Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Profile of Orson Welles -- Actor, Writer, and Director of Classic Film and Old-Time Radio

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Video Vista. Copyright 2002.

In 2002, the British Film Institute's magazine Sight and Sound published a list of the 10 best films ever made. Once again, Citizen Kane topped that list, as it has every decade since 1962. It's surprising to think that Orson Welles made it when he was 25.

After spending his youth in Kenosha, Wisconsin, studying to be a professional magician, George Orson Welles (1915–1985) found his calling in another form of magic: entertainment. He acted for many years on stage and in radio programs (over 100 from 1938 to 1941!) like The Shadow. He was so busy at one point that — before it was made illegal — he would hire an ambulance to take him from studio to studio, often not knowing beforehand the role he was to voice.

Then came his big break. In 1938, NBC was looking for a summer series and asked the Mercury Theatre — the troupe founded by Welles and John Houseman — to be the stars. The first show of The Mercury Theatre on the Air was an adaptation of Dracula, with Welles playing Dr. Seward and the titular vampire. While the ratings weren't spectacular, the network quickly realized that it was an ideal prestige program. That Halloween, Mercury would put on the adaptation that would make Welles a household name. It was of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.

The choice of presenting the radio play in a news broadcast format was more successful than they could have imagined. The public panicked. Masses of people ran into the streets, trying to get away from the horrible Martian invasion. Many were trampled and run over by the escaping crowds. This unexpected response, while tragic, proved that people were listening. The Campbell's Soup Company subsequently offered to sponsor the program and renamed the show the Campbell Playhouse.

This success alone would have ensured Welles' stardom, but soon after, he was offered a contract with RKO Studios that was previously unheard of: to make any picture he wanted with total creative control. A perk even now reserved for the already famous and powerful, it was never done for a first-timer.

At first, Welles wanted to adapt Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Then he was shown a script Herman Mankiewicz had written, simply called American. It was the story of a newspaper magnate and was loosely based on the life of Mankiewicz crony William Randolph Hearst. It was this script — after considerable retooling by Welles — that would be the basis for the film Citizen Kane.

The filmmaking techniques used have cemented Citizen Kane's place in the cinematic canon, due to the collaboration of Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland (Academy Award winner for 1939's Wuthering Heights). Toland actually campaigned for the position saying that the only people from whom one can learn are the ones who don't know anything.

One can imagine the boy genius and the seasoned veteran bouncing ideas off one another, with Toland finding imaginative ways to shoot Welles' "impossible" ideas. One example was in Kane's pioneering use of ceilings. Previously, the "ceiling" of a shot was where the lights and microphones were kept, out of sight. Welles wanted to use more interesting angles to show relationships between characters. For example, for the post-election scene, a hole was dug in the floor so that the camera lens would be at exactly floor-level, showing Kane's towering figure in sharp relief.

Not new, but still rare at the time, was the film's use of deep-focus photography, the technique of having all parts of the frame seen with equal clarity. This allows the viewer to choose what to look at, rather than the director making the choice by focusing attention on a certain point. Such innovations, combined with the fine acting of the Mercury Theatre, make a film that stands up to multiple repeated viewings, with additional nuances discovered in each.

However, Kane's rise to its current classic status was not an easy one. On its release, the film was a flop. This was partially due to Hearst's boycott in all his newspapers of any advertising regarding the film, but audiences could also not take the innovative storytelling and photographic style. In fact, Kane would not be appreciated by audiences until the early 1950s when RKO sold the rights to television, where it finally found its following.

Film work on Kane was finally too much for Welles to continue in radio and he left the Campbell Playhouse in its last year. (His attempt to film Eric Ambler's novel Journey into Fear (co-scripted with Joseph Cotten) conflicted with his many other commitments and Norman Foster was chosen to complete the picture, though he imitated Welles' style and the picture retains the Wellesian feel.)

Welles immediately began work on The Magnificent Ambersons, an adaptation of Booth Tarkington's novel. Although an excellent film, this would begin the start of Welles' slow decline. After completion of Ambersons, Welles travelled to Brazil to immortalize its people in a film entitled It's All True. Due to poor test screenings for Ambersons' ending, studio heads took the film into their own hands — as Welles was unable to return in time — and reshot the ending.

Perhaps the film was not as good with Welles' ending. Perhaps it would not be hailed as a classic now had it not been tampered with. We, unfortunately, will never know. Another blow to Welles was that the footage shot abroad was deemed unusable and would not be released until 1993 — in a documentary about the situation (also entitled It's All True).

