Sensible Cinderella: Kitty Foyle (1940)

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A RKO Production ~  Director: Sam Wood,  Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo with additional dialogue by Donald Ogden Stewart, based on a novel by Christopher Morley,  Art Director: Van Nest Polglase,  Costume Designer: Renie

In a year filled with phenomenal films, Kitty Foyle is a good and satisfying movie, but not necessarily a great one.  And yet it was nominated for five Academy Awards, with Ginger Rogers receiving her only nomination and win for this melodramatic woman’s picture, based upon the best-selling 1939 name-sake novel.

The movie begins with an opening sequence that brings us up to date on the state of womanhood in 1939.  Depicted as single, hard-working and man-seeking, the ‘modern ’woman , “a comparative newcomer to the American scene”,  is shown struggling to make her way in a world that does not always make that way easy.  She lacks the protections of a male embrace, her place as a homemaker and the respect that the roles of wife and mother have traditionally bestowed upon her.  Suffragettes, hoping for better, have apparently gotten more than they bargained for now that the Great Depression has thrown them in among the wolves.

This episodic and unfortunately dated opening sets up the quandary of our heroine, Kitty Foyle.  She is strong and independent and yet she struggles.  Seemingly bereft and without family support, she looks to love and finds herself at a crossroads between her desire for the romantic idealized prince of her youth, and the pragmatic considerations of her situation.  Kitty must choose between an adventurous life as an unwed partner to a man she adores, a man who is affectionate and charming but lacking in strength and endurance, and another who is earnest, but frugal, plodding but loyal; he is also definitely not her first choice.

This latter point is brought home by the efficient casting.  Dennis Morgan as Wyn Strafford is dazzling as the man of her heart’s desire.  His smile lights up the screen.   Radiating personal warmth as he sweeps in and out of Kitty’s life, he even takes her out for a night to envy Cinderella’s ball, complete with chimes in the form of an alarm to end the reverie.  Meanwhile, her pragmatic prospect tests her to the point of rudeness, blackmails her into a first date and persists despite her love for another man.  He is patently devoid of charisma.  There is little to no chemistry between Miss Foyle and Dr. Mark Eisen, played woodenly by James Craig.  That is just the point however; it may take better acting than might be first apparent to make a handsome doctor this much of a bland second choice.

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In early scenes, Kitty is supported with a home and wisdom by her father, played with long-suffering pluck, Irish cheer and humor by Ernest Cossart, echoing Thomas Mitchell in his portrayal.  His presence is key to understanding Kitty’s determination and sense of spirit.  Long after his departure his influence upon her choices and ultimate decision is felt.

Her quandary is presented early in the film, and elucidated during a debate Kitty conducts with herself via a talking mirrored image.   This was a unique device at the time and pulls the viewer into the film; her dual personas are intriguing.  Kitty’s impetuous, spirited and fancy-free self has literally come face to face with her mature, and wiser woman; it’s a little harder to fool herself than it once was. Rogers plays this well and immediately gains our sympathy.  This was not the only time she was to play herself at multiple ages and levels of maturity.  Here she has a scene where she is just fifteen years old, and similarly to her work in The Major and The Minor, where she plays just twelve, as well as her own mother, she is able to handle the age range convincingly.

Rogers is warm and heart-breakingly human, yes even flawed in this story.  The many close-ups in the film display the subtlety of her work, as her emotions run the gamut from dizzying happiness to devastating disappointment and grief.  She never fails the audience or the intent of the lovely screenplay. Watch her face as the slow realization of the loss of her son washes over her to see the reason for this nomination. Rogers shines without overshadowing Kitty’s story.

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This story, which is primarily shown in flashback, is told from a woman’s perspective, an interesting point given all the men that were involved in its creation.  In fact the film is subtitled ‘The Natural Story of a Woman’. Imagine the audience of women at the time, still struggling with the shocks of the worst economic crisis this country had known.  And here is Kitty Foyle.  She is portrayed by the beautiful Ginger Rogers, she of all the glamorous RKO fantasy films where she paired with Fred Astaire, dancing his dances and following his choreography, brought down to earth and living in a small two-room apartment with two other young struggling women.  There is no public safety net, no assurance that it might not be your boss who blackmails you to revel in your attractiveness and not the handsome yet unknown stranger, albeit doctor. Kitty’s choices are of course that of a movie star, a bit of a princess. She chooses between the dashing offspring of a wealthy scion of society and a good-looking smitten physician.  Not much less could be expected of anyone as glamorous as Rogers, yet these dilemmas were very much like the choices being made by women everywhere. Pragmatic cautious decisions were more important than ever.  Her dilemma is relatable and understandable.

The script by Dalton Trumbo walks some delicate lines in blurring a novel that was written without a Production Code to abide by.  This makes the film a bit of a puzzle at times.  Kitty has a hasty marriage and an even more impulsive and spontaneous divorce.  Her marriage results in pregnancy and the subsequent loss of this child through stillbirth (a woman’s heartbreak not all that uncommon at times both then and now).  In the book, Kitty has a dalliance with Mr. Dazzling that results in an unwed pregnancy and an abortion.  Trumbo cunningly sticks to the major plot points while adhering to the Code. Of note is a very romantic, moving scene in the Poconos that fades to black and helps us to understand Kitty’s love for Wyn. While the film plays fast and loose with the time frames, audiences were well aware of both the restrictions of the Code as well as the shocking circumstances and sadness that Kitty endures through familiarity with the novel.  Its raciness had done much to make it a best-seller.

It was this very raciness that had first made the project unpalatable to Rogers.  But ultimately she made a shrewd decision.  The public knew that she was a talented entertainer.  She could dance with the absolute best and sing too.  She had shown a wonderful way with comedy and endeared audiences to her as she helped them to escape the dreariness of their everyday realities with music and laughter.  But 1940 was the year she made her first forays into serious roles.  Kitty Foyle was recognized by the industry but Primrose Path, a romantic concoction filled with realistic grittiness from director Gregory LaCava, also starring Rogers, and  co-starring Joel MacCrae, was released just nine months ahead of this one.  Kitty Foyle was the bigger film, a hit for RKO and subsequently nominated for Best Picture.

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The field was crowded that year.  There were ten films nominated for the top Oscar, several undeserving and others perhaps that should have won; Hitchcock’s Rebecca beat out a challenging field.  Additionally, there were many others that, in any other year would have been nominated.  Numerous women were also deserving of recognition.  Rogers faced stiff opposition from Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Joan Fontaine and Martha Scott for her award.  This was also the year of Rosalind Russell’s career-defining turn in His Girl Friday, Irene Dunn’s snappy performance in My Favorite Wife and a heartbreaking portrayal by Vivien Leigh in Waterloo Bridge that was a far cry from her Scarlett O’Hara. There has always been a sense of upset, that Kitty Foyle was a minor film and a not particularly worthy performance.  But Rogers, in depicting an everywoman, while remaining her glamorous self, grabbed hold of audiences and apparently Academy members, who not only wished to honor her performance here, which is quite moving, but seemingly the body of her work and the incredible range of her talent. From the time she delivered her famed pig-Latin rendition of “We’re In the Money” to her sashays with Astaire, Ginger Rogers had done her part to help a nation through the tough years of the Great Depression and the Academy and movie-going audiences were grateful.

Recommended for its moving story, the chemistry of Rogers and Morgan and its Oscar winning history.

This post is a part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon 2017 February 17-19, 2017 hosted by Paula’s Cinema Club, Once Upon a Screen and Outspoken and Freckled. For more please click the image below:

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Notes and Extras

  • Bosley Crowther of The New York Times describes this one as ” a boy-girl drama which tugs cruelly on the heartstrings but never snaps them.”  He seemed to like it quite a bit, rightly predicted its popularity and noted significant deviation from the novel, some of it necessary to “conform with the moral code”.  He’s kinder to Craig’s doctor who he feels is no less attractive than Morgan and seems to agree with the film that Kitty makes a wise choice, perceiving Strafford as cowardly.  Perhaps….
  • This was a break-out role for Dennis Morgan, cowardly though he might’ve been.  Morgan began his Hollywood career in a favorite of mine, Piccadilly Jim (1936) with a small uncredited part as a nightclub singer.  And a singer he was, having studied voice at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music and the American Conservatory in Chicago.  His lovely singing voice made him useful as both a bit player and singer until he was established.
  • Some of you may recognize Morgan for his role in the holiday perennial Christmas in Connecticut (1945) where he displays beautiful chemistry with Barbara Stanwyck.  He is charming (what else?) and commanding and gets to use his golden pipes in that one too. When Stanwyck as housekeeping expert Elizabeth Lane questions his character Jefferson Jones by asking “Are you making love to me?”, we’re pretty sure that he is, and that’s exactly how she wants it.
  • Early in his career Morgan appeared in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) in the famous Wedding Cake musical number.  Cast due to his voice, you might assume it’s him singing the famous “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody”, but you’d be wrong (as I was)!  In fact Morgan himself didn’t find out that his voice in the number was dubbed until he watched it at the premiere.  Imagine that…
  • Morgan made five films in 1936 another of which was Suzy with Jean Harlow, Franchot Tone and Cary Grant.  That’s an awful lot of good looks for one picture.
  • Speaking of good looks, Morgan is a bit of a Prince Chaming in this picture and that’s not the only fairy tale suggestion you’ll get here.  Watch for soothing rhythmic imagery in this film: a snow globe containing a child’s sled, Cinderella references with time-ticking deadlines, a speakeasy with a special bottle of liquor, seemingly bottomless.  Interestingly enough, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane was in production, also at RKO, when this film was released.  For Kitty the snow globe and the sled within represent her “little girl”, ties to her father, childhood and lost innocence.  This snow globe also makes for a unique transitional device during short interludes of voice over-narration, spoken by the much wiser Kitty.  Interesting the way one artistic endeavor can influence another. As well as awards…
  • Rogers was probably pretty happy she accepted this role.  It first went to Katherine Hepburn who turned it down.  Hepburn was subsequently nominated that same year for The Philadelphia Story, which she considered her “comeback vehicle”, in a role she created for the stage, but lost the Oscar to Rogers.  Funny how things turn out…
  • In fact Kitty Foyle was nominated for five Academy Awards:  Best Picture, Best Director for Sam Wood, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Writing – Adapted Screenplay for Dalton Trumbo and Best Sound.  This was Wood’s second nomination; he had three altogether but never won.  But Trumbo , who was also nominated three times, won twice, both times under a pseudonym due to Hollywood blacklisting.  The record was subsequently changed to reflect his unique contributions.  Roman Holiday, a true American classic, is the best known of these two winners.
  • Besides winning Rogers her award, this film has another mark of distinction:  the subsequent donning of little white collars by secretaries and women in the workforce by the droves.  As noted prophetically by film critic John Mosher in The New Yorker,”I am inclined to think that it’s Miss Ginger alone who makes ‘Kitty Foyle’ a better-than-average film and Kitty herself a proper model for those hundreds of thousands of young things who will now be adding a touch of white to their neckline.” What is it with these film critics and their ability to foresee trends?  And so the phrase “White Collar Girl” became a part of the vernacular.  Life magazine did a photo essay on the life and times of such a girl, modeled after Rogers’ Kitty.  One caption reads “The Five p.m. feeling is awful. Finished with work, she is sure of meal and a bed. But she suffers the dreadful loneliness of the White Collar Girl because she has nothing to do between work and bedtime. Here is the five p.m. feeling in Times Square”. Cue dismal-looking  model.  This is pretty heavy stuff and gives some insight into the cultural context of this film.  I’m getting that Five p.m. feeling just reading about it.
  • RKO, knowing its audience and the appeal of both the film and the novel, arranged for Rogers’ to attend an annual stenographers’ ball in New York just two weeks after the film’s opening.  Rogers donned her little white collar but ever the movie star, and good PR person, she decorated it with a  generous diamond broach and wore a mink coat, matching mink-trimmed hat and gold earrings. She was met at Grand Central Station by 1,500 cheering fans and was given a special scroll by that year’s Queen of the Stenographers.
  • Ginger Rogers is listed in the AFI’s 50 Greatest Screen Legends, coming in at number 14.

