One of the challenges in teaching film history is convincing undergraduate students that filmmakers of decades and even centuries past were not mere rubes. I suppose that the members of every generation think those of previous generations were nowhere near as sophisticated or savvy or clever as they are. I’ve found this attitude to be particularly prevalent among modern film students, perhaps because they feel they are at an advantage for having heretofore inconceivable digital access to much of the world’s film history.
I savor the irony, then, of including, below, an embedded YouTube video of the pioneering avant-garde film "Tomatos Another Day." Made in 1930, at the dawn of the sound era, the film is, above all, a modern text: highly referential, self-reflexive, self-aware, imbued with the playful spirit of a text that does not take itself too seriously.
"Tomatos Another Day" looks crude, but that was by design. It’s a perfect example of an “olde tyme” film that embraces irony in such a way as to seem younger than its 85 years.
"Tomatos Another Day" is filled with deliberately wretched puns (including its very title; say it with a British accent and you’ll get the joke), intentionally stilted performances and purposefully inane situations. The objects of its parody are the then-new “talkies,” which, in their earliest days, were replete with those very qualities.
The advent of sound presented tremendous challenges for filmmakers. Where to place the microphone? How to muffle the camera? Most important of all, perhaps: How to “sell” this unfamiliar experience to audiences? As they usually do when faced with a disruptive technology, Hollywood studios proceeded very cautiously in presenting talkies to film patrons. Many early talkies appear to be taking a step backward, artistically and narratively — the very object of "Tomatos’" humorous barbs.
The tail end of the silent era was one of the most artistically vibrant periods in film history. Master stylists like Carl Theodor Dreyer, F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Erich von Stroheim, Josef Von Sternberg, King Vidor, Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, to name just a few, released some of their greatest works in the very late 1920s. This was a moment that produced more than its fair share of the indisputable masterpieces of cinema — Murnau’s The Last Laugh, Lang’s Metropolis, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Keaton’s The General. The end of the 1920s represented a certain artistic apex, a mature vision of what cinema was capable of. Many early talkies, by contrast, are quite stilted and corny, in part because technical issues like mic placement had not yet been solved. Because shooting on a studio set offers a greater degree of control than does a location set, studios erred on the side of caution in such technical matters as camera placement, producing a great many studio-bound melodramas. The weird part is that so many of these films also dialed back the cleverness and subtlety of their dialogue, as if simpler, dopier dialogue was somehow the only type that was appropriate for conversation-heavy films that largely took place in apartments. As if there was no tradition of intelligent dialogue in the entire history of theater, for instance.
I’m generalizing, of course, but it is true that many early talkies are dramatically and artistically flat. This historical fact is best and most famously demonstrated by a famous scene from a fiction film, Singin’ in the Rain, a masterpiece from another era.
Indeed, "Tomatos Another Day" anticipates that great scene from Singin’ in the Rain, though its approach is weirder and more subtle. The central joke in "Tomatos Another Day" is that all the dialogue is not only idiotic, but unnecessary, since the actors’ gestures and facial expressions convey everything that could be known about the film’s narrative. “He is gone,” says the woman upon the departure of her lover. “I am alone.” She yawns and moves near a chair. “I am so bored. I think I shall sit down.” The dialogue conveys nothing we couldn’t learn from merely watching, a technique by which the film makes its case that the dialogue in most early talkies was equally senseless.
About midway through its seven-minute running time, though, "Tomatos Another Day" changes course to rely not on empty inanities but on the most egregiously dumb puns you’ve ever heard. The lover actually gives the husband an awl upon remarking that he is “giving his all”; the husband returns the favor (and the pun) by handing the “chiseling” lover a (yup) chisel. Howlers of this nature abound in the film’s second half, and they’re made all the more howlingly bad by being delivered with straight faces and unaccented speech. (One that’s repeated, when various characters smoke, is “Cigarette life.” This one took me a little while to parse, but appears to be a wretched pun on the near-meaningless phrase “It’s a great life” — which is, noncoincidentally, the title of a lightweight 1929 Warner Bros. musical comedy.)
While it’s easy enough for modern audiences to discern that the film is intentionally crudely made, they often don’t know what to make of "Tomatos Another Day." That’s simply because the conversion from silent film to talkies is no longer an issue of modern relevance. Viewed within the proper historical context, though, "Tomatos Another Day" not only gets funnier, but also comes into its own as a fundamentally modern text of the greatest intelligence.