Welles' next film as director (he acted in 1942's Jane Eyre, opposite Joan Fontaine) was the only film to be a hit upon its initial release, The Stranger (1946). In this straightforward thriller, Welles plays an alleged Nazi leader being trailed by Edward G. Robinson to a small town in Connecticut. It was a simple story filmed on a small budget (done mainly to prove that he could do it) that gave Welles' already-failing directorial career a needed boost and led to his filming 1947's The Lady from Shanghai, another thriller (from a Sherwood King novel) starring himself and recent ex-wife Rita Hayworth. Welles' Irish accent is inconsistent and Hayworth's turn as a femme fatale unexceptional, but the direction is spot-on and still innovative (especially the climax in the funhouse) and the film wholly entertaining. Also of note is a supporting role by Everett Sloane as the cuckolded husband, one of the few Mercury players with whom Welles still worked.

Here we enter Welles' first Shakespeare phase, as his two next films were adaptations of Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952), with him in the title roles, of course. Macbeth's quality varies according to which version you see. The original — with Scottish accents, no less — is far superior to the studio-edited and -dubbed travesty. Though not as compelling as Roman Polanski's 1971 version (made following the murder of his wife Sharon Tate and their unborn child by the Manson "family"), Welles' take on "the Scottish play" is by no means run-of-the-mill. Welles' performance alone is worth a viewing.

Othello was made during a hard time in Welles' career, and it says a lot about the efforts of all involved that it does not show. It took Welles and company three years (1949–1952) to complete the shooting of the story of the Moor of Venice. The cast and crew would gather for shooting until the money ran out, then Welles would act in others' films for the money, and they would all return until it was used up — lucky for us, because The Third Man was made during this period. Welles' performance as the man who "loved not wisely but too well" is riveting, but the standout here is Michael MacLiammoir as Iago. (Perhaps he was channelling some of his own frustrations toward his director?) Welles, as usual, takes liberties with his source material, but the final print — especially in its restored version — remains true to its spirit. It won the Palme D'Or at Cannes that year, but had rarely been seen until Welles' daughter Beatrice restored it in 1993.

In 1955, Welles adapted his own rather confusing novel, Mr. Arkadin into what is considered his most personal film (and probably the only time he was faithful to an author's work). Then, in 1958, he released his second-greatest film, Touch of Evil. Originally Welles was hired just to act in this film. But when Charlton Heston heard Welles was involved, he thought Welles was directing and jumped at the opportunity. Not wanting to lose Heston, the studio hired Welles to direct — as long as he did both for his acting salary. His first step was to completely rewrite Paul Monash's script (based on the Whit Masterson novel Badge of Evil), making his own role much larger.

From the beginning three-minute crane shot — that ends with a bomb explosion — to the final line spoken by Marlene Dietrich ("He was some kind of a man"), Touch of Evil is typically Wellesian. The storyline is simple enough, but what stands out is the film's sense of style. Working with a varied cast the likes of which he had never used (Charlton Heston as a Mexican?), he was nonetheless able to get really great performances, most of all from himself. His Hank Quinlan is truly despicable. The latex and makeup helped in making him ugly, but it is his actions that finish the job. A "half-breed" (Mexican American) killed Quinlan's wife, but there was not enough evidence for a conviction, so the killer was set free. Therefore, now that Quinlan knows who planted the bomb, he is producing evidence that did not otherwise exist, without thinking of the consequences to others. Touch of Evil is perfect film noir and is considered the last great entry in that genre, and as a film to study (as Welles studied Stagecoach while shooting Citizen Kane) to learn how to make a great film.

The story after Touch of Evil was not so enjoyable, however. Upon leaving to begin an adaptation of Don Quixote (another film he would not complete; it was completed by others and released in 1992), Touch of Evil was completely re-edited by the studio, which cited its almost random story order. It was not until the recent discovery of Welles' own notes that the film was again re-edited to his original specifications. This version is available on DVD, complete with notes. Nevertheless, the original studio cut won the international prize at the 1958 Brussels World Fair.

Welles did not direct another film until 1962's The Trial (from the Franz Kafka novel), starring Anthony Perkins as Joseph K. Then came Chimes at Midnight (also known simply as Falstaff) in 1965, Welles' consolidation of all of John Falstaff's scenes from various plays of Shakespeare (Henry IV parts I and II, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and portions of Henry V and Richard II). Welles' performance, unfortunately, is the only compelling aspect of the production, despite a beautifully filmed battle. As per usual, budget restrictions plagued the production and — unlike with Othello — it shows.

Welles finished his directing career with two films: The Immortal Story in 1968 and F for Fake in 1974. The former is a bland adaptation made for French television of an Isak Dinesen story (from the same collection, Anecdotes of Destiny, that spawned Babette's Feast), and the latter is a curiosity at best, but nevertheless a compelling one. In it, Welles plays up his personality as a mysterious figure — as well as his never-forgotten practice of magic tricks — in a slim narrative around fakery in the modern world, including a lengthy interview with painting forger Elmyr de Hory conducted by faker-to-be Clifford Irving (who would write the infamous Autobiography of Howard Hughes and then tell the story behind it in The Hoax). Though not a great film, F for Fake is nonetheless entertaining and a fitting endpoint to a career that had much trouble and not much reward. (The Criterion Collection DVD is also a treat for fans in that the second disc focuses a great deal of attention on Welles's unfinished works.)