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Charmed Again: The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936)

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A RKO Production ~  Director: Stephen Roberts, Story by James Edward Grant, Screenplay by Anthony Veillor, Art Director: Van Nest Polglase,  Costume Designer: Bernard Newman

By far the greatest pleasure of The Ex-Mrs. Bradford is seeing two quick and witty actors engage their mutual talent and tangle. While William Powell and Jean Arthur had shared screen space in two previous films, this is the first and sadly only time they were paired for a romantic comedy. One wishes they might have had a slightly better script as well as future opportunities but the two certainly give it all they’ve got and that’s saying quite a bit.

In a twist on the usual gentleman detective rom-com, William Powell plays a doctor reluctantly ensnared, and in more ways than one, by his ex-wife Paula Bradford, a brightly charming Jean Arthur determined to effect a reconciliation. Arthur plays a novelist of mysteries, one who seems far more eager to solve them in real-life than on the page. In fact, her zealousness in doing so appears to have been more than Powell’s Dr. Lawrence ‘Brad’ Bradford was willing to tolerate. Despite being unwilling to maintain his alimony, he is  determined to maintain his distance from Paula. However, her charms and enthusiasm as well as her curious intelligence once again entangle him in unraveling the murder of a jockey in a somewhat convoluted mystery whose murderer’s motive once again comes down to love and not so sweet revenge.

The movie is intent upon throwing a number of suspects at us as these types of films tend to do. When a second killing occurs James Gleason, playing to type as an inspector, pegs Brad as the potential murderer. This leaves our hero with little option but to solve both murders and thereby clear his name. Another body falls, the doctor almost succumbs and somewhere along the way Paula and Brad find a way to not only solve the case but also solve their differences.

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The film builds upon Powell’s popularity as Nick Charles, also a reluctant detective, in a number of ways. Although divorced these two crime-solvers share chemistry and some camaraderie; one wonders if Brad’s reluctance to pay his alimony is not an invitation of sorts. They are definitely equals. Once again the female lead is the one with the money. Paula Bradford pursues her alimony on principal and he avoids paying it on the same grounds; she doesn’t need it. What an enviable position for a woman of the thirties, with the effects of the depression still in full swing. Paula’s affluence is emphasized throughout the film as Arthur is lovingly draped in satins and luscious furs by costume designer Bernard Newman. Combined with the art deco decor of a doctor’s bachelor apartment the film at times makes for sumptuous eye-candy. Along with that apartment comes the services of a butler, Stokes, played by Eric Blore, who again seems to have made butlering an occupation endowed with all manner of comedic potential. As always he adds much to the hilarious goings on.

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Being a romantic comedy of the 1930’s there are also sight gags and numerous bits of physical business. With Brad (and Powell) being the gentleman he is, it is Paula who does the knocking out of her ex-husband and intended at least twice in this film to hilarious effect*, although she takes a swift kick to the shin as well, later exacting revenge and saying “now we’re equal”. Less ditzy and more persistent than usual, Jean Arthur makes good company for Powell. She matches him in wit and bests him in his pacing, which only compliments his vast repertoire of reaction shots. These two make a lovely comedy team. If they hadn’t been contracted to other studios we may have seen more of this pairing.

Appreciating a film like this requires a bit of a slowing down. Bits by Blore, reaction shots from both he and Powell and the witty exchanges between our loving couple require a savoring of moments. The film works on these instances and on character and charisma more than plot. And the plot does slow at times. The first third seems to work far better than the bogged down middle and it’s no wonder as it focuses more heavily upon the relationship between our two co-stars. Expository dialogue in the whodunit phase while persuasive, comes at the expense of the amusing repartee and banter that makes the introductory scenes sparkle, yet the film entertainingly comes through with a unique denouncement.

Spoiler Alert: An interesting aspect through modern eyes is that the perpetrator is eventually caught not only through deduction and a twist on the dinner party suspect round-up but specifically through the use of film. Brad places cameras strategically throughout the race track in order to find the killer. In reviewing the footage he is able to conclusively prove guilt. Little did the filmmakers know that the use of such footage would one day become commonplace. End Spoiler.

There’s a slightly frustrating unevenness here that’s evident on multiple levels yet The Ex-Mrs. Bradford is a more than worthwhile watch as a showcase for the interplay of two sophisticated charmers working their skills on each other and on us, their appreciative audience. Or put another way, its always a treat to watch Wlliam Powell and Jean Arthur.

Recommended, to savor the chemistry and luster of its stars.

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Notes and Extras

  • The Ex-Mrs Bradford comes in the middle of an highly successful stretch for William Powell. It was released in 1936 at the height of his film career, one that was to last four decades.
  • In 1936 Powell released The Great Ziegfeld, Libeled Lady, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, My Man Godfrey and After The Thin Man. It was an incredible year, one that could’ve potentially challenged Clark Gable’s crown as King at MGM but of course didn’t not only because Gable was Gable, but because several of these films were made on loan-out. Yet MGM remained pleased as each success only enhanced the box-office potential of their talented and debonair star.
  • MGM’s The Great Ziegfeld was the second top grossing film of the year beaten only by San Francisco, a Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Jeanette MacDonald musical-disaster vehicle. Libeled Lady and My Man Godfrey both ended up in the top 20 for gross earnings in 1936.  It was actually a wonderfully creative and successful year for films, despite the ongoing Depression-era struggles.
  • The year 1936 was pivotal not just for Powell but for Arthur.  The Ex-Mrs. Bradford was released just one month after one of her most enduring and beloved films, Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes To Town. She also starred in five films that year.
  • Despite the competition, The Ex-Mrs Bradford still managed to gross just over a million and was widely considered a successful and entertaining film.
  • Arthur and Powell shared something more than their three movies. Both had their start in silent films. Powell made his debut in Sherlock Holmes starring John Barrymore in 1922. Arthur was in numerous shorts or minor roles for seven years, making her screen debut the following year. Both actors benefited greatly by the advent of sound with unique, personality-filled speaking voices that enhanced their careers.
  • Despite her effervescence it took John Ford to discover Arthur’s comedic potential. The wildly successful and prodigious director cast her in The Whole Town’s Talking in 1935, twelve years after her first film, finally establishing her importance in film history as one among a handful of smart and snappy film comediennes of the golden era.

*Powell, a gentleman in private as well as public life, was continually conscious of his image and hopeful, as his career advanced, to find redeeming qualities in all of his characters. Unlike other male stars of the era, Grant and Cagney come easily to mind, I’ve yet to see Powell hit a woman in his talking films. It’s possible he may have nicely avoided that his entire career. If anyone has information to the contrary, I’d be interested in knowing.

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Dancing As Fast As They Can: Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

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A RKO Production ~  Director: Dorothy Arzner, Based on a story by Vicki Baum, Screenplay by Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis, Art Director: Van Nest Polglase,  Costume Designer: Edward Stevenson

What a warm, satisfying movie this is. As must happen in post-Code Hollywood, a young woman pays a price, both for her naïveté as well as her ability to pack a good wallop, but becomes a better woman for it, having come to terms with her own nature and realizing her dreams in the process.

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There is so much in Dance, Girl, Dance that it’s hard to know where to begin. What’s most interesting is that Dorothy Arzner has been able to present characters that make many mistakes and yet remain sympathetic. She has an unerring sense of humanity towards these people, hiding their foibles in plain sight by rendering them as charming as they are flawed and struggling.

Their struggles involve primarily finding out who they are but also in finding who they love and it is only in resolving the first that they are able to discover the second. The resolved romances at films end work nicely to underscore this sense that these people have finally come home, only to find themselves opening the door. The film works as a romantic comedy but definitely has serious pre-feminist undertones.

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Our heroine,  Judy O’Brian, played by a luminous and young Maureen O’Hara, admits her Irish feistiness but acknowledges she “keeps it to a low simmer”. Her best friend, also a bit of an antagonist, is portrayed by a gorgeous and scene-stealing Lucille Ball. She plays Bubbles, a gold-digger disguised as a dancer but not necessarily one with a heart of gold. Her comedic gifts are certainly on display but here there’s a toughness and an edge rarely seen. Bubbles’ primary aim is to find that gold and keep it for herself; survival is the name of the game. While she’s capable of being a friend she’s not necessarily capable of being a good one.

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Bubbles offers Judy a chance to finally make a living dancing but it’s a humiliating one where she is actually called a Stooge. Sent on stage to be mocked and laughed at, she’s there to stoke the crowd for the more seductively naughty Bubbles, now facetiously dubbed Tiger Lily White, in a burlesque show.

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Judy longs for the kind of break that would allow her to truly pursue her heart and become a serious dancer, but her lack of confidence gets in the way and prevents her from sensing opportunity when it literally smiles her way. As the one doing the smiling, Ralph Bellamy adds a warm presence and a handy shoulder.

Judy’s nightly onstage humiliation moves her anger from what was a simmer to a slow burn and ultimately a full-blown knockdown drag-out with Bubbles. Ostensibly about a man who takes turns toying with each of them, a smarmy Louis Hayward, the confrontation is more about the women’s relationship and who they are to one another. Bubbles maintains this friendship not just because Judy has been useful to her but because she brings a warmth and depth to her life that would not be there without her companionship. Similarly, Judy admires Bubbles ability to unabashedly pursue her selfish interests and thereby make her way in the world, a man’s world, despite compromises. These are two tough women and they admire each other. But the dichotomy they represent is also why they come to blows.

This film opens with a simple dance sequence, marked by dazzling costumes, that immediately establishes character.  This small troupe is overseen by a wise Maria Oupenskaya, portraying Madame Lydia Basilova, who makes a short but lovely appearance as the original source of strength for these women.  Madame, a former ballerina and  head of her own dance troupe is a role model for Judy and Bubbles in an industry compromised by catering to men’s ogles and desires. Madame is tragically killed when Judy goes to what should’ve been her big break but which instead becomes only a revelatory moment; Judy is too frightened to fully pursue her dreams.  It is only when she finally grabs hold of her own anger that she is able to understand she is entitled to her own happiness.

Much of the story revolves around men who are used as plot devices; this is a woman’s story. In one literally show stopping moment O’Hara delivers a scathing speech to her predominately male audience, best seen rather than described. It’s far ahead of its time.

Despite being a film about dance the costuming works in homage to the characters and their development. The film opens with the small troupe dancing in unison in glittering black. However, as the women’s paths diverge, they are never again seen in identical costumes. Bubbles rise up the ladder of success involves not just a name change but the donning of gorgeous coats with luscious fur collars. She is expensively accessorized. Similarly, Judy is seen in simple designs, even wearing a Peter Pan collar to a nightclub, until the very end when she finally comes into her own. The costumes in this picture were designed by Edward Stevenson,  known for his ability to enhance story without drawing attention to his own designs. He later became the favorite designer for Lucille Ball who appreciated his eye for character-driven costumes that never overpowered her considerable personality except when needed for comedic effect.

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Maureen O’Hara positively glows with her youthfulness and beauty in this early role. A mere twenty years old at the time, she had already succeeded in starring roles in two motion pictures, this being her fifth film.

For Lucille Ball, the road to fame was a much longer, arduous process. Almost unbelievably this was Ms. Ball’s 60th film, with many more to come before she finally achieved stardom as Mrs. Ricky Ricardo in the famed I Love Lucy television series. The series was a love child for Lucille Ball and her husband Desi Arnaz.

Based on a story by Vicky Baum and a script by the frequent screenwriting partnership of Tess Slesinger and Frank Davis (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) Dance, Girl, Dance definitely showcases the perspective of the women who created it and the men who supported their vision.

Recommended, for knowledge of woman in film, lovers of Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball and sheer entertainment. 

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Notes and Extras

  • Bosley Crowther at the New York Times didn’t particularly care for this one, citing it as “a saga of glamour-struck chorines to end all sagas of said glamour-struck chorines” and not in a flattering way.  He does have a few kind words for Lucille Ball.
  • Yet this film is gaining in esteem and this is reflected over at Streamline, the Filmstruck Blog.  David Kalat gives it a fair amount of space and good words, in addition to exploring some other movies in the ‘small town girl hoping to make good’ genre.
  • Crowther also withheld praise from Too Many Girls, Desi Arnaz’s first film, co-starring his new bride, Lucille.  The influential critic had better words for her than for Arnaz who he panned horribly describing him as a “a noisy, black-haired Latin whose face unfortunately lacks expression and whose performance is devoid of grace”.  Needless to say Arnaz persevered.
  • The couple not only persevered but went on to buy  the very property where this was shot, along with the rest of RKO’s soundstages and backlots, subsuming them into the massive empire that became Desilu Studios.
  • Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz actually met during the filming of Dance, Girls, Dance.  Due to the strenousness of filming a morning into afternoon vicious catfight between O’Hara and Ball, shooting was stopped, freeing up the latter for the remainder of the day. Lucy casually strolled over to a stage where the cast of Too Many Girls, already in the planning stages, was gathered.  Desi’s quick eye caught hers and he proceeded to not only show her his rumba but asked her to dinner for the evening.  As Lucy later recalled “we were in love almost immediately”.
  • Lucy and Desi were married on November 30, 1940, three months after the release of Dance, Girl, Dance.  For more on their breath-taking relationship and professional partnership, Lucy & Desi: The Legendary Love Story of Television’s Most Famous Couple by Warren G. Harris is highly recommended.
  • Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball became fast friends during the filming of this picture and remained so until Ball’s death in 1989.  O’Hara, nine years her junior, outlived her by twenty-six years.
  • Costume designer Edward Stevenson first worked with Ball on That Girl From Paris (1936), another RKO film. When seeking a designer for her television show I Love Lucy, Ball sought him out.  He worked for her until his death from cardiac arrest in 1968. At the time, Stevenson had placed a called to Desilu to consult upon a fabric. When Ball got to the phone, she was informed he’d been stricken.
  • Director Roy Del Ruth was initially assigned to direct this film, but left the production, causing Arzner to scramble and pull the film together and quickly.
  • Dorothy Arzner was well-suited to pulling things together.  As the only female director working in the 1930’s, she was adaptable.  Arzner was the first woman to direct a sound film and the first to join the Directors Guild of America.
  • Dance,Girl, Dance is available for streaming through Amazon, to either rent or purchase.  Choices, choices.
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Dorothy Arzner with Lucille Ball on set

Of Devotion and Decency: When Ladies Meet (1933)

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A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Production ~  Director: Harry Beaumont and Robert Z. Leonard, Based on a play by Rachel Crothers, Screenplay by John Meehan and Leon Gordon, Art Director: Cedric Gibbons,  Costume Designer: Adrian

What a clever movie this is, made by a clever group of people.  By emphasizing tasteful costumes, set designs and repartee, it comfortably explores the sometimes tawdry complications between the sexes without the slightest hint of vulgarity or tacky dis-ease.   It is a fine example of the sometimes sophisticated adult nature of early 1930’s film.

When Ladies Meet offers some witty dialogue to elucidate the relations between men and women and marriage.  Disguised initially as light banter the script soon reveals itself to be a crackling social commentary on sex outside of marriage particularly that within the confines of infidelity which turns out to be just as constricting for the women involved as marriage itself. Careful viewing reveals a multitude of sexy double entendres.

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Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy~When Ladies Meet, personal collection

Robert Montgomery plays journalist and man about town Jimmy, smitten with author Mary, portrayed with determined naiveté by Myrna Loy.  Mary’s heart is committed to her editor, Rogers, a measured and middle-agedly handsome Frank Morgan, working against type as an intelligent yet shallow married man who enjoys variety in his relations with women. He is married to Clare, depicted by a solid, yet poignant Ann Harding, a bright, pragmatic and supportive spouse who has tolerated his affairs thus far. His dalliances are long-lasting but short-term and if that seems a contradiction it is; Morgan’s Rogers is a man whose true character is hidden from the women with whom he nurtures bonds, playing upon their loyalty and love to keep his own world an interesting one.  The inherent selfishness in his maneuvers only becomes clear once the extent of his deception and truth about his intentions is laid bare.  Jimmy has his number all along.

Jimmy is an interesting one too.  It is a testament to Montgomery’s appeal that he is able to say lines like the following and still retain the audience’s sympathy:

Mary:  You don’t know anything about women.

Jimmy:  Oh yes I do. All kinds, good and bad, straight and loose.  Some of the loose are the best; they’re honest anyway.  A woman pretends to be decent and isn’t, she’s just a so and so. When she’s good she’s good, when she’s bad she’s bad and that’s all there is to it.

Mary: Oh that’s just Victorian bunk.  You’re even out of touch with your own sex Jimmy.

Jimmy: Would you do what that girl in your book does?

Mary: A book’s a book.

Jimmy:  A man wants a decent woman to stay decent.  And if she doesn’t he bawls her out for doing the one thing that he’d always told her was the greatest thing a woman can do: giving him all for love.  Your girl ever did what she’d wanted to do the guy’d get so sick of her in about a year he’d poke her in the nose.  Gosh, I’ve persuaded so many women and hated ‘em afterwards.

Montgomery delivers these last lines with a bit of skillful staging.  Loy has her back to him as she deftly arranges a vase of flowers, precluding her from having to react, and sparring us the reaction shots that would overemphasize statements that are slipped in casually yet pointedly.  We are left then with our own reactions and glimpse into this man’s double standards, as he proceeds with what seems at times to be a monologue.  These sentiments were not unusual but what was unusual was that they were generally left unspoken.  This scene begins stripping away the romanticism of this tale before it has even begun.  But this exchange also underscores the motivation for him to essentially rescue Mary from a compromising affair with Rogers.  It’s not just that he’s in love with her.  It’s that he perceives her as one of the decent ones and despite her resolute devotion to Rogers he is determined to keep her on the good side of morality. Montgomery’s playfulness thinly veils the worldly cynicism of a man who has ‘lived,’ (hence the journalist occupation, which we never actually see him perform), and able to discern the motivations of another sophisticated man.

The film is based upon a stage play by Rachel Crothers who empathizes with her female characters and the situations that may develop due to their trusting natures.  Crothers’ women as shown here are straightforward, forthright and unabashedly honest, even regarding matters of sexual liaisons.  They expect the same from their men but don’t always get it.

The film retains some of its stage bound confines, primarily due to the heavy reliance upon dialogue.  There is little if any action but much is implied.  The plot moves by way of situations and arranged meetings, some by chance, some by deliberate machination.  The conversation above takes place in a beautiful enclosed garden with the couple then moving to a sunny terrace.  There we meet our comic relief Bridget (Alice Brady), a modern woman with a knowing way with a bon mot, a raised eyebrow and a man.  She punctuates scenes with humor and adds sardonic irony in a manner that sometimes makes us wonder if she fully knows the true import of her statements.  My guess would be she does.  She has a companion who seems to be little more than a bedmate, Walter (“Well I’m going back to bed. Come along Walter!”), played with amused youthful ambiguity by Martin Burton, who she dominates. His presence further breaks up this film’s dramatic moments, which come fast and furious as the film progresses.

The country house where the final half of the movie takes place is beautiful, with a lovely attention to detail, and a relaxed elegance that perfectly fits its characters and cast.  It is not surprising to find that Cedric Gibbons was nominated for an Oscar for Best Art Direction for When Ladies Meet, one of thirty-eight such nominations.  His sumptuous set design keeps the eye busy, despite the constraints of the confined cottage, which mirrors our characters predicaments.

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As expected by the title, Rogers women come together in a meeting of the minds, discussing the novel alluded to above in such a way that Clare begins to understand that the book is not entirely fictional. Harding is heroic and knowing, sometimes a bit too focused on the distant horizon with her delivery but able to quietly convey a strong woman whose world is falling apart while she does not. Loy is unabashed and perfectly natural in her part, seeming to channel her true self and her own clear-eyed Midwestern idealism.  It’s always a delight to find Morgan playing the straight man.  His true acting abilities shine, generally through eyes that convey resignation,  irritation, detachment or a mixture of all three.  He conveys a great deal in a quick glance.  It is fun to see this smart group of people play off one another.

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As sometimes is so, Montgomery is the smartest one in the picture.  Weaving deftly between his fellow actors, his expressive face handles comedic moments with a bit of exaggerated emphasis, reminding one of a narrator in centuries old play.  Montgomery can be a bit of a scene-stealer without detracting from the film.

There’s some unpredictability in this little pre-Code number that sets it apart from many films of the Golden Age, and a fresh sensibility regarding women and the hazards of sexual freedom in a world still managed by men. It is this type of film whose loss I sometimes mourn the most with the advent of the strict enforcement of the Production Code.

Recommended, especially for lovers of language and melodrama.

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This post is a part of “The TCM 2016 Summer Under the Stars” Blogathon hosted by Kristen Lopez of Journeys in Classic Film

 

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Notes and Extras

  • This film is available through Amazon as a part of Warner Archive Collection’s Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 9.
  • Mick LaSalle has some discussion regarding this one in his outstanding book Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, relishing in the movies frank and refreshing approach to marriage.  LaSalle notes that the movie “remains on the side of the women – both women – while the philandering man is the villain”.  This is indeed one of the delights of this film.
  • Movies were made very quickly in the 30’s, particularly in the early years.  While saying little about the actual making of this movie, Myrna Loy notes in her fascinating autobiography Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming, that she, Montgomery and Alice Brady “became a little coterie of three, occasionally going to [Brady’s] house or having something to eat after work.  That kind of easy camaraderie is rare in pictures”.
  • Harding and Loy had previously worked together in The Animal Kingdom, with the male lead being Leslie Howard, and Myrna again playing the other woman, yet with an entirely different outcome. Loy writes that although When Ladies Meet gave them several scenes together, Harding was a withdrawn person, a wonderful actress lacking a star temperament, a good quality in a co-worker but a very private woman.
  • Director Harry Beaumont directed a multitude of silent films, including the Joan Crawford break-out film, Our Dancing Daughters (1928).  His first sound film The Broadway Melody (1929) won the Best Picture Oscar in 1930. There were sixteen more films, four with Joan Crawford before this one, with eleven more movies to follow.  He helmed a whopping ninety-nine films during his lengthy directorial career.
  • Playwright Rachel Crothers was known as the leading female playwright of her time.  Additional work adapted for the screen included the Norma Shearer pre-Code, Let Us Be Gay (1930), another film about a husband’s infidelity and a wife’s response.  Interestingly enough, the film was first a play, later adapted by  Lucille Newmark and Francis Marion, both women, infusing this successful Shearer starring vehicle with a female-centric point of view.  Similarly to Crothers’ achievement in the theater, Marion would become known as the premier female screenwriter of the Golden Age of Hollywood, if not the 20th Century.
  • Loy and Montgomery maintained a casual life-long friendship only slightly inhibited by their later political differences.  While Myrna was a  politically-active liberal and friend to Eleanor Roosevelt,  Montgomery switched parties sometime after the war, later becoming a great support to Eisenhower, so much so that he had his own office in the White House.  He was in essence the first presidential media consultant in the new age of television, a revolutionary in his time.  In their patriotism and commitment to the United States, they had very much in common.  Loy described him as witty, silly and just as great fun offset as he was on screen. Loy later wrote how she wished she would’ve had more opportunities to work with him – “there were so many other things we could’ve done together”.  How wonderful that would’ve been for us!

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Fateful Travels: Union Depot (1932)

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A First National Pictures Production ~  Director: Alfred E. Green, Based on a play by Joe Laurie Jr., Gene Fowler and Douglas Durkin, Screenplay by Kubec Glasmon, John Bright, Kenyon Nicholson and Walter DeLeon, Art Director: Jack Oakey,  Costume Designer: Earl Luick

Union Depot Title

Money plays such a starring role in Union Depot that it deserves credit in the opening titles. Flowing smoothly from the first shot of the depot with a brief superimposed title sequence, the camera pans from the outside activity to the inside in a lovely long tracking shot that sweeps the vast space and then leads down to the small vignettes occurring inside.  It’s a lovely panorama that pulls us into the heart of the story.  Opening vignettes and glimpses into passersby and passengers tip a hand to the films knowing, cynical humor and snappy, swirling tempo.

