Warner Brothers Archive Collection Spotlight: DAYBREAK (1930)
Helen Chandler shines in this Ramon Navarro vehicle, a heartbreaking saga of a misunderstanding gone terribly awry. - Brooke D. Ellis
A good-girl-turned-bad tale for audiences of 1930, Daybreak stars the loveable Ramon Navarro and, in a defining performance, Helen Chandler (Bela Lugosi’s obsession in the following year’s film production of Dracula). Ramon plays Willi, a good-hearted playboy who serves in the Austrian Imperial Guard under his high-ranking uncle. He often exceeds a generous allowance provided to him by his wealthy relation and is given an ultimatum – marry well-to-do and attractive Emily (Karen Morley) or forfeit further financial aid. He reluctantly agrees to the union.
While visiting Madame Sakas, a high-end bordello gambling den, Willi and his mates are met by the plump cigar-smoking hostess who knows them well. Nearby and clearly out-of-place, shy music instructor Laura (played by a youthful Ms. Chandler) appears uncomfortable as she waits to borrow sheet music from wealthy socialite Herr Schnabel - who desires something from her as well. Upon witnessing her endure the unwelcome advances of the older gent, Willi takes matters into his own hands – literally. Laura reluctantly falls to the persistant charm of her honour-defender and agrees to join him to a wine garden - after making it clear that she finds him to be “perfectly depraved”. Helen turns in a wonderfully comedic performance during a scene in which Laura becomes intoxicated, presumably for the first time. With wide-eyed expressiveness and comedic timing reminiscent of the screwball humor Lucille Ball would employ two decades later, she truly shines. During a romantic carriage return to her home, Laura notes that it’s “daybreak” and admits to Willi that she is afraid she is in love with him.
Later, the two are seated in the kitchen of Laura’s apartment. A joyous, satisfied vibe implies that they found each other quite compatible. Of course, storylines of such early films leave much to the imagination, and one must read ‘between the lines’ to decipher the subtext. After a lengthy stunning close-up of Helen (at the height of her beauty), she remarks that she was previously “frightened” about what to serve him for breakfast, which leads Willi to believe that his stay-over may have been premeditated, a gesture of a ‘lady of the evening’. He discreetly leaves her payment, but when Laura sees the money she is heartbroken to believe she was mistaken for a prostitute.
Willi later apologizes, “if there was a misunderstanding…” but Laura won’t listen. Instead, her shock leads her into a somewhat unreasonable tailspin – and into the paying arms of Herr Schnabel. She credits Willi for encouraging her to embrace the life of a whore. With Laura's liberation at stake, Willi (who previously had luck gambling to help a desperate friend) gets in over his head in a high stakes card game against Mr. Schnabel. Unfortunately, he loses more money than he can possibly repay.
The chemistry between Ramon and Helen is undeniable. The pair seems thoroughly at ease with one another, producing wonderfully charming results. I believe it apparent they got along famously. Helen once claimed that she could “read the character of a person from across the room” and was probably hip to Gay culture, an aspect which she may have appreciated and enjoyed while working with Ramon. One can't help but wish the two had been paired again in other projects (as much as I wish Bela Lugosi and Helen were able to reprise their roles in a Dracula sequel – Universal screwed the public!). Perhaps the fact that Helen’s husband at the time, screenwriter Cyril Hume, was credited with writing Daybreak’s dialogue contributed to the resulting positive effect. They married in 1930, possibly prior to filming, or could have even met on the set and wed shortly thereafter. Either way, Helen’s performance exudes certain cheer beneath her role.
Whereas her career was on an upswing at the time, Navarro’s was actually winding down. His heyday was during the silent era, most notably starring in the epic production of Ben Hur. It’s a shame, because he not only speaks eloquently (necessary for the new Talkie era), but is also absolutely charming. Sadly, his life too was in gradual decline thereafter. Kenneth Anger’s controversial book, “Hollywood Babylon”, is refuted to be based upon sensational rumors and lies. But it is not entirely. Described within is an account of Ramon’s murder in 1968. While I dispute that an alleged item used to torture him was a gift from Valentino, and question the nature of the abuse itself, the remaining details are tragically true.
Equally heart-breaking was the demise of Helen Chandler. Her final film, a delightful 1938 comedy co-starring Stuart Erwin and Toby Wing, Mr. Boggs Steps Out, was followed by a few touring plays (at least one of which including newcomer Vincent Price). But failed marriages, irresponsible attitudes and heavy drinking led her to drift from public consciousness. She married a ‘regular Joe’ who had a job that demanded his leave from their Hollywood apartment weeks at a time. In November 1950, an intoxicated Helen fell asleep alone in bed, a lit cigarette in hand. A blaze ensued. She was badly burned, her once dainty features scarred for life. It is uncertain if she was still married when she settled in a small home in nearby Venice, but an oft-repeated story describes a lonely life before her passing in 1965, the result of a stomach ulcer. The legend further alleges that after cremation, no one came forward to collect her ashes - and they remain unclaimed to this day.
A clip from Daybreak:
An emotional tribute: