The first time I saw Sylvia, the girl with the sad eyes, in Merrily we go to hell (read my review here and watch my tribute here) I wondered why I had never heard about her before. After watching another 6 of her movies, especially the early ones, I still wonder why this girl is so underrated and generally unknown. If I had to define her acting, I'd say that she's like Gary Cooper: so natural and reflexive that it seems that her characters, generally good girls facing complicated situations, were alive and the cameras just caught them...living. Plus she could express very well all the emotions just through her vibrant eyes. Mini reviews of six of her movies, next:
-- City streets (1931; Rouben Mamoulian): I LOVED this movie :) I mean, I defined her acting like Gary Cooper's, and here you have them together. Sylvia is the stepdaughter of a gangster and she likes that life so much that she tries to convince her super sweet, kind and good shooter boyfriend, Gary, to become a gangster too. But after her stupid and double crosser dad betrays her, the real action starts. Because escaping from that awful world isn't easy and Gary is gonna need all his coolness to succeed. Great action and romantic scenes (Mamoulian knew how to shoot them), lots of tension and this dad is one of the most despicable characters ever. This was Sylvia's third film and made her a star.
-- Street scene (1931; King Vidor). I also LOVED this film :) It shows the lives of different working class people living on the same building from basically just one place, the entrance stairs. There, women get together to gossip, casual encounters reach an end (or not), other people discuss their future, etc. The main conflict is provided by the family of Sylvia's character: her mom is cheating on her dad and everyone expect the worst. I think the camera shots and movements were really great, going up to show you a window for a moment, following a character and giving you information. It's very well acted, very emotive, feels real and I loved the last scene.
-- Thirty Day Princess (1934; Marion Gering): I'm very sorry to say that even when this has Cary in it, I didn't like it very much. But the actors are not to blame, the script didn't take any real advantage of the story: the king from an invented country needs a loan from United States so they send the princess (Sylvia) to make a good impression. BUT, she falls ill and they replace her with an American actress that looks exactly like her (Sylvia). Cary is a reporter that falls in love with the fake princess. There are a few interesting scenes (like the one in which they break hundreds of expensive glasses or when Sylvia plays two characters in the same scene plus the ending is very nice) but it lacks content and scenery to make it visually attractive and dynamic. Anyway, I think this is the kind of movie I liked when I was a non-critical child.
--The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936; Henry Hathaway): I didn't know they could film in this GLORIOUS Technicolor in the mid-30s. The picture above doesn't do it justice, but if you actually see the movie your mind will be blown away by such colors! It has Fred MacMurray (!) & Henry Fonda (!) (and Sylvia) all showing off their blue eyes and also has beautiful mountains scenery. BUT, again, colors and cast don't make a great film per se: I felt that the story (based on a novel) wasn't very well-handled in this film. It's about two families from the mountains that hate each other since ever and every time they have an opportunity they kill one enemy. Sylvia and Henry are cousins and members of one of these families. He loves her but she's not sure of marrying him. Then, a super educated engineer, Fred, makes a deal with both families and starts working in their lands. Sylvia falls in love with him. I think the story could had been great but it lacks real emotion because most of the dramatic events are told not shown and the actors have to deal with a childish romance (with Little home in the prairie-ish music) and a bloody/serious battle of families at the same time, which doesn't work very well. But I would see this one just because of the GLORIOUS Technicolor.
--Fury (1936; Fritz Lang): This is so sad. Did you heard about the awful news that strikes my country (again)? Today 81 people were burned to death in a prison. It was so tragic, painful and terrible to see their families getting the information and hearing all the details about the conditions in which the bodies were found. Many of them were young men whose crimes were minor (like stealing a cell phone). Why I tell you this? Because just two days ago I had seen a very similar scene, a jail on fire with a prisoner inside, in this movie. Here, Spencer Tracy is arrested on his way of marrying Sylvia and accused of a terrible crime he didn't commit. The stupid town wants to lynch him and sets the jail on fire. Everyone cheers because they think he's dead. Tracy is solid and believable as always and has good chemistry with Sidney; there are a lot of interesting details (his friendship with a little dog for example) and it's always great to see people getting their revenge.
--You only live once (1937; Fritz Lang) This is an example of the movie that I don't loooove because of very subjectives reasons: I just didn't empathize with Henry Fonda's character. He's a criminal that is set free and marries his girlfriend. They start paying for a house, but because of a problem of communication, she moves in just before he's fired from his job. Henry decides that the best option is not to tell her the truth and look for another way of getting money. After a very misleading scene he's accused of a big robbery and homicide and condemned to death. If I don't pay attention to my very subjective reasons I can say this is a good movie that keeps you very interested, that has some very tense and dramatic scenes and it's just like life, unpredictable and sometimes very unfair.
I hope you can watch some of these movies. If you want to know more facts about Sylvia (she worked in Beetlejuice and Mars Attacks! for example) you can read Sylvia's Bio on Imdb.