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As the story unfolds, it is discovered that Chic, the dashing Douglas Fairbank Jr. and his fellow hobo, Scrap Iron, Warner’s fixture Guy Kibbee, have just been released from a 10-day stint in jail for vagrancy. By six that evening they find themselves at the depot. Fate, making its entry, intervenes. Across Chic’s path comes first a uniform, then a fortuitous conversation with an inebriated salesman, Frank McHugh in a short but memorable bit, so comically fixated upon his WWI reminiscences that he momentarily forgets his travel bag. Chic’s good fortune continues as Fairbanks is able to miraculously and perfectly fit into McHugh’s suit (!) and clean up a bit with a shaving kit. He also handily pockets some cash he finds conveniently tucked away. Chic has an opportunity to speak up about the cash as the bag is quickly retrieved but he just laughs; his first instinct is to fill his hungry belly. His second is to find a woman.


The young and luminous Ruth, a wide-eyed curvaceous Joan Blondell, appeals to him. They make quick conversation that leads them to a private room. Ruth conveys her hesitancy. She needs the money, $64 in fact, yet his assumption she’s a prostitute is an error, although she’s too desperate to let him know. We find that out just as he does: by the tears streaming down her face as he proceeds towards fulfilling what he believes is the plan and his own desires. Abruptly he slaps her once he realizes the truth of her situation, admonishing that she might not have been so lucky and could’ve found herself alone in a room with a man that wouldn’t have stopped. Ruth is a down-on-her-luck chorine, recovering from a broken ankle and in desperate need of money to rejoin her traveling company.  Not only is she in need of cash, she is also keeping ahead of the advances of a lecherous deviant who has finagled her into reading stories of an increasingly salacious nature.  Her fears are well founded as he is indeed revealed to be stalking her. Chic is at first interested in the sordid tale then concerned.  But first things first.  She’s hungry too and devours the meal he purchases for her.  He downs the liquor himself.


Chic has moments of jarring harshness, particularly in the beginning of the film.  He is conniving and thieving, scrappy and tough. Sometimes rough with women he can be good to them too. He has moments of decency and those come when he backs away from the things he might’ve done, such as he does with Ruth and later the things he does do. The strength of his character slowly emerges throughout the evening, unfolding just as the story does during a single night. As he gets used to the feel of money in his pocket and knows he’s got more stashed away, fate intervening again via a violin case stuffed with counterfeit bills, he grows a bit kinder and softens about the edges. Apparently having a full belly and a woman to look upon you as her “Santey Claus”, can put a bit of confidence into a man and allow for some magnanimity.


Despite being paired with this fellow traveler, we never see a similar change in Scrap Iron. Granted he’s a soft enough character to begin with, worn by time and trouble, and never having possessed Chic’s intelligence or charm. Yet it is of note that he is never seen to dine. In fact in the opening scene with these two, Chic reaches in a pocket, likely that of the found uniform, and pops a stick of gum into his mouth, leaving Ol’ Scrap Iron just standing there, pie-eyed and drooling over a described imaginary meal. Despite having access to the found cash, his appearance never changes. He remains a man on the outside looking in.  Never satiated in any way, he wanders a capricious path. Kibbee plays this character as a bit of a sad clown, pulling tricks from his bag at improbable moments.


There’s a warm and satisfying romance at the center of this tale, helmed by two warm and charming romantic leads. Fairbanks can convey more with a grin and a tip of the head than just about anyone and Blondell shows her vulnerable side, one perhaps a bit closer to her own nature than her usual smart and sassy persona.
Surrounding this depression-era trio is a familiar cast of Warner Bros.-First National players, some uncredited. Aside from the already mentioned Kibbee and McHugh, Alan Hale, Dickie Moore, David Landau, Lillian Bond and even Lucille Laverne make an appearance. The movie is based upon a never produced play itself inspired by the successful Broadway hit Grand Hotel, already in the process of being turned into the classic 1932 film. Union Depot beat it to the punch by three months. The movie shows signs of being predicated upon the same premise, with the depot substituting for the hotel and a swirling cast of characters providing ambience. But the similarities to Grand Hotel end there. This is no glossy MGM production. The heart of this movie is in the streets, with Fairbanks playing forgotten man this time out.

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Chic shows a nice agility on his feet both in taking advantage of opportunity, seizing a moment and dodging one, and there’s a nice action sequence that demonstrates his actual physical agility too.  Jumping and veering from trains in the night, pursuing a truly bad man and turning into not only “Santey Claus” but a hero, Fairbanks Jr. echoes his father and his own gentlemanly heroics.

(Spoiler Alert)

Union Depot shows us that having the basics and a few luxuries can go a long way toward smoothing the rough edges and finding the diamond in the rough. The film was released overseas as Gentleman for a Day. With the cushioning comfort of a little dough, that is exactly who Chic is revealed to be.  By movies end, we’ve seen him for who he truly is and so has Ruth, who tells him as much. This knowledge that each has seen the good in the other, and been made a better person for the experience, makes the ending that much more bittersweet, as money, either the pursuit of it or the lack of it, continues to define their paths in life.  They share a warm kiss and embrace, exchanging the superficial kind of words that let us know they will likely never see each other again. Ruth leaves via train, Chic on foot, this time splitting a piece of gum with his road companion Scrap Iron, seemingly none the wiser, despite all that has transpired on this fateful evening.

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Highly recommended, especially for lovers of the films of 1932.

This post is a part of the “Hot and Bothered” Blogathon July 9-10, 2016 hosted by CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch and Once upon a Screen

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To read additional entries please visit: Once Upon a Screen or CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch harlow peeking red dust

Notes and Extras

  • Blonde Crazy with Jimmy Cagney was released in November 1931.  It’s success led to this second co-starring role for Blondell, who gets second billing in the opening, just below the title.  Aside from Fairbanks Jr., all other actors are credited at the end, creating a lovely immersive opening. This was Blondell’s thirteenth motion picture. By way of comparison, Fairbanks was already a veteran with this being his 42nd film!
  • Next up for Blondell was another Cagney picture, The Crowd Roars. Concern was that Union Depot wouldn’t be finished on time, so much so there was talk of potentially re-casting her part in the Cagney feature. But that was easily remedied:  Production was just started on the next film before this one was finished, leaving Joan scurrying back and forth between films.
  • Joan’s reputation as one of the  hardest working women in Hollywood was well-earned.  In 1932 alone she appeared in nine films, with next in line being Kay Francis with eight, Una Merkel with seven and Loretta Young with six.  Warner Bros.-First National Pictures knew how to work their hot properties, churning out quickly paced motion pictures in the process.
  • The opening night for Union Depot was a big one with all stars on deck and held at Warner’s Hollywood Theater.  Blondell, not usually one for an elaborate Hollywood social scene, attended dutifully, true to her consummate professionalism.
  • The film was considered a personal hit for Douglas Fairbanks Jr.  although  New York Times reviewer Mordaunt Hall noted “it is questionable whether Mr. Fairbanks’s diction is quite suited to the lowly role.  But he gives quite a satisfactory show.”  Restrained and faint praise indeed.  On the other hand, Variety , noting Chic brushes off some earlier, less substantial women,  “for Ruth…he falls with the complete sangfroid of a sophisticated drifter”.  Apparently Variety was more comfortable with the presentation of a  gentleman hobo. They use some interesting language in this review overall so it’s worth checking out. I for one, love reading a good review.
  • Disturbingly, Ruth is pursued by a perverted deviant who is obviously stalking her with extremely ill intent, however Blondell and the actor (George Rosener) actually share no scenes together.  This is perhaps a good thing. Horribly, Joan was the victim of a brutal rape before her career in entertainment began.  Detailed in her biography, Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes by Matthew Kennedy, she remained silent about it for over four decades until finally revealing it in her thinly-disguised semi-autobiographical novel, Center Door Fancy. This is one of those instances when I truly wonder how the actress felt during filming, particularly when describing her fear and desperate need to get away.
  • Fairbanks, along with Robert Montgomery, was one of the first men in Hollywood to enlist and serve in 1941, before the United States officially entered WWII. Truly a  renaissance man he lived to the age of 90.
  • For a nice peek at a much younger Fairbanks, try Loose Ankles, a 1930 early talkie with Loretta Young.  A slightly naughty teen-age rom-com, it features a twenty-one year old Fairbanks romancing a just barely seventeen year old Loretta Young.  Both are beyond cute and adorable as they get into one silly situation after another.  Incredibly he was already married to Joan Crawford at the time, having hitched his fate to hers in 1929.  They untied that knot after just four years but what a four that must have been!

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A Torn Soul: State’s Attorney (1932)

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An RKO Production~Director: George Archainbaud, Screenplay by Gene Fowler and Rowland Brown, based on a short story by Louis Stevens, Art Director: Caroll Clark

This film has two great things going for it: a tight script infused with Gene Fowler’s personal knowledge of its semi-fictionalized subject and a pitch-perfect performance by John Barrymore.  Both lend dynamic pacing to a movie that fits neatly into a then emerging pre-Code genre, the lawyer picture.  This genre seems to have found its initial flowering in 1932 when no less than three, and I would argue more, movies arrived on the scene loosely based upon then-famed criminal defense attorney, William J. Fallon, who defended the famous and infamous.  With the 1931 publication of Fowler’s popular biography of Fallon acting as starting shot, the lawyer-based courtroom drama was off and running.

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In the opening scene a tipsy defense attorney Tom Cardigan (John Barrymore) accepts 5Gs to defend a renter, a lovely lady accused of tapping on a window to procure ‘clients’, in order to protect the reputation of her landlord Vanny Powers.  As apparently this technique was standard procedure for ladies of the evening, Cardigan has no difficulty understanding what is required. And so he delivers, establishing his courtroom finesse and way with women and juries, the judge being female, manipulating one and then the other with essentially fabricated nonsense.

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Seeing Barrymore as a lawyer is akin to watching an arm slip into a sleeve. His penchant for delivering snappy dialogue and his engaging manner render him entirely believable. His theatrical nature gave him a fondness for make-up, eye make-up in particular, quite evident in the very first scene,  a holdover from his silent days. While this doesn’t bother me, in fact I would prefer to see more men in eye make-up, it does remind us that we are watching The Great Profile at work. This is either good or bad depending upon how you feel about his theatrical style.

 

Cardigan defends the tapping young woman and things being what they are she accompanies him back to his private apartment. The chemistry between these two establishes their relationship pretty quickly.  There’s only a minute or two before he is slowly removing her jacket and seductively kissing her, to which she responds “you have a nice mouth”.  One gets the sense that Cardigan has done this before.  Yet it’s a nice set up scene and establishes the dynamic between these two; it’s different this time. Pretty June Perry (Helen Twelvetrees) is not only lovely but warm and  good-hearted, as many women of the night are apt to be in pre-Code films, and soon is Cardigan’s paramour.  Twelvetrees is able to convey emotional depth and is truly moving in many of her scenes.

Powers is soon shot leading to a hospital bedside suggestion that Cardigan could be more help to his pal on the other side of the law, in the prosecutor’s office as opposed to handy DA. Cardigan makes it clear to the thug, “If I go on the other side, I’ll stay there”. There are soon hints that this proposed prosecutors position also holds the possibility of an eventual governorship. Unfortunately for June, the governor has a daughter.

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At this point June’s deep love and affection for Cardigan has been well-established. During their time together he is loyal and comes home faithfully to her. He is sweet and adoring.  They understand one another. Despite his cynicism we understand that there is a bond between these two and a gentle playfulness. He provides nicely for her despite a lack of vows and she adapts to a more comfortable lifestyle.  Her gowns are stylish yet soft and feminine.  But he is an ambitious man and when the governor’s daughter, Lillian Ulrich (Jill Esmond) begins to make an overt play for him, it’s not surprising that he begins to stray, particularly given his love for the bottle and someone to share it with.

Throughout this film, Cardigan is essentially portrayed as a man who has been led by events. While ambitious, his career path has been determined by his checkered past and reform school history with Powers. He falls easily into a relationship with an easy woman and just as easily into one with an assertive one.