During the time from Touch of Evil on, Welles did some of his most interesting acting in character parts for Hollywood, mostly while trying to raise money for his many doomed film projects. The high points include The Long Hot Summer (1958), Compulsion (1959) — a Leopold and Loeb case where he plays a commanding Clarence Darrow–like lawyer — A Man for All Seasons (1966), a fun role in Casino Royale (1967) — a James Bond spoof starring Peter Sellers and Woody Allen — and Catch-22 (1970).

As the 1970s continued, however, Welles became more in demand for his famous voice talents than for his physical presence, with narration-only roles in Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), Bugs Bunny, Superstar (1975), The Late Great Planet Earth (1979), Mel Brooks's History of the World, Part I (1981), Slapstick (of Another Kind) (1982), and The Transformers (1986). And of course, most of my generation remembers Welles as the pitchman for Paul Masson wines, who would "sell no wine before its time." His last onscreen appearance was introducing a fittingly film noir–esque episode of Moonlighting.

Welles himself has said that he "started at the bottom and worked [his] way down." It is unfortunate — but not surprising — that such a cinematic artist could not find support in the Hollywood community, where they purport to make art. The works of Orson Welles have and continue to inspire young people to make their own films. With money flowing so easily in Hollywood, it is distressing that he had to work so hard to receive any of it.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections directed by David Earnhardt

Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections (2008). Written, directed, and produced by David Earnhardt.

I've questioned our country's system of electing presidents ever since I learned about the electoral college. The fact that a selected small number of elected officials really decide who their state's electoral votes go to, seemingly regardless of whom the actual majority of citizen chose, disturbed me deeply. However, that is the quintessential piece of evidence I use when discussing how the government of the United States is not, as is often stated, a democracy, but is in fact a republic. (Remember, the pledge of allegiance states "...and to the republic for which it stands".)

Uncounted, a 2008 documentary from Emmy-winning (though I can't seem to find out what he actually won for) director David Earnhardt, focuses on three major elections — of 2000, 2004, and 2006 — and all the problems and deceptions that led to the votes of many working-class and low-income people (and especially people of color) either not being counted or, in many extreme instances, discouraged from being cast at all through both threats and intimidation.

The primary reason being, the movie asserts, that they would be the most likely to vote Democratic.

In an engrossing collection of clips and interviews, Uncounted educates the viewer about such related topics as the myriad reasons electronic voting machines are unreliable (and hacker-prone), and why they were still used in a high percentage of voting precincts. Taken individually, these events are seemingly unimportant, but compiled in succession by Earnhardt, such things as 80 percent of voters in a single precinct not voting for a presidential candidate (while voting on other races), the known ties of a prominent voting-machine producer to the Republican party, and the mysterious practice of a vote for one candidate being counted for the opponent can hardly be seen as coincidence.

Earnhardt makes a strong argument for deliberate manipulation, and you know how we Americans love our conspiracy theories. What is important is that Uncounted gives a lot of food for thought, especially regarding the dangers of being a whistle-blower and how one person can truly make a difference in a small way. But the main question I'm still pondering after having seen it is this, why is the one day set aside for choosing our elected officials, Election Day, the second Tuesday every November, not a federal holiday?

I can only think it must be that somebody doesn't want all the working people of the country to be able to truly reach the polls in their representative numbers. But maybe I'm just spreading more conspiracy thought. Watch Uncounted as part of your civic duty to be informed about things that are generally unknown, and then and decide for yourself.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Book Review: The Making of The Lords of Flatbush by Stephen Verona

In the mid-1970s, a little movie was released called The Lords of Flatbush. Unbeknownst to any of those involved at the time, it would singlehandedly launch the modern era of looking back, inspiring other such nostalgia hits as Happy Days (which would make a star out of Flatbush actor Henry Winkler) and Laverne & Shirley.

But few people know very much about the story behind the movie that started it all. The film's co-director, co-writer, and producer — Stephen Verona, Academy Award winner for The Rehearsal — has rectified that with his memoir, The Making of The Lords of Flatbush.

But this book is not just for fans of The Lords of Flatbush. Anyone interested in the kind of talent combined with guts — even when you're a pioneering music-video director who's worked with The Beatles — that it took to get a film made during this period should also pick it up. Verona tells it all, from his own time in a motorcycle gang (the inspiration) through the writing process, fund-raising, and casting (the perspiration) to the shooting, editing, distribution, and afterward. The reader is along every step of the way.

