July 31, 2013

Betty Compson, The Barker


As I've mentioned before, three years ago, Nick Davis of Nick's Flick Picks posted this entry on his blog. I, stumbling across this through film blog osmosis, was about to witness the beginning of his glorious 41 post run of the remaining Best Actress performances he had yet to see out of the then 408 possible performances one could see. It was an amazing thing to tune into his blog every day for the next two months to see which Actress performance he'd cover next. I was enraptured, because while I'd long loved the Oscars, most especially the Best Actress category, I never realized that there were other people out there who shared the same particular interest as myself, and the idea of watching every single Best Actress nominated performance had never even crossed my mind. Thus, Nick's feat awoke an inspired and competitive monster from within me; "I'm an actressexual too! I want to join this elite club of one too!" So I started a blog (and then another...and then another...). And thus began my own blogging odyssey of watching every Best Actress nomination in chronological order. Thanks again Nick.

In the years that have passed, some of the most elusive films (The Constant Nymph, Holiday, etc.) have either been released on DVD or put up on YouTube by wonderful film buffs. That left The Barker, the film featured in the post that was the catalyst for this entire mess, as the most difficult film to get ahold of, with Betty Compson the most elusive Best Actress nominee. And after three years, the Oscar Gods finally granted me my wish. (The fact that I'm in Los Angeles for a summer internship plays a huge factor as well.) So here goes!

The Barker is a peculiar film in that it jumps between sound and silent sequences. I was surprised to find that the sound was actually pretty good compared to other films of that time. The film starts off solid but lags quite a bit near the end, making its the 87 minute runtime feel much longer.

In the opening titles, Betty Compson is billed third (in normal font compared to the all-caps MILTON SILLS and DOROTHY MACKAILL), so I had my doubts about the significance of her performance right away. But Carrie appears right in the beginning, decked out in stereotypical Hawaiian attire, as her carnival barker boyfriend Nifty Miller introduces her to a crowd as a Honolulu princess with dance moves you must see to believe. We then see her dancing in front of a roaring crowd. She starts off as quite the warm and cute presence onscreen, so much so that it comes as a surprise when she turns out to be kind of a bitter bitch. Carrie, as it turns out, is a woman who harbors some deep insecurities, which you can see in the way she flips the switch from loving to spiteful the moment she finds out Nifty's son has come to visit. (on a side, I thoroughly enjoyed her subtle stinkface when, upon meeting Chris, is called "ma'am".) When Nifty dumps Carrie for getting Chris wasted (...of all the things), Carrie even goes on to wish death upon the son. It's a very strange mental mindset, to love Nifty so deeply but to also hate his kin so nonsensically, that I think it'd have been great if the film delved on this characterization some more and gave us some hints as to why Carrie is so in need of attention.

Carrie is a solid supporting character, and I'd say she's good enough to have won a supporting award if they'd existed back then, but it's easy to see why she got the nomination despite being billed third and not having lead status. Carrie's actions are what drives the film, and she has some pretty juicy scenes--the first being when Nifty dumps her and she launches into hysteria, bawling her eyes out and pulling a gun out of her bag, threatening to kill Nifty and son (again, this is a great moment where we see that she has the potential to be pretty twisted, but unfortunately the film doesn't explore this). What I didn't like about this sequence was that it was silent, so what could have been a great acting moment ended up being crazy pantomiming that you can find in any silent film. A shame really, because her sound acting is quite good. The film then shoves Carrie out of the way to focus on Sills and Mackaill, but Compson comes roaring back in the last act. Nifty, upon finding out that Carrie was the mastermind behind Chris and Lou's union, nearly strangles her to death. I think this is her money scene--the fear she displays when Nifty confronts her is effective and as Nifty walks out on her, she ends the scene with a stunning close-up wherein an array of emotions are plastered on her face--love, heartbreak, regret--and I can understand her nod from that shot alone.

To a certain extent, I fancy the role of Carrie as a watered down, sugar-free version of Alex Forrest. And even in her limited screentime, she commands attention and is significantly better than most of her fellow nominees who led their respective films. The Barker, as tedious as it may have been to sit through, ended up being a nice gem hidden deep in the annals of Oscar history. Above all, after anticipating Betty Compson's performance for so long, I'm deeply pleased that I ended up enjoying her as much as I did.


  1. I am so jealous that you were able to see her! I guess she is the one that will escape me forever! :-)

    Great review!

  2. Thanks so much Fritz!

    Never say forever, I'm sure you and Compson will cross paths some day. :) I really hope The Barker becomes more accessible, because Compson's perf is a gem!

  3. Hi there! Enjoying your blog... I actually have been doing a Best Actress Challenge myself to see all the performances nominated and won. I only have about 34 more films to go, but I know this one is a film I can't find anywhere. How did you get a copy to view, if you don't mind me asking? "Valiant is the Word for Carrie" is another one I can't find. Keep up the great work!

    1. Hi Mark, thanks for the comment and welcome! Sorry for the delay in response here...

      That's awesome that you've only got 34 best actress performances left! If you have a blog as well I'd love to check out your thoughts.

      I believe the only copy of The Barker is housed at UCLA's film archive, so you may have to make the trek out there to see it. Valiant is the Word for Carrie DVDs are out on the interwebs for purchase :) What are some of your other remaining perfs?

  4. I believe TCM has a copy. Would make a great double feature if they played that film followed by Hoop-la. Same story but stared Clara Bow in her final picture.