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Lillian in her very first scene is depicted as a ‘modern’ woman and a dangerous one at that.  She’s attired in a jacket, white collared shirt and tie and wearing a brimmed hat (an outfit echoed years later in the early balcony scenes of Annie Hall where a very similar costume conveys a very different message). She finds Cardigan’s ties to the underworld exciting and appears to be drawn to him merely for her own entertainment, finding him “thrilling”. In their introductory meeting we learn Cardigan will be prosecuting a woman  for the murder of her husband. Interestingly Lillian has little sympathy for the defendant but finds the case titillating while June is repelled by the thought that Cardigan may send a woman to the gallows.

Barrymore opens this second courtroom scene by holding a steady gaze upon the defendant, Nora Dean (Mary Duncan), who accuses him of staring at her legs. As he replies quite plainly “I’m not staring at your legs Madam, I’m looking at your soul”, Lillian pulls her dress down. Apparently she’s not so certain that she would like him to see her own soul.

While the script is truly a good one, it is Barrymore’s masterful working of this fairly lengthy courtroom scene that gives it it’s power. He handles the blunt weight and apparent murder weapon, in such a way as to force a confession from the defendant, tapping not only upon the rail of the jury box but on the metal frame of the very bed where she slept, gave birth, made love and eventually murdered her husband. The tension continually builds as he literally has her, the jury and the audience squirming in their seats. As this high-profile case begins to pave his way to the governorship June expresses her concern that Cardigan is losing his moral bearings. This is an interesting twist as despite his being on the right side of the law , she sees through to the darkening of his soul.  Once he expresses that if acting as defense he could’ve gotten the defendant off in a hot minute, June begins to lose respect for him, leaving this weak man vulnerable to finding admiration elsewhere.

 (Spoilers Ahead)

Of course things get messy with the governor’s daughter as well as with the extremely shady Powers. When Cardigan won’t play by Powers rules and lay off on charges against his right hand man, he threatens to expose their shared past in reform school, potentially derailing the path to the governorship. There’s a hasty, regretted marriage and the loss of a true love. An obviously drunken Cardigan impulsively marries Lillian, sobers up and regrets it knowing that he’s lost a woman of true worth for one who was merely momentarily exciting. Right and wrong again change places as the better woman is the street walker, the socialite a cold-hearted, empty beauty.  A dissent into further alcohol abuse leads to a seedy road and political gain but at a cost to our hero’s soul. The man is torn.

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Eventually in the third and final courtroom scene Cardigan is forced to make a decisive decision and actually determine his own path. No longer able to straddle the thin line between right and wrong, virtue and pragmatic immorality, he chooses integrity and is rewarded with a return to respect and love.

This film contains a number of scenes and dialogue of a decidedly pre-Code nature.  Here are just a few:

~After an intentionally direct kiss at his apartment following his defense of June, Cardigan needs to leave to collect his $5,000 from Powers.  Her last words as he departs with his coat: “What do you want for breakfast?”  Barrymore’s long, lingering and suggestive look tells us not only that he understands her meaning but exactly what he’d like.

~The murder weapon in the Nora Dean murder trial is a phallic-shaped weight that Cardigan taps rhythmically upon the marital bed.

~When Cardigan asks Lillian if she’s ever been in love she ascertains that he’s seeking to know some intimate information. She whispers in his ear and then pulls away asking “That’s what you wanted to know?”  He replies, “That helps a lot” as he wraps his arms around her and pulls her into himself on the dance floor.

~June and Tom’s relationship is clearly one where they are living together without the benefit of a license.  In fact June seems well aware that she doesn’t consider herself marriage material, not being a nice girl and anticipating “nicer girls” to come, even though Cardigan has let her know “I don’t like nice girls”.

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~After marrying Lillian and regretting it, Cardigan states “June, it’s funny.  I never realized what a beautiful thing marriage could be, until tonight. That’s one ceremony I’ve never been through.  What a woman means to a man, and a man to a woman. And when I looked around, it wasn’t you…standing there… beside me”. The relationship between these two couldn’t be clearer. June stands her ground and sardonically responds, “I’m not one of your juries Tom”.

There is an economy of dialogue, story and editing that keeps this film moving at a brisk clip, with rarely a wasted movement, gesture or line. Yet it is the small touches that propel the story, set a quick pace, and make this film a fun watch.  Barrymore’s entertaining flourishes, Twelvetrees’ pretty sensuality and a satisfying ending are details that seal the deal.

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Recommended.

This post is a part of the “Order In the Court!” Blogathon June 10-13, 2016 hosted by Cinemaven’s Essays from the Couch and Second Sight Cinema

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To read additional entries please visit:  https://cinemavensessaysfromthecouch.wordpress.com/2016/06/10/order-in-the-court-now/

harlow peeking red dustNotes and Extras

  • Primary writer Gene Fowler wrote a biography of not only William J. Fallon but also subsequently another:  Good Night, Sweet Prince: The Life and Times of John Barrymore.  A long-time friend and drinking buddy, Fowler was also a member of the Bundy Drive Boys, a loosely-knit pre-Rat Pack Hollywood boys club that got its name from the location of their gatherings.  It included such hard-living souls as Errol Flynn, W. C. Fields, Thomas Mitchell, Roland Young, John Carradine, Ben Hecht, a young Anthony Quinn and various other artists and writers.  While their primary point of cohesion was alcohol they also shared many other ‘philosophies’ of living.  For a more detailed account try Hollywood’s Hellfire Club: The Misadventures of John Barrymore,  W.C. Fields, Errol Flynn and “the Bundy Drive Boys” by Gregory William Mank with Charles Heard and Bill Nelson.
  • Fowler also wrote the screenplay for What Price Hollywood?, whose main lead, played beautifully by Lowell Sherman (no stranger to alcohol himself), meets a far less redemptive fate than our hero here.  What Price Hollywood? is considered the prototype, if not the first version of each of the subsequent A Star Is Born films.  A favorite Fowler quote: “Hollywood is a place where you either ride in a Rolls Royce or are run over by one”, is reflected in the contrast between the main male leads in each of these two films.
  • Fowler was at John Barrymore’s bedside just moments before he died, testimony to their enduring friendship.  He, Lionel Barrymore and artist John Decker (whose home was host to the Bundy Drive Boys) were at John’s bedside for his final two days.  After, Fowler kept vigil at night over the body with his son Will for safekeeping until arrangements could be made. Interestingly Decker is the name of Powers right hand man in State’s Attorney.  On Bundy Drive apparently John Decker was a right hand man to many.
  • Criminal defense attorney Fallon’s most famous client, Arnold Rothstein was known for fixing the 1919 World Series among other criminal and gambling related crimes.  His partner and passionate defender (read frequent fall-guy) Nicky Arnstein was later immortalized in Funny Girl, the film depicting the life of Fanny Brice, an actress and wife who in the end found Nicky’s antics not so funny.
  • Damned in Paradise: The Life of John Barrymore by John Kobler gives this movie a scant two sentence paragraph mention.  There is actually little in print available regarding the filming of this one, probably in part due to the fact that, according to IMBd, it took a mere two weeks to shoot.  Yet despite this it netted Barrymore a sum equivalent to over $1.7 Million, a figure that attests to the star’s one-time power in Hollywood. The book does mention that a line in the film is directly attributable to Maurice Barrymore, a star of the theater himself and John’s father.  When shown a painting of a winter landscape by it’s artist and the speakeasy’s owner, Cardigan quips, “Winter isn’t as bad as it’s painted”.  When I read these types of things I always wonder just how much of what we see on screen  is attributable to John himself, building off a good (or sometimes weak) screenplay.
  • Jill Esmond, in the role of  Lillian Ulrich, was at the time of filming, Mrs. Laurence Olivier.  As many of you know, this was not going to be the last marriage for Mr. Olivier as he would soon leave Esmond for Vivien Leigh.
  • I perked up when I noted the name Ulrich, especially when I saw it in bold in a newspaper headline.  There was a prominent society family at the time in Grosse Pointe, (a suburb just barely outside of Detroit) by the name of Ulrich.  I only know this because I happen to be related to them.  So I checked the writers.  Sure enough writer Rowland Brown studied at the University of Detroit and the Detroit School of Fine Arts.  Funny thing, a pretty brunette granddaughter of the Ulrichs did eventually marry a grandson of James J. Couzens, a former Mayor of Detroit and  Senator,  connecting herself to a political family.  His son was also Mayor after him.  A funny case of the movies having a strangely predictive tendency.  Or just a crazy coincidence. And while the newspaper (and IMBd) clearly says Ulrich, the credits change the spelling to Ulric.
  • Keep your eyes open for a brief appearance by Nat Pendleton playing a boxer who acompanies Cardigan and Lillian to a speakeasy after a fight. It just so happens that this club features a lively Theresa Harris singing her jazzy little heart out in a way too brief number.  Both are uncredited.
  • Watch the set design too in this one.  There are large beautiful rooms, such as Tom Cardigan’s apartment and later he and June’s more upscale digs, that are lovely to look at.  Just as lovely are the gorgeous gowns worn by Twelvetrees and the dresses and furs on Esmond.  Art Direction is by Caroll Clark, costume design is unfortunately uncredited.

State’s Attorney is available from Amazon, Amazon Prime or occasionally for free viewing on TCM

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A Cinematic Bon-Bon: Raffles (1930)

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An United Artists Picture, Screenplay by Sidney Howard based upon the novel by E. W. Hornung,  Director: George Fitzmaurice, Art Director: Park French

A charming confection, Raffles exists in a world that meets somewhere between the allure of the truly glamorous, a harmlessly silly aristocracy and a place where crime is non-violent and victimless.  How lovely to enter this enchanting realm from time to time.

Ronald Colman and Kay Francis portray our lovely leads and radiate romantic chemistry in the luminous lighting of cinematographers George Barnes and Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane).  The very early scenes are framed by distinctively art deco décor.  Raffles first and ostensibly last heist, takes place at night in a jewelers with a black and white checkered floor, whose windows reveal the even pace of a shadowy figure, that of a bobby on the beat.  Under his watchful eye the theft occurs and we are thus alerted to the cleverness of our protagonist.

The following scene reveals his dazzling charm and romanticism as he intimately dances with Lady Gwen (Francis) and sweeps her off her feet, enough for her to accept his proposal of marriage once they return to their table.  Pay attention to the beauty of this setting with its curling railing and illuminating sconces.  Francis’ hair is shorn short and must have seemed breathtakingly modern to audiences of the time, thereby matching this sophisticated nightspot.

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And so we are introduced to this charismatic and charming couple. Raffles is portrayed as a bit of an innocent, a man who believes he can readily walk away from his life’s passions. That turns out to be not so easily done as he is persuaded by circumstance to conduct one last heist for the sake of a good friend, Bunny (Bramwell Fletcher).  The elaborate nature of this last piece of thievery makes up the bulk of this story, whose twists and turns are fanciful and owe a great debt to convenient coincidences. No matter. When reflecting upon this film it is the smoldering charm of our gentleman thief and his adventurous and sophisticatedly glamorous leading lady that stays.

Kay Francis is breathtaking and breathless as Gwen, swooning just as we do for Raffles and his slights of hand.  Gwen inhabits a world of black satin gowns and rhinestone studded spaghetti straps; Francis wears these gowns beautifully as she always does.  This was a breakout role for Francis and established her as a woman who could hold the attentions of both her leading man and audiences.

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Keeping the story interesting are comic turns by Frederic Kerr as Lord Harry Melrose and Alison Skipworth as his wife, Lady Kitty Melrose.  The former makes it abundantly clear as to why the latter becomes so smitten with Mr. Raffles upon first meeting, helping our plot and his heist tremendously. Her obvious lust for him is quite comical and a short scene of her swooning in her sleep and speaking his name leaves no question as to where she might be at that moment.  A pre-Code film this is and thankfully so for the film drops in little bits of business like this from time to time, adding to the entertainment and increasing the sophisticated adult appeal.  It follows then that quite naturally Lady Melrose’s two little pugs (the aristocracy always has little dogs in these pre-Codes) are named Whiskey and Soda.  She is one Lady who makes her priorities quite clear.