Verona reminisces about stars Sylvester Stallone, Henry Winkler, Paul Mace, and Perry King — who replaced Richard Gere at the last minute — and the musicians he worked with (Joe Brooks and Paul Jabara) who would later go on to win their own Academy Awards (for "You Light Up My Life" and "Last Dance", respectively). Also mentioned in The Making of The Lords of Flatbush are such not-yet celebrities as Bette Midler, Ray Sharkey, Armand Assante, and Susan Blakely.

Verona writes this gripping memoir with a conversational style that, although very easy to read, lapses a little too often into digression, occasionally leaving doubt as to the true order of events. Follow his advice or learn from his mistakes; either way, know more about filmmaking than before from The Making of The Lords of Flatbush.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Storm at Daybreak directed by Richard Boleslavsky (starring Kay Francis, Walter Huston, Nils Asther, Eugene Pallette)

Storm at Daybreak (1933). Screenplay by Bertram Millhauser from the play Black-Stemmed Cherries by Sandor Hunyady.

Storm at Daybreak is another typical Kay Francis melodrama with her once again falling into the arms of a man other than her husband. Only this time, the action plays against the backdrop of the first days of World War I.

Sarajevo mayor Duchan (Walter Huston, who is said to have "discovered" Francis) is attending the parade in honor of a visit from Archduke Francis Ferdinand when the archduke is assassinated, setting off a series of events (including, in this film, a war against the Serbs) that would lead to what was known as The Great War. ("Somebody [shot] somebody, so we all got to go out and get shot," explains "Mad Russian" Leonid Kinskey.)

During the parade, Duchan is reunited with an old friend, Geza (Nils Asther), who is now a captain in the Hungarian army. Duchan brings Geza home to meet his wife, Irina (Francis), a Serb protecting some deserters (the Hungarians and Serbs had a long period of bad blood).

Soon, the house is hosting what appears to be the entire Hungarian army, and the lovely Irina proves to be the perfect hostess, charming the soldiers in a low-cut gown and beginning a romance with Geza where previously were only glares. (Eugene Pallette also has a charming series of scenes as he attempts to romance a reluctant housematron.)

Despite impressive sets and costumes (and its educational possibilities dramatizing a period and events of which modern audiences are mostly ignorant), Storm at Daybreak has little to recommend it, except to Kay Francis aficionados; she is as photogenic (with long hair in one scene) and well-dressed as always. But the story is weak and depends too much on the war — pulling Geza away from Irina time and time again — to supply the drama, and on dewy looks and screaming matches from the actors. As a result, this not very racy pre-Code is melodramatic and unbelievable, and the abrupt ending does nothing to help.

(Look for cameos by Mischa Auer as the Archduke's assassin and Akim Tamiroff as a gypsy fiddler stealing a chicken leg.)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Strangers May Kiss directed by George Fitzmaurice (starring Norma Shearer, Robert Montgomery, Neil Hamilton, Irene Rich)

Strangers May Kiss (1931). Screenplay by John Meehan from the novel Strangers May Kiss by Ursula Parrott.

Lisbeth Corbin (Norma Shearer) is a woman who espouses "modern" ideas ("We don't believe in the awful necessity of marriage") yet still seems as if she's waiting for her lover, Alan (Neil Hamilton), a foreign correspondent who is gone for long stretches at a time, to make a commitment. (He is actually the one who feels that "love and marriage mean internal combustion.")

Her aunt Celia (Irene Rich) keeps trying to get her to marry Steve (Robert Montgomery), a childhood friend who is madly in love with her, but who drinks a bit too much. Celia's arguments seem to hold water until her husband is caught with a younger woman, whereupon Celia, her foundations shattered, ends her life (the first time I've seen where the phrase "mortally embarrassed" truly applies).

Lisbeth continues to throw herself at Alan as she waits for him to settle down with her. It's obvious they're physically intimate — apparently to the point that co-star Hamilton wondered "if [Shearer] was getting enough at home" — but he continues to travel around the world without her. Eventually, after one too many up-and-leavings, Lisbeth gives up and becomes a woman of fun throughout Europe ("I'm in an orgy, wallowing. And I love it!").

Even Steve hears the stories about her, which he didn't believe "the first six or seven hundred times." But when Alan returns to finally offer himself to her, he is shocked and repulsed at her behavior. What's truly shocking, however, is discovering that such adult subjects were being addressed at the time — and the loss of that once the Production Code (also called the Hays Code) began its enforcement — and that we really have never recovered.

Strangers May Kiss is truly a Shearer showcase: her face is virtually always onscreen, and it goes through emotional ups and downs in a theatrical but not over-the-top manner. Montgomery offers engaging support, but his "best