Now that he’s not going to hang and can look after Katie, Derk doesn’t want to have anything to do with Cynthia or her money. He flings it in her face and leaves…

A full-blown argument
…and Cynthia yells imprecations at him all the way. They’ve parted ways, and acrimoniously. Cynthia can probably now get a quick divorce and marry Roger (who loves her too much to be annoyed with her for long, and has already shown signs of being forgiving).

But there’s many a slip, as they say, between the cup and the lip. Soon after she’s gotten rid of her unwanted husband, Cynthia receives an intimation from the executors of her grandfather’s will: the will stipulates that she must be not merely married, but living with her husband on her 23rd birthday in order to inherit. (This, to be fair, had been mentioned in that initial conversation with the lawyers, but Cynthia appears to have forgotten).

There’s no help for it, no option but to go to Derk and ask for his help. Cynthia steels herself, drives down to the mining town where Derk lives, and asks him straight out if he will please come and live with her till her birthday’s come and she’s got her inheritance. Derk refuses. So Cynthia offers an alternative: how about she come and live with him?

Cynthia comes to Derk
And, after some wheedling and pleading on Cynthia’s part, Derk reluctantly agrees.

Of course, one can predict what eventually happens, but there are some twists and turns along the way which make this a fairly entertaining film.

Comparisons, and some thoughts about this film:

I’m deviating a bit from my usual format of what I liked and didn’t like about Dynamite, because—since it appears to have inspired Mohabbat Zindagi Hai (I cannot imagine that the latter drew no inspiration from DeMille’s film)—it’s interesting to try and see what works in which film.

For me, the most satisfying bit about watching these two films, so close to each other, was the realization that though they have the same core theme, there are a lot of differences too, which reflect the different times and places in which they’ve been made.

Dynamite, made in a (one presumes) more permissible US, even if it was nearly 40 years before Mohabbat Zindagi Hai, allows its female protagonist some more liberties, at least on the surface. Cynthia doesn’t merely drink and smoke, she is even in love with a married man—and is willing to pay his wife to divorce him. Neeta, in Mohabbat Zindagi Hai, is Westernised and modern, but doesn’t do any of those things. Yes, she does have male friends, but none are anything more than friends; they’re just part of her gang. Neeta is a victim of circumstances: her father neglects her because her mother died giving birth to her, and this neglect has hardened Neeta’s heart to love, putting her off marriage. Another example of Hindi cinema’s rather common trope of putting its protagonists up on pedestals. Neeta’s only fault is a somewhat natural desire to get her inheritance.

Cynthia’s need-for-redemption is because of her superficial flightiness; Neeta’s is because of this mercenary attitude towards money. And both are saved, ultimately, by the unexpected love of a man—whom the women, respectively, have taken advantage of (by paying him off to marry them). The love of Derk redeems Cynthia, saving her from being the ‘bad woman’ (who, even though she is having an affair with Roger, explicitly states that she will not live in sin with him).

Cynthia with the two men in her life: Roger and Derk
And the love of Amar saves Neeta from being the poor little rich girl, living in her castle in the air…

Interestingly, too, their unwanted marriages with men of a much lower social class than themselves means that these two rich women are saved by being catapulted into a milieu where they are deprived of their wealth and servants, all the luxuries they’re used to. The coal miners are shown as being poor and deprived, occasionally mean, but at the same time, intrinsically good: they take the outsider in, they are ready to help, to forgive, to accept. More than a hint of socialism here.

When it comes to relative storylines, I thought both made sense in their own contexts: a heroine who was having an affair with a married man would have been unacceptable in Hindi cinema in the late 60s, while even in the late 1920s for a high-society American woman, that may not have been utterly outlandish. So, both films do work on that level.

Both, however, fall down a bit on the progression of the love between the two married people. There is chemistry between Amar and Neeta in Mohabbat Zindagi Hai, and between Derk and Cynthia in Dynamite; the only problem is that the way both pairs go from being at-daggers-drawn to deeply-in-love is unconvincing. (On this point, though, Dynamite has one thing going for it: it provides Derk with a sound, logical reason for being so angry with Cynthia’s friends, and uses this reason to create a fight between Derk and Cynthia. In Mohabbat Zindagi Hai, Amar’s treatment of Neeta smacks of pure boorishness: it literally becomes a sort of Taming of the Shrew. Dynamite doesn’t resort to this, simply because Cynthia isn’t a shrew; even when she’s fighting with Derk, it’s with reason).

On the whole, I liked Dynamite. Yes, I’d have liked the love story to have stretched a little longer, to have it develop. But the acting is mostly good (barring a few of the minor characters. The actors—probably used to silent films—can be fairly theatrical in their gestures and expressions, but their voices fail to convey much of that expression). And if you’re a die-hard fan of old-fashioned romances, this one will probably appeal to you.

Charles Bickford and Kay Johnson in Dynamite

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12 thoughts on “Dynamite (1929)

  1. Saw this now. Sounds like an interesting film. While I decided on the basis of your review not to watch Mohabbat Zindagi Hai. Am intrigued by this one. So now I need to get my hands on this one. Gawd there is so much to do – work, books to read and movies to watch and so little time! :-/
    But nice review, Madhu!

    • I have Chris to thank for telling me about this film – Chris mentioned it in one of the comments on my Mohabbat Zindagi Hai post, otherwise I might never have known this film existed! It’s definitely a better film than Mohabbat Zindagi Hai. And it’s on Youtube. Here is part 1:

  2. How interesting.

    The plot seems better in this movie. That thing about the man wanting to marry to provide for his sister seems like a good angle. That could have been used in the Hindi movie just fine.

    What a great idea to compare hollywood/bollywood remakes!

    • Yes, I thought the sister angle was a good one, and would have fitted in perfectly with the Hindi film too: in fact, that wanting-to-provide-for-family thing would be right at home here (remember the Amitabh Bachchan starrer Majboor?). Overall, I thought this one was better, especially the script. The love story does proceed a little too quickly to be convincing, but still; there is more meaningful time spent together than in Mohabbat Zindagi Hai. Plus, it doesn’t have that awful comic side plot!

    • Some of these silent – or of approximately that period – films can be a little hard to sit through. This one wasn’t, but yes, I can understand someone not wanting to bother watching it. :-)

  3. I was away and busy, so while I saw your updates while checking my mail, I just did not have the time to read anything. I just managed to find time to read this one, even before finishing reading the first paragraph, I did a quick search on You Tube and found the film. I am glad bloggers like you unearth some good films for us, otherwise we would have been ignorant about the existence of these films. Having read and enjoyed your review, I think I will download this film, so that I can watch it at leisure.

    • Thank you, Shilpi! In this case, though, I cannot take credit for having unearthed the film – I didn’t even know about it until Chris mentioned it in a comment on Mohabbat Zindagi Hai. If you do get around to watching it, tell me what you thought.

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