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At one point, Raffles makes an in-vain attempt to break it off with Gwen in his own gentlemanly fashion, further endearing himself to her (and us) even more.  He is about as able to give up his passion for her as he is his lifestyle and his heists, which is not at all.

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Raffles is a fairy tale for adults, one in which a gentleman thief can not only confess to crimes and get away with them but also whisk away in the night to rendezvous in Paris with his dazzling lover, all with a wink and an admiring chuckle from Scotland Yard, whose inspector provides the closing line:  “Well, one can’t help liking him”.   And we certainly do.

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Highly recommended for film history and for fun.

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Notes and Extras

  • This was the last film made in both silent and talking versions by Samuel Goldwyn.  It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Sound (losing to Douglas Shearer for The Big House) and it shows.  The dialogue is so pleasantly decipherable that it is easy to forget that we’ve just entered the era of talking pictures.  There is a steady hiss in some scenes that adds no more than a nostalgic ambiance.  The Warner Archive DVD is lovely with deep blacks and luminous whites, with only a faint halo around cricket players in glowing athleticism in the outdoor scenes.
  • Speaking of the Oscars, Ronald Colman was nominated at the Third Academy Awards in 1930 but not for this film.  Rather he was nominated for two other performances, Bulldog Drummond (another he was to share with John Barrymore) and Condemned.
  • Kay Francis was on loan from Paramount for this one.  As was so frequently the case, this actress needed to break out of her contracted studio to gain recognition and be allowed the opportunity to shine. Francis proved to be a perfect match for Colman in sophistication, intelligence and charm.  Audiences took to her, understandably so. As Francis commented: “I didn’t really get into my stride until I played opposite Ronald Colman in Raffles”.

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  • There were at least two previous silent versions of Raffles, one starring the thrillingly handsome (at least in the silent era) John Barrymore.  There were others to follow, in particular one in 1939, with again two fantastic leads in David Niven and Olivia de Havilland.  Unfortunately this version suffers from not only being made hurriedly just prior to Niven’s departure fight for his country and join the British forces in WWII, but also from post-Code imposed changes that stomped upon tampered with the fun and charm of the 1930 Colman version.
  • Raffles is considered the proto-type gentleman thief and originated in a series of stories by E. W. Hornung based in 19th century London.  These tales were considered a bit scandalous by some due to their sympathetic, almost heroic portrayal of basically a criminal. Nevertheless folks do love their scoundrels and the character of the gentleman thief continues to be seen in such films as To Catch a Thief.  Certainly the story and Grant’s portrayal owe a debt to Raffles and there is certainly more than a little of Kay Francis in Grace Kelly’s aristocratically concealed, yet barely contained   passion and willingness to abandon all for an adventurous life as the lover of a jewel thief.  For further evidence of Raffles long reach see The Pink Panther, The Thomas Crown Affair, Oceans 11 and many others.
  • This film is based upon the play Raffles, The Amateur Cracksman, (1906) which in itself was founded upon a book compilation of the short stories, a further testament to the enduring appeal of this character and his escapades.  The book differs in a number of ways from the film versions, primarily in the depiction of class and the purposeful staging of heists. Socio-political statements, aside from the portrayals of aristocrats as somewhat silly caricatures, were excised from most film versions to maintain their frothy flavor.
  • Watch for a pretty blonde by the name of Virginia Bruce, in an uncredited role as ‘Gwen’s Friend’.
  • This movie was well-received and grossed over $1 Million, a pretty penny in those days just following The Great Stock Market Crash, otherwise known as The Great Depression. This review from Variety provides a nice perspective from the time.
  • And just between you and me, sometime during filming Kay Francis wrote in her diary, ” God, Ronnie excites me”.  Proving once again, if you had any doubts, that movie stars are only people too.  Ronald_Colman_Raffles_RCAS4

Murder and Menace: Guilty Hands (1931)

 

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An MGM Production, Director: W. S. Van Dyke with Lionel Barrymore, Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Costume Design: Rene Hubert

This early pre-Code film starts off with a bang and does not let up until it’s startling denouement. Initially the brisk pace, as is frequently the case for these early talking pictures, is dialogue driven. Lionel Barrymore perfectly plays the role of an attorney father who is compelled by his wry knowledge, familiarity with the moral complexities of justice and paternal love to commit the perfect crime to save his daughter.

The movie opens with a scene on a train in which several men are engaged in a philosophical debate as to whether murder can, in some circumstances be justified.  As a highly successful attorney, Richard Grant (Barrymore) has worked both sides of the law and knows the ins and outs of murder.  His claim that the perfect murder could be carried out with plausible justification by “a clever man…. so skillfully, so brilliantly, that he could get away with it” can hardly be disputed given his experience and expertise.  And thus we are tipped off that there is murder and menace in the air.

Barbara “Babs” Grant (Madge Evans) is introduced to us at the train station, where she awaits her father.  She is fresh and open-faced.  In lovely sweeping camerawork that follows her face and figure as she searches for and then greets her father warmly, rather surprisingly really given what is to follow, we are given our first glimpse of the sweetness of their relationship.

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Grant then enters the home of womanizing Gordon Rich (Alan Mowbray) who is interested in not only rewriting his will and paying off his previous conquests, but also in informing Grant that he has every intention of marrying his daughter. The dialogue between these two men ends with a firm “See you in hell!”, a declaration that becomes more chilling as the movie progresses.  Later it is revealed that the planned nuptials are to happen the following day.

Barbara is  viewed in the garden, speaking intimately with a young man.  Apparently she has previously given her love to Tommy (William Bakewell), now confused and pleading.  Throwing over this same age beau for the significantly older and to my mind smarmy Rich seems a bit of a stretch but who I am to question her heart; it is quickly apparent that she has indeed committed herself to marrying a man who simply will not do.  Just as her softly ruffled dress flutters in the wind, this young woman is easily swayed, and as delicate as the lilacs that surround her. Grant comes to speak to his daughter, first gently but then firmly, letting her know that they must meet privately.
Barrymore is wonderfully natural in the part of the warm yet startlingly confident and candid father. Moving from the garden to Grant’s bedroom, father and daughter engage in a remarkably intimate exchange. Babs rummages through the pockets of a jacket that is casually hooked on a bedpost. Finding little of interest to her she sits on the bed and comfortably smokes as her father ties his bow tie, even offering to help, although he scoffs at her offer of assistance. Smoking lends an adult aura to Babs, yet her innocence gives her the appearance of a child smoking candy cigarettes. She playfully lays back onto the bed. Her father asks her for a kiss, leaning over her and  kissing her as she remains in this seductive position, her eyes glancing upward and chin jaunty. The scene is accompanied by this exchange:

“Well how about giving the old man a little kiss?”  He asks rhetorically.

“Help yourself.”

“Thank you.”

“Thank you sir”, she replies, once again the little girl.

Grant immediately but tenderly confronts his daughter regarding the news of her impending marriage to Rich, a connoisseur and deceiver of women.

“This man Rich is rotten clear though. Now look here Babs, I’m not going to mince words. Rich isn’t fit to marry any woman. He’ll just bring you shame and disaster…This man you want to marry is a beast about women. I mean that literally. He’s just an animal.”

Father and daughter speak frankly about sex. He instructs her that being with this man on her wedding night, even as his wife, will be a “horror and a shame”, something that she will never live down or be able to put aside in her own mind, something that she will have to live with forever. These are powerful, intimate words that portray a rare candidness.  Earlier he has revealed how much his daughter reminds him of his late wife. The warm affection and incestuous undertone in these exchanges heightens the dramatic tension between our two male protagonists. This paternal bond is not one that will be altered easily or lightly. Once he sees that she is intractable, Grant understands that he must act and has determined to find a solution on his own.

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A dazzling display of flowers sits prominently upon the table at a dinner party, surrounded by a sophisticatedly charming and cheerful array of folks, seen as the camera pans down the center, finally reaching the host, Rich.  Grant glares, glances at Tommy and back at Rich. The flowers are telling as Babs imminent deflowering and potential loss of innocence are foremost on his mind. It is at this table that we are first made aware of the young and beautiful Marjorie West (Kay Francis). Despite her youth Marjorie displays an air of worldliness, almost weariness and elegance.  The only woman dressed in black, the straps of her gown glimmer with rhinestones.  As Rich announces his marriage to Barbara, Marjorie’s startled reaction tells us everything we need to know about her relationship to this philanderer and user of women. In the large window that provides the backdrop to this tableau we see an ominous flash of lightning.

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Cinematographer Merritt B. Gerstad frames shots that place characters, at times with their backs to us, and objects such as bouquets and lamps well into the foreground.  Scenes are layered with fore-, mid- and background neatly delineated.  This contrast moves this talking picture beyond the usual drawing room melodrama as Gerstad’s camera is an active participant in furthering the drama. Shadows and angles are utilized effectively to create menace and delineate character, with Barrymore’s stature never shown diminished, despite his morally murky decisions.

Furthering this aim of opening up a relatively static set are long lovely shots where the camera sweeps languidly around interior spaces. This is utilized most vividly just after the dinner party.  The lens sashays among lounging participants, lingering a moment and then moving on, settling first upon Marjorie, Grant, and then Tommy, each observing the affectionately engaged couple. This fluid camerawork not only creates a sense of space but also heightens the tension as a sidelong glance might between intimate acquaintances. Yet the participants remain lost in their own tormented thoughts. As the scene ends, Grant’s pain is palpable as he coaxes his daughter to the garden where “we will have a little love scene all by ourselves”.  He is not about to let her go so easily, not to this “animal “.

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Father and daughter stroll in the night air. Just prior to going off for the night they exchange two kisses with Grant encircling his daughter in his protective arm. He reassures her that everything is “going to be all right”. As she leaves for the night her voice trails off with a sweetly lilting “good night darling”, as she heads off to bed. Again the love between father and daughter is depicted as a strong bond, not easily broken by a cold-hearted adventurer. This central point must be well-established to lend credence to this narrative, with paternal devotion and protectiveness providing a solid motive for this man to proceed, despite his love of law. Based upon the opening scene, we already know that his love for justice is greater.

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Meanwhile, the case for action is strengthened as Rich explains to his long suffering yet strangely devoted lover Marjorie, in a private room with fireplace blazing, that in Barbara’s case “it has got to be marriage”, as there is no other way to have her.  However he sees his upcoming marriage as no impediment to continuing his arrangement with Marjorie.  The implication is clear: this man is a slave to his carnal desires.  He later can hardly restrain himself, seeking out Babs as she prepares to go to bed for the night, yet she firmly rebuffs him.  We see her close the door and pause. With Rich’s own motivations and his character (or lack thereof) defined, the path is well laid for the unfolding story.
I won’t give away the rest of this plot.  While it may seem pretty straightforward, this story, an original by playwright and screenwriter Bayard Veiller (playwright of Paid, 1930 and The Trial of Mary Dugan, 1929), takes many unexpected and interesting twists before coming to its dramatic, albeit somewhat far-fetched conclusion.  Although as you may have already guessed, a far-fetched conclusion is no deterrent to me in enjoying a movie, not with my love of over-the-top melodrama.

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As the movie progresses, we get a nice battle of wits and a tenacious emotional struggle between Kay Francis and Lionel Barrymore.  Francis more than holds her own against the veteran thespian and that in and of itself is exciting to see. While his enormous talent and experience lends considerable weight and finesse to his performance, her sincerity and ability to silently convey complex feelings beautifully matches his command of language and assured delivery.

In the very last moments of the film Francis is a breathtaking vision as a stream of emotions washes across her face. We see her fear, her anguish, her grief and her finely tuned sense of justice that understands that it has indeed prevailed. And she conveys all this with a minimum of dialogue during a time when dialogue was paramount in talking pictures. The essence of Francis’ enormous appeal is readily apparent in this,  one of her earlier films.

