Few of the legendary movies stars of the first half of this century were personally capable of equaling the glittering images they projected with the help of studio publicists and the roles they played on the silver screen. William Powell was a notable exception to that rule.
William Powell was a private man. He was a public figure and yet a complex, private man. Therefore the task before biographer Charles Francisco was a challenging one. Certainly there were plenty of stories in popular Hollywood magazines of the era, tabloid features and interviews, but views into his private life were limited. He married three times and fathered one child, a son, who tragically committed suicide in 1968. Aside from his third wife, these significant figures had long departed and there is no indication that wife Diana Lewis chose to reveal the private man. His closest friends, who included Richard Barthelmess and Ronald Colman, had long departed; he outlived almost all of them but Myrna Loy. In fact Powell himself died during Francisco’s research. Yet the author has done a remarkable job in giving us a solid sense of William Powell, the essence of the man and of his life; it was one filled with satisfying successes, occasional frustrations and sometimes all too public tragedies.
Carole Lombard and William Powell marry
Bill and Carole at home
With fiancee Jean Harlow
Grieving at Harlow’s funeral
Famously, Powell married and divorced Carole Lombard, then became engaged to Jean Harlow, remaining so until her death at age twenty-six. He grieved openly at her funeral, flanked by his mother and a studio attaché for support. Her death ushered in a period of struggle for Powell. Shortly after this profoundly difficult loss he was faced with another crisis, rectal cancer. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer softened the blow for the public, citing his long absence from the screen as due to colon cancer, relating few details; the actor was one of the first patients to undergo treatment with implanted radium. This combination of blows – the death of Harlow, two surgeries and a lengthy recovery – perhaps deprived us of additional films that might have added to his legacy. His absence took him into middle-age and some unfortunate type-casting.
Bill and Myrna in The Thin Man
As Nick and Nora Charles
Powell became a comedic success with The Thin Man, the role for which he is perhaps best remembered. Its popularity led to further Thin Man films, six in total, and while he certainly enjoyed the role, and was surely grateful for its gifts, he knew he was capable of much more. Happily he was later able to show his range in several highly successful and still memorable films, namely Life with Father, How to Marry a Millionaire and finally Mister Roberts. Portraying the wise and weary ‘Doc’ in the latter put Powell among a new generation of actors and before new audiences. Yet the on-location shoot tired him and he chose to bow out, departing from the screen at the age of 62. He eventually left this world for good thirty years later. In doing so he left behind a sweeping body of work that starts in the silent era, polishes many pre-Codes and ultimately enchants in some of the most enduring romantic comedies of the thirties and forties.
With Kay Francis in Behind the Make-Up
With Ann Harding in Double Harness
With Jean Arthur in the Ex-Mrs Bradford
With Hedy Lamarr in The Heavenly Body
If you are a fan of Powell’s, as I am, this book is one to search out and find. The tone is warm and measured, never salacious or engaging in sordid speculation, despite Powell’s romancing and co-starring with some of the most beautiful and sought after women of the early days of Hollywood. Francisco treats his subject, and the numerous Hollywood luminaries and fellow players he encounters, with respect and admiration, pulling from available files, newspaper and magazine articles, archives and Powell’s own writings. In doing so he constructs a portrait of a man who was far from perfect but generally well-intended and truly the gentleman that he hoped to be. Known as a movie star, he was first an actor and an absolute master of his craft.
I was sad to reach this book’s end for to do so was to leave behind a life well-lived. Powell is painted as a man who didn’t always have the answers but who sure as hell tried to find them. This was a lovely, satisfying and moving book. I highly recommend it.
Gentleman: The William Powell Story includes a filmography and two sections of black and white photographs. It is book-ended by a prologue and epilogue, with the first and last paragraphs shared here, suitably opening and closing this review.
Perhaps Myrna Loy, who co-starred with most of the movie legends, described Bill Powell best. She said, “There’s just nobody like him, and there’s never been anybody quite like him.” Unfortunately, in the course of contemporary film, we may never see his like again.
This post is the third in the 2017 Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel Stecher of Out of the Past. For more book reviews please check her blog throughout the summer! This book is available through Amazon and other used and vintage booksellers.
A Universal Pictures Production ~ Director: James Whale, Screenplay by: William Anthony McGuire, based on a story by Ladislas Fodor, Art Director: Charles D. Hall, Costume Designer: Sadly, uncredited
A kiss is just a kiss. Or is it?
“How did it begin?”
“With a kiss.”
“It always does. But what kind of a kiss?”
“A kiss before the mirror”
James Whale’s smart suspense drama The Kiss Before the Mirror plays with the idea of passion as a sinister force leading to infidelity, insanity, and murder. It initially attempts to mark a distinction between a murder justified by rage and betrayal, and one committed through planning and premeditation. In the end it concludes there really is no difference. Even crimes of passion have their small moments of irrational premeditation.
