"Money there is, also madness, women, and swindling,” wrote The New York Times about The Wolf of Wall Street—in January of 1929.
Yes, there was an early talkie bearing the same name as the new Martin Scorsese
film, although it spun a completely different story. Mordaunt Hall reported in
the Times, “It is not conspicuous for
its originality. It would seem that almost anybody could have written a more
exciting and plausible story on the subject after standing for half an hour outside
Trinity Church, watching the passing throng of brokers, bankers, investors, and
stenographers.” While it dealt with unscrupulous wheeler-dealers, at a time
when the market was booming and ordinary people were investing in stocks, it
apparently didn’t reveal any insights into the world of trading…nor did it
forecast the cataclysmic Black Tuesday crash of October 29 that year.
The film seems to have been a potboiler, although Photoplay magazine, writing for a mass moviegoing audience, was less demanding than the Times. Its unnamed reviewer wrote, “Whether you have won or lost money in Wall Street, or haven’t played the stock market at all, George Bancroft and Baclanova will give you one of the most entertaining talkies so far made. A delightful evening.”
What was the film about? Let us consult the American Film Institute Catalog – Feature Films 1921-1930, which provides the following bare-bones synopsis: “The Wolf of Wall Street (George Bancroft) corners the market in copper and then sells short, making a fortune and ruining the fiancé of his maid, Gert (Nancy Carroll). Out of spite, Gert then tells The Wolf that his wife (Baclanova) has been cheating on him with his partner, Tyler (Paul Lukas). To revenge himself, The Wolf deliberately ruins himself and Tyler in the market and then walks out on his wife.”
If the storyline sounds routine, that wouldn’t be out of character for journeyman screenwriter Doris Anderson, who turned out many scripts from the 1920s through 1950, including the Clara Bow vehicles Hula and True to the Navy, as well as Anybody’s Woman, I Give My Love, and The Girl from Scotland Yard. It was directed by Rowland V. Lee, a skillful director who brought polish to such 1930s films as Zoo in Budapest, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Son of Frankenstein.
Sorry to say, we can’t judge the film for itself. Last spring, the eminent film preservationist David Shepard wrote on the Nitrateville website, “The 1929 Wolf of Wall Street is a lost film, as far as I know. However, it contained a couple of interesting montages by Slavko Vorkapich. He kept prints of these sequences and gave them to me. We used one in Unseen Cinema that was curated by Bruce Posner and produced for DVD by myself. And that's probably all you'll ever see of The Wolf of Wall Street.”
It doesn’t sound like a great loss to cinema history, but it still would be fun to see alongside the new film of the same name.
Incidentally, The Wolf of Wall Street came early in the all-talkie cycle, and reviewer Hall dutifully reported, “On Saturday, when this film was screened for its second running, the characters lost their voices, or, at least, the audible device refused to function. It was rather nice to hear their muffled tones, but quite a number of spectators decided that they wanted to have their money’s worth of sound. So they clapped their hands impatiently. Still there was a hush about the proceedings. Then there was further clapping, which must not be construed as applause, and finally George Bancroft, as Jim Bradford, broke the near silence by telling of his admiration for his ‘Old Girl,’ as he called his Russian wife, and also his voicing his confidence in himself to outwit David Tyler.”
Thank goodness today’s digital projection has put an end to such glitches. Oh, wait…