While Francis as usual wears her flowing gowns with grace and elegance, it is her skill as an actress that is most memorable.  This is not always the case with her movies, particularly as her career progressed. It is fabulous to see her in a role that respects her gifts as an actress.  While not entering the film until 15 minutes in, her performance and ability to match the artistry of Lionel Barrymore is remarkable and a pleasure to see.  In light of this raw talent her treatment by a vengeful Jack Warner (angered by a lawsuit she filed and subsequently withdrew) during the final year of her contract with the studio is even more incomprehensible and a loss to film-goers.

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This movie was so much more powerful than I expected it to be, particularly since Warner Archives hadn’t decided to make it available on DVD until the recent release of Volume 10 of their fabulous Forbidden Hollywood series. And while I’ve done considerable gushing here about Kay Francis the force of Barrymore’s performance cannot be underestimated.  He is perfect at every point.

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The quality of the solid pacing and firm direction, the artistic elements and especially the acting lift this film beyond a simple crime drama or lawyer picture, both so typical of the era.  This movie contains enough unpredictability and fabulous acting, despite its conventional murder-mystery moments, to be riveting.

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 Definitely recommended. 

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Notes and Extras

  • For an additional positive review with significant spoilers from the NYT, click here
  • At Pre-Code.Com, Danny also enjoyed the interplay between Kay and Lionel, going so far as to call it “fantastic”.
  • kayfrancisfilms.com also gives this film praise, giving considerable background information on the factors that led to its creation and the quality of the production. There are some fabulous stills and also a full plot synopsis  for those of you that find you can’t get enough!

The Barrymore Triumvirate: Rasputin and the Empress (1932)

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Photo courtesy of doctormacro.com

An MGM Production ~ Director: Richard Boleslawski , Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons and Alexander Toluboff, Costume Design: Adrian

Some years back I picked up a cocktail table book, The Romanov Family Album.  Filled with photographs, many of them taken by Czar Nicholas himself, it captured his wife and children in every day moments, engaging in simple family pursuits.  Hazy and seemingly touched by gossamer, these photos show signs of age and the newness of a budding technology, embraced by an enthusiastic photographer.  It is amazing that these photos survive and give us this glimpse into the royal realm.  It is this lost empire that is similarly glimpsed in Rasputin and the Empress.

It is fascinating to see this world depicted on the screen.  There is a generosity towards the Romanov family that knowingly understands that extended family members and friends of the royal family were still living at the time of the making of this film (although MGM probably should’ve appreciated this more fully, but more on that later).  Perhaps this accounts for this sympathetic portrait of an extremely privileged family, living an insulated, secluded life, aware only too late of the encroaching dangers. This depiction blurs the historical accuracy, to put it mildly.  Here they are shown befuddled as to what could drive the Russian people to such anger and revolt, even as thousands gather in protest. While the attention to detail is evident in costume and design, it is far less a factor in the screenplay, which could definitely be truer to actual events.

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There is much to love about Rasputin and the Empress. Most importantly for classic film fans, it is the only movie that features all three of the legendary Barrymore siblings, John, Ethel and Lionel. It is thrilling to see this trio together. Secondly, there is no doubt this is an MGM production. Perhaps due to the nearness of events, a wonderful attention to detail has been shown.  The set design is beautiful, rich and layered. The gowns are sumptuous, beaded and laced. The uniforms* are impeccable and beautifully made. There is drama and romance, action and intrigue, star wattage and larger than life performances.  Rasputin has the MGM touch and it shows.

Yet one wonders if Rasputin’s curse wasn’t upon the entire affair. There was a change of directors midway, a half-written script that was delivered to the actors in the mornings, and lawsuits post-production that ultimately amounted to pay offs of approximately $1 million dollars to extended family members, who objected to the creative license engaged in by the film makers.**

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Reportedly Ethel was apprehensive and nervous regarding her involvement.  Having appeared in silent films from 1914-1919 (and setting aside a 1926 home movie), she had spent the intervening years in the theater, returning for this, her first talking picture, following much persuasion and with the promise the film would be shot according to schedule.  As is so frequently the case it was not, and following her contracted eight week shoot Ethel departed for the East Coast and theatrical commitments.  But no matter.  Much of the tension and action occurs between the brothers as they duke it out on screen with dueling dramatics and sibling stunts designed to scene steal and each over-act the other, first one, then the other and back again.  They succeed beautifully.

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Surprisingly, John did not end up in the role of Rasputin, luckily avoiding a resurrection of his performance in Svengali (1931).  Rather he ends up as the romantic lead and rightfully so. It is certainly difficult to imagine Lionel, who despised playing romantic roles, as the aristocratic Prince Chegodieff, (a thinly disguised portrayal of an actual living Prince by the name of Yusupov), fiancé to Natasha, a Romanov niece depicted by lovely British theater actress Diana Wynyard in her film debut. Chegodieff not only shows depth of feeling towards his beloved but also towards the entire Imperial family.  He is warm and protective, providing respectful, well-intended guidance.  When that proves ineffective however, he turns to more drastic direct methods.  Refreshingly, John plays this part with greater dignity and reflection than many of his other roles of this period.  Still marvelously handsome, and remarkably so, we are afforded many glimpses of his famously perfect left profile, (probably far too many actually) and even at the age of fifty he is able to convincingly woo the young Natasha, throwing in just a hint of luscious naughtiness in a sweet early scene.

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Ethel’s portrayal of the Czarina is filled with a great deal of emotion, her maternal love mingled with self-possession. Much of her performance is conveyed through her deep, dark eyes, whose warmth and sensitivity soften her regal poise. Her delivery is slow and measured, yet sometimes so much so she seems rooted to the floor. As she was known to base her portrayal upon her personal acquaintance with the Empress, it is difficult to know how much of this reserve is a royal visage or Ethel’s own trepidation regarding her return to film. Despite John’s reassurances that the cinematographer could work wonders, she was no doubt concerned that her five year absence would be evident upon a silver screen that so adored the luminous perfection of youth.  Rasputin was her first encounter with the stylistic changes required for talking pictures, and the subsequent softening of her stage voice worked well to convey a loving, concerned and dignified presence.

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Lionel in contrast seems to have had great fun with the evil machinations and malevolence of Rasputin.  Playing with his beard (so ever present!) and engaged in wild-eyed manipulations, he becomes emboldened as his influence upon the Romanov’s, in particular the young heir apparent, the Czarevitch Alexei, (Tad Alexander), grows stronger.  It’s riveting to watch Lionel throw himself into this role, relishing the opportunity to act his heart out and doing so in friendly competition with his brother and sister. I loved seeing Lionel’s lively, intelligent eyes behind all that make up and a beard, seeming to have a life of its own, floating in mid-air as he menacingly masticates his lines. His attempted seduction of royal daughter Maria is unbelievably creepy and the subsequent ravishing of Natasha even more so (though much has been left on the cutting room floor).  Of course, this being a pre-Code film, he slaps Natasha as he cruelly diminishes her. Lionel could do kindly well, as he did in You Can’t Take It With You, but if you think of ‘Ol Mr. Potter (It’s a Wonderful Life), he could do evil even better.  Add crazy and he could definitely steal a scene.

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So steal away he does and while enjoyable, it does tend to give the movie a bit of an uneven pace. Between Ethel’s refined restraint, John’s debonair devotion and Lionel’s wild-eyed Rasputin, I sometimes felt as if I were watching this trio in several different movies.  Each performs beautifully but the whole is somewhat less than its parts.  This would appear to be not the fault of the Barrymores, who truly seem to devote their significant talents to this production, but rather to a sense of disconnect, not just between actors but between scenes.  I was left with a vague suspicion that these talented thespians in large part directed themselves. Not quite true, but with the Barrymores you never know.

Given this unevenness, it’s hardly surprising to discover that shooting began with daily rewrites and an unfinished script. It was only at Ethel’s emphatic insistence that Charles MacArthur, later known for Gunga Din, Wuthering Heights and His Girl Friday, was finally brought in to pull together a messy screenplay already touched by at least twelve other screenwriters. The unevenness remains however and much of the plot moves through expository dialogues and sometimes monologues, delivered by Rasputin.  His hold over the family is portrayed as mostly through the children, less through the Empress, furthering the historical inaccuracy.  How I would’ve loved to have seen Lionel attempt to work his maniacal charms over Ethel!

(Spoiler Alert)

Yet despite these caveats, this is an entertaining film.  There’s a fantastic scene between the Prince and Rasputin, who finally come to blows, the fighting going from table, to fireplace, to window, to wall, further wrestling and then out to the snow and ice.  Whether this traversing about was planned or improvised it’s hard to tell but it’s a knock-down drag-out.  John tries about six different ways to kill his brother in this scene, finally yelling in extreme exasperation “Why don’t you die?!?” and as Rasputin rises again, “Get back in hell!!” This is the stuff of high melodrama and tragicomedy and I enjoyed every minute of it; it’s the high point in a relatively somber film.

In one of the final scenes we hear an exchange between the Czar (Frank Morgan) and the Prince:

“Your majesty, I never believed that madman before. But one thing he said is roaring in my brain. He said when he died, Russia died. I’m afraid the cancer has been removed too late. We’re already destroyed”.

“No Paul. Russia is too great to be destroyed by any one man…… We have never injured our people … They will never injure us”.

These words frame the mindset of the royal family in perhaps the truest moment of the film. The Romanovs from all accounts, did not believe the love of the people would be entirely lost and yet, more untrue words were never spoken. It was not any one man, it was many.

 

Many of us know the end of this sad story and it’s certainly a cautionary tale, one of miscalculation by those who should know better, and yet are so insulated they are blind to the dangers encircling them.  Secluded and cocooned in their wealth and privilege, they seem uncertain and unknowing, oblivious to the struggles of the people and confused as to how they might help.  Every time we see these characters view their subjects, it’s from high above, too far removed, until the final moments.

 

This movie ends with a radiantly back-lit Russian Orthodox cross. The Romanovs were in fact, canonized and given saintly status by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1981. Recognized as martyrs who died for their strong and unceasing faith, it is yet this very faith that contributed to their compulsion to believe in the false teachings and guidance of Rasputin. There is no doubt that this movie attempts to portray the family favorably, in keeping with these Russian Orthodox views. While many in the western world might view this monarchy at best as antiquated and at worst as oppressive, there were others that viewed the annihilation of the last Imperial family of Russia with great alarm and despair. Certainly it was the end of royal reign as it had traditionally been known. The assassination of the House of Romanov realized the modernization of monarchy and the end of an era.

 

 

So perhaps, after all, it is this sense of distant rumblings that Ethel is trying to convey most of all in her tender portrayal of the Czarina. The Romanovs enjoyed life, neglectful of the needs of the countrymen over which they ruled. They danced, they played, they swam, they sang, they took photographs of it all and they were beautiful. We are presented here with not still photographs but moving images of a misguided family, filled with unfailing religious fervor and blind trust, insensible not only to the dangers without but to the dangers within, trusting those who might intend to manipulate and possess. Their faith in Rasputin, a false visionary with his own brand of mysticism, a fantastical belief in the Russian people and an aged, ancient system, ultimately led to their downfall.  The insularity of privilege and elitism is a dangerous perch upon which to build one’s nest. Here, the people in the street prevailed, if only for a time.

Rasputin and the Empress gives us a small glimpse, despite its historical inaccuracies, into a lost time. For that and for the view it gives us of the extraordinary Barrymore triumvirate, it is well-worth a view.

Definitely Recommended

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* If you’ve ever wondered about the inspiration for the uniforms in the Land of Oz look no further than the winter uniforms of  Czarevitch Alexei and the Royal Guard as depicted here.  Obviously MGM’s Wizard of Oz borrowed a little from this royal dynasty.

** Interestingly, the obligatory disclaimer disavowing “any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental”  that we now  see at the start of most releases is a result of these lawsuits with extended family.

harlow peeking red dustNotes and Extras

In her autobiography Memories, Ethel Barrymore recalled an evening out during the filming of Rasputin:

 I remember going to the “premiere” of a picture, the first one I had ever seen. This one  in the middle of the depression was very different from those that I had heard and read about when the bystanders applauded the people who drive by them in big cars. This time there was no applause.  The onlookers on the sidewalks were silent and sullen as people wearing furs and jewels rode by them in the big cars.  It was a very uncomfortable experience. 