An idyllic scene of a beautiful woman in a garden opens the film. She is meeting her lover, an attractive man who appears smitten, devoted. The air is sweet with promise as they exchange words in anticipation of their time together. She is seen through the glass disrobing, but the tone changes. In the dusky twilight, her husband has followed her through the trees and flowers. He approaches the veiled entryway, hesitates and then shoots her repeatedly through the shattering panes.
The murderer’s lawyer is a close friend and is prepared to defend him. He is puzzled by this horrific crime. He hears the man’s confession and returns home. Troubled, he reclines in his wife’s boudoir. She pulls a sheer curtain and then sits to do her face. The attorney struggles to comprehend his friend’s actions, relaying the initial circumstances to his wife. As he raises his finger the camera follows in a sweeping shot, circling the intimate space, and stopping where his wife sits facing the mirror at her dressing table. The audience is enveloped in his perspective, sees his wife as he sees her, feels his hurt as she angrily chastises him for kissing her before the mirror. He is re-imagining the killer’s confession. Suddenly he views her dressing and departure with new eyes; she is preparing for a liaison. Following her he finds his fears are confirmed. She has taken a lover. Humiliated, he contemplates clearing his friend as a means of preemptively establishing his own defense, and considers his own crime of passion.
The Kiss Before the Mirror is an early stylish Noir filled with shadows in lamplight, dark insinuations and a tragic aura. Yet it also has a bit of pre-Code playfulness and dark humor. The dialogue is clever and displays the love for a verbal quip that characterizes many early talking films. The dual nature of passion is a theme repeatedly touched upon; that which creates love can also destroy those who fall victim to its false perceptions.
The lawyer, Paul, played elegantly by Frank Morgan, is confidently seeking a meeting with his distraught and confessing client Walter, a somewhat overwrought Paul Lukas. He passes by a barred jail cell and exchanges words with another prisoner, Bill:
“You’ll be out of here soon.”
” I have been out. I broke out. Killed the wife and her boyfriend. Now I’m in for good.”
“That’s too bad.”
” Too bad nothin’. I’m happy. Wondering where that woman was all the time used to drive me crazy.”
“Well you know where she is now.”
“I know where I hope she is.”
Women tend to get a bit of a rough treatment here. Their vanity it seems makes them prone to seduction and an excess of time in front of mirrors. And there are plenty of those here too. Characters speak to one another while reflected, their images seeming to mock as they betray and tease one another. The defendant’s wife’s mirror is adorned with a gilded cupid. Another cupid sits haughtily upon a mantle. Women it seems are too often guided by Cupid’s whims.
Yet there is a strong female in the bunch too. Paul has an office manager Hilda, depicted as cynically pragmatic but also ambiguously sexual by a smart Jean Dixon. She seems to float above the proceedings, amused and yet solemn too. She introduces herself to the prosecutor as a newcomer to Paul’s team:
“This is my first case.”
“Are you interested in it?”
“A woman has been killed. That interests me quite a bit.”
Paul interjects, smiling, “for some strange reason, women don’t like being killed.”
A puzzled Paul walks with her after they leave the public prosecutor’s office.
“I can’t understand it. He adored his wife.”
“He proved that by killing her.”
Later, Paul’s wife, Maria, is inquisitive about her choices:
“You’re a funny creature. What are you, a lawyer or a new kind of woman?”
“By day I’m a lawyer. By night well…you might be surprised.”
“Why don’t you get married?”
“Well, being single has its points – at least no one will ever murder me.”
Marriage is portrayed as a risky game with the potential for deceit and a deadly outcome for infidelity. The line between love and hate can be a thin one indeed.
The screenplay’s dry gallows humor is reminiscent of Hitchcock; it finds charm in the even the deadliest of proceedings and marriage a fertile playground for exploring the dark side of wedded bliss.
Paul’s young, beautiful wife is played by Nancy Carroll, a sensuous Kewpie doll enjoying a double life. She admires and loves her husband but she loves to play too. There’s a phone that’s always ringing, suspicious outings, an air of guilt and deception. It is only when she begins to suspect that her husband is wise to her that she tries, unsuccessfully, to ditch her lover. Later when Paul begins to reject her and refuses her kiss she suspects he may find a way to not only leave her but mimic his friend in murder. She drapes herself in fox-tails as they proceed to leave their home for the trial and notes the strain the case is causing him.
“Oh promise me when all of this is over you’ll go away on a vacation.”
“Go away…? That’s not a bad idea. Will you come with me?”
“It’ll be best if I stay here.”
“And will you remain true and in love?” he asks, epectantly.
“Yes,” she smiles sweetly.
She is almost believable. Perhaps she is being sincere in her own way, with what really matters. But then the phone rings. Again. And Paul knows the truth. Just before he leaves he pockets a gun. Paul’s feelings of pain and rage spill over in a courtroom scene. His client’s defense: momentary insanity induced by jealousy. An acquittal for Walter would mean an acquittal for himself.
The film has a weary wizened character, Schultz, an additional assistant to Paul. An aging alcoholic, he occasionally spouts wisdom disguised as nonsense. His presence speaks to Paul’s big heart as he’s hired the has-been attorney despite his downward slide. He delivers a telling line: Is there or is there not, freedom of the will? Disturbingly, the jury has its own ideas, our attorney thankfully another. Ultimately, he chooses to shatter his illusions and the looking glass, kissing before a broken mirror.
