Death Becomes Her: The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933)

kiss 1

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.

kiss 7  DR.png
photo credit: Pre-Code.com

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.

kiss 5 (2)

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.”

 “Alone?”

 “Naturally.”

 “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:

IMG_1654.JPG

harlow peeking red dust

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:
    kiss 9.jpg
  • 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

kiss 3

Sensible Cinderella: Kitty Foyle (1940)

kf-7

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.

kf-19

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.

kf-12

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 confection 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.

kf-22

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:

31-days

harlow peeking red dust

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?), 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 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.

kf-23

Of Devotion and Decency: When Ladies Meet (1933)

morgan-harding-loy-when-ladies-meet

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.

my Loy and Montgomery photo.jpg

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.

when-ladies-meet.jpg

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.

when20ladies_zps2rd6mgai

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.

robertmontgomery

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

 

harlow peeking red dust

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!

Annex - Loy, Myrna (When Ladies Meet)_03

A Torn Soul: State’s Attorney (1932)

Barrymore and Twelvetrees.jpg

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.

SA 1

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.

Barrymore as lawyer 1932

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.

SA 4.png

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.

SA 5

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.

SA 12SA 10SA 13

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”.

SA 16

~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.

SA 18

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

Order in the Court 2

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

barrymore - SA

Murder and Menace: Guilty Hands (1931)

 

image1(1)

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.

GH 8

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.

GH 4

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.

GH 13

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 “.

GH 12

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.

GH 15

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.

GH 20GH 19GH 23

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.

GH 24

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.

GH 21

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.

guilty hands 2

 Definitely recommended. 

harlow peeking red dust

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)

Annex - Barrymore, John (Rasputin and the Empress)_01 dr. macro

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.

Rasputin 3Rasputin 2

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.**

Rasputin-and-the-Empress-3 ethel

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.

Rasputin 18

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.

Rasputin 15Rasputin 23

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.

Rasputin 21Rasputin 19

 

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.

Rasputin 13.png

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

CloseupJohnEthelBarrysetRasputin.jpg

* 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.