Rasputin did not do well as the box-office. It lost more than one million dollars, and had cost more than two million to make. MGM general counsel J. Robert Rubin remarked “The damn thing stinks.  Audiences won’t go near it”.  Perhaps it was difficult for depression era audiences to feel sympathetic towards a wealthy privileged ruling family that was so obviously out of touch with the needs of the common people. Producing this film during  the depths of the great depression may not have been the best timing. I can only imagine the audience confusion as to where their sympathies should lie.

The history and background drama surrounding the Romanovs, the making of the film and the Barrymore family are actually more interesting than the movie.  If you would like to explore further:

  •  Pre-Code.com does a great job of providing some historical background and further thoughts about the movie and its comedic undertones. He takes a look at the imbalances in the film, while acknowledging the fun of seeing these three chew the scenery.
  • Meanwhile Aurora at Once Upon a Screen beautifully describes Ethel’s relationship with her brothers, family dynamics and more about her impressions of the film. Her lovely words inspired me to promptly get my hands on a copy of Memories.
  • If you are a Royalphile or just fascinated by those romantic Romanovs, The Romanov Family Album by Marilyn Pfeiffer Swezey is filled  with vintage photographs of a lost time and place.  Reminiscent of seeing vestiges of the Titanic or remains from Pompeii, it’s a book I have treasured for years for its glimpse into a world that is gone forever.
  • Prince Yusupov actually had a hand in the killing of Rasputin.  While he didn’t seem to mind that detail in the film he did apparently object to the inference that his wife had been raped by Rasputin (apparently she had never even met him), resulting in much editing and more hinting at shame than anything else.  Ethel had intimidated that the extended royal family, now living primarily in France, might object to this plot development but once she returned to New York, MGM proceeded with the story-line that would ultimately lead to lawsuits and a very expensive out of court settlement.
  • MGM’s fantastic in-house Art Director Cedric Gibbons was beautifully assisted by the Russian-born Alexander Toluboff, who had studied Russian architecture in St. Petersburg. Toluboff went on to three nominations for Art Direction, all in the latter 1930’s.
  • This film marks not only Diana Wynard’s film debut but the first in her newly signed contract with MGM.

Take Your Place At the Table: Dinner At Eight*

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An MGM Production ~ Director: George Cukor, Screenplay:  Francis Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz from the stage play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, Art Director: Hobe Erwin and Frederic Hope, Costume Designer: Adrian

Dinner At Eight is a movie that sneaks up on you. I found myself taking an interest in the characters right away and yet the association between many of these players is oh so slowly established, at least for a pre-Code film. I believe that speaks to the array of talent that parades across the screen. It seems like every time someone opens a door or answers the phone a new star enters the picture. MGM threw the stable at this one and ended up with a gem.

The movie takes place in a series of vignettes with characters and stories intersecting on- and off-screen in sometimes relatively separate ways until the final few scenes. There are as many stories here as there are seats at the table and a number of smaller side ones that intersect.  Tantalizingly we hear about a dinner party throughout this entire film which never occurs in front of our eyes. The promise is held before us. Time and time again it is referenced and yet we never experience it for ourselves.  One central character doesn’t even make it to the table. Once the remainder of our main players do the door is shut. We are not privy to their stories as they continue to unfold and yet there is no doubt that they do. Dinner at Eight is about the punches that life throws you as our stories unfold and the ability to either roll with those punches or take those hits to head and heart and fall.  Some of us get hit a little harder than others.

In the tradition of Grand Hotel the star-studded cast consists of the brothers Barrymore, Lionel and John, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, Billie Burke, Madge Evans, Lee Tracy and more.  I’m sure great debates could take place as to who is the central character in this film and I’m sure they have.  With an array of talent this stunning it would be tempting to say there is no primary story or star.  In many ways this is truly an ensemble piece, one that lets each actor and actress shine.  There’s a supportive spirit to this production that may not indicate camaraderie so much as the edge and grace that comes with competitiveness; each actor and actress appearing at the top of their game, even with the smaller roles.  George Cukor used his directorial magic to bring out the best in his dazzling cast (as we shall see him do again with The Women and other productions where he brilliantly juggles stars). Yet despite the ensemble nature of this film, John Barrymore’s performance, due to its sheer courage and his tremendous talent, is central to capturing the movie’s essence.

Cukor and Barrymore shared a wonderful camaraderie that underscored the director’s respect for the theatrically-trained actor, and performers in general.  As Larry Renault, the aging, dissipated and failing actor, Barrymore admitted to basing the betrayal not only on Lowell Sherman and Maurice Costello (film actor and father-in-law to John) but also himself.  He shrewdly added lines and details to the characterization to bring the portrayal closer to his own life.  It cuts so wickedly close to the heart of Barrymore’s troubles, aging and rapidly so as his excessive alcohol consumption eroded his talent, personal life and finances, that it is breathtaking.  Yet Barrymore is able to expand upon this and give us a larger performance that illuminates the inner struggles of a man much closer to desperation than himself, one so true in its depiction of emotional pain that his ultimate decision makes perfect sense as the only perceived solution for this man, at this time.  Renault takes one hit after another, swinging wildly from mood to mood with increasing inebriation, yet he leaves on his terms, not in the dark but in the spotlight, the only spotlight he can still muster.

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As the traditional, old fashioned and fading businessman Oliver Jordan, Lionel Barrymore struggles with change and impending failure but more importantly with affliction and the pain of disease, doing so with greater grace and dignity than Renault.  Jordan keeps the knowledge of his severe health issues entirely private even from his wife and daughter, until his doctor breaks confidence (something that would never happen today).  Interestingly troubles with health mirror this Barrymore’s own real life hits as well.  Lionel was able to cope far better than his brother John but did so despite suffering through physical limitations and the unending pain caused by two falls resulting in a severely broken hip.  Some say he contended with arthritis as early as the late 1920’s and it was the combination of both the arthritis and the falls that led to hourly injections of painkillers during filming from 1938 onward.  Lionel Barrymore’s disability was so great that it required him to be wheelchair-bound for his most enduring role as Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life as he was so confined by this time in his own life. In Dinner At Eight while John’s Renault was not able to roll with the punches, Lionel’s Jordan is able to do so.  He was in fact also there for John in real life during some of his brother’s weaker moments.

Tragically life had a surprising blow in the wings for another of the stars of this film, Jean Harlow.  It is always so interesting to watch Harlow in retrospect, so full of life, sass and sweetness. Here Harlow engages in plenty of name-calling of spouse and servants, of the type rarely heard today and used in particular to delineate the true nature of the marriage of Dan and Kitty Packard (Beery and Harlow). As he also does in Grand Hotel, Beery plays overbearing and conniving well. It is certainly convincing that he would’ve married Harlow out of lust alone; his business model is also a crass and crude affair signifying the vulgarity of the nouveau riche. As it is clear that he had this relationship with little respect for her it seems perfectly fitting that she should have no respect for him. Their contempt for one another is believable yet played unbelievably for comic effect. Such was Harlow’s gift that we enjoy her outrageous comedic wrath and dishing back to the high-handed pompousness that is epitomized by Packard. While the movie ends with the promise that life has much in store for Kitty, as film lovers we know that is not the case for Harlow as she is cruelly hit by life’s capriciousness just four years later.

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There’s great contrast here between the impetuousness of youth and the weariness and wisdom of aging, the healthy and the well, new business models versus harsh newer methods, those whose lives are just beginning and those whose stories are coming to a close, with some unable to appreciate what they have and those aging or ill left to handle life’s blows or succumb.  The young daughter of the Jordan’s, Paula (Madge Evans), just 19, is in love with Renault, a man dying from the battering of life, yet having the whole of hers still ahead of her. As he tells her: “You’re young and fresh and I’m all burned up.”  Shortly  her lover is verbally assaulted with the words “You’re a corpse and you don’t know it. Go get yourself buried” by his own agent (Lee Tracy), a man who should, for all intents, be in his corner but has become exasperated by the behavior of his ‘talent’.  Paula is engaged to Ernest (Phillips Holmes), a fitting name, yet finds the prospect of marriage to him a monotonous bore.  When Paula finally attempts to break off her engagement, the burning fireplace in the background reminds us of the cold fireplace in  Renault’s room, imparting death as the fire framed by the two of them roars with life, intimating that love could still be passionate between these two although Paula is oblivious to the possibilities. Nevertheless when her attempt to escape the strictures of upper-class life comes to an end she is heartbroken but wisely guided by Marie Dressler to open her eyes and embrace the love that is there before her with Ernest, advising “he won’t want to know anything about your past, as long as you keep it in the past”.

I love Dressler but I can sometimes find her distracting with her exaggerated facial mannerisms persisting into the talkies. I do tend to favor the melodramatic acting style of the 30’s and 40’s but so many of her expressions sometimes appear to be holdovers from the work she did in silent films, distracting from her inherent depth and warmth.  But here the comedic effects are a nice touch in a movie that is heavy on dramatic situations.  Never a beauty, she makes a pragmatic and powerful supporting player, as an aging, formerly glamorous star, fittingly pulling this tale together.  “That’s the unfortunate thing about death. It’s so terribly final.  Even the young can’t do anything about it” declares a wild eyed Dressler.  Once again the movie casts the actor in a role which mirrors life itself. Dressler died one year later from cancer.

As Millicent Jordan, Billie Burke’s histrionics regarding the setbacks she endures in planning and executing this dinner party are comical yet pivotal.  Her extreme exasperation in the face of truly minor set-backs and trivial frustrations (the kind we all experience), underscores the tragic depths of the circumstances of others.  As her plans are thwarted I was reminded of the saying regarding the best laid plans, some of which are long past their time, or poorly conceived affairs from the start. All of these characters have plans and aspirations, few of which come to fruition. Stalled and stalemated at every turn, they are oblivious to the struggles of others. How little Millicent knows of the desperateness of those in her own house, let alone those in the outside world. Such is life.

I adored this film, though it may not be for everyone. But if you like your deeper meanings and profound truths interspersed with sweet and sassy one liners and innuendo, you may enjoy this one too.

This movie had its beginnings in the stage play scripted by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman, (as adapted by Francis Marion and Herman J. Mankiewicz), as is readily apparent from the sparkling dialogue and steady stream of quips. For those who love language these types of films are a treasure trove that hold up well, in fact demand repeated viewing. This is a movie I could watch over and over.  There are layers of meaning and multiple interpretations to be found here.  The binding thread that life can crush you through unexpected blows is certainly owned by John Barrymore.  Yet also highlighted is the role of relationship, epitomized nicely in the marriage of the Jordans.  Despite all that befalls them in the course of the day, with business complications, medical woes and dinner party snafus galore, they end the movie unified, as do Paula and Ernest; lack of relationship is what eventually does in Renault as his only real relationship is with the bottle.

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I was so looking forward to seeing John Barrymore, center table and in full court, at this elusive dinner party. Firmly advised to check out of his lavish hotel room, Renault instead chooses to check out with finality, leaving his latest lover with barely a thought; there have been so many and yet so few truly loved.  No matter that he has accelerated his demise through his drinking.  The combination of circumstance and squandered opportunities gives his departure an air of tragic inevitability.
This all sounds so very serious and yet it isn’t at all. The movie has a lighthearted feel due to the flow between scenes, the crackling dialogue and the comic touches. Harlow is a hoot. She plays her Red-Headed Woman character to the hilt but this time leaving absolutely no room for sympathy. This woman is no Vantine from Red Dust with a heart of gold.  Kitty’s future trajectory is fairly well summarized in the closing dialogue of this movie, delivered deliciously by Dressler.

This film has some great lines and Dressler has quite a few of them.  She’s had her turn as have the two Barrymore’s. Now it’s time for the younger players to take their places. To quote Auntie Mame:  “Life is a banquet. And most poor suckers are starving to death”.  A banquet for some but perhaps not for all.  I remember a time when in church the pastor would declare, “Welcome to the Lords Table”.  Did I hear him say Dinner At Eight?

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