Whale makes the most of his Viennese setting, gorgeous art deco sets, and prison dungeons borrowed from his earlier Frankenstein. He is assisted by cinematographer Karl Freund who plays with dark and light, mirrors and reflections, shattered glass and perspectives. Morgan is quite good in the lead, intelligent and thoughtful, thoroughly convincing as an accomplished lawyer, anguished by the actions of his younger wife. Nancy Carroll is a treat, tempering her flirtatiousness with warmth and dimension, and Jean Dixon even more so as the subversively tailored associate. Gloria Stuart is showcased in the ethereal early scene in the garden, a specialty of Whale’s, and her lover is nicely played by a young and handsome Walter Pidgeon.
Recommended for Whale, the sophistication and you know, murder.
This post is a part of the ‘Till Death Us Do Part: To Love, Honor…and Murder blogathon hosted by the lovely Theresa Brown over at CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. For more please click the image below:
Notes and Extras
Kiss started out as a play by Ladislas Fodor, a Hungarian playwright, was translated and then developed into a screenplay. So it’s tough to blame Whale for its rather tough stance on women and marriage as a source of all things heartbreaking and deceitful. Or assign credit for its clever conversation.
Perhaps the witty dialogue shouldn’t come as a surprise. Fodor was the author of the story that later became a pre-Code favorite of mine, Jewel Robbery. He continued to write professionally until his death in the seventies, primarily for movies and later television, much of the time in Germany. After a promising start he mostly ends up in Bad B Movie-land.
This film was one of numerous collaborations between producer Carl Laemmle Jr. and director James Whale, the most famous being their classic Universal horror films of the thirties. Laemmle the younger was a busy man in 1933, producing twenty-three films including another favorite of mine, the pre-Code courtroom drama Counsellor-at-Law. Farran Smith Nehme has a beautiful piece on the producer, The High Times and Hard Fall of Carl Laemmle Jr. at filmcomment.com which provides a taut overview of his brief career. It seems he was involved in another favorite gem, My Man Godfrey, before he was tossed aside at the tender age of twenty-eight.
The sometimes fickle Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times, liked this one too, calling it “an intelligently conceived story”. As he relates, “a very impressive sequence is that in which [Paul] delivers his summing up speech in the defense” of Walter. Kiss definitely falls into the categories of not just Noir, pre-Code and psychological thriller but also solidly within the genre of the courtroom dramas that were so popular at the time. Hall refers to Frank Morgan’s performance as a bit histrionic but in my mind it suits the theatricality of the premise and art direction.
Speaking of art, this film has some fantastic posters. Here’s my favorite:
Danny Reid at Pre-Code.com shares another cool poster as well as his thoughts about the movie, which he liked, in his review. It includes this succinct observation:
Human relationships are more complicated than simple revenge can properly encapsulate, and the film’s ending, where Paul and Maria forgive each other for their baser desires, is remarkably heartfelt.The movie is more interested in finding the underpinnings of these characters and seeing how far the coarseness in their souls will take them rather than arguing simple gender politics.
I love it when I get to see Morgan display his dramatic range in these early talking movies. Unfortunately, at least in my book, we don’t get to see it much following his career-defining Wizard in what else, The Wizard of Oz. He’s on my short list of men displaying charm and yes, intelligence in the early thirties. And I can never get enough of that.
Morgan and Nancy Carroll play cute together in this one. I found Carroll quite enchanting. Reportedly receiving more fan mail than any other star of the early thirties, her career was nevertheless limited. Paramount released this charming actor from her contract by the middle of the decade, apparently tiring of issues with feisty non-compliance. Too bad.
Oh – Be sure to take note of the glittering beauty of Gloria Stuart in the opening sequence. She retained those lustrous eyes for 1997’s Best Picture winner Titanic. For her portrayal of the aging Rose, she was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress in a Supporting Role, the oldest actor ever to receive a nomination. The film won an incredible eleven Academy Awards and brought Stuart’s light and luminosity once again into cinematic imaginations. Stuart died in 2010 at the amazing age of one hundred.
One more slightly eerie note stands as a testament to the detail shown in the making of this film. When Morgan emerges into the bright sunlight following his conversation with the prosecutor, music plays faintly in the background, echoing from the city streets. The melody is that of a Viennese and German folk song whose tune was later taken up in later nineteenth century America as ‘Did You Ever See a Lassie’. These lyrics nicely echo the male dilemmas in this film:
Did you ever see a lassie,
A lassie, a lassie?
Did you ever see a lassie,
Go this way and that?
Go this way and that way,
Go this way and that way.
Did you ever see a lassie,
Go this way and that?
Imagine it sung in chilling children’s voices and you’ll get the full effect. Sleep tight and watch out for the shattering glass. X
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.
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.
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.
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 a 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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Highly recommended, especially for lovers of the films of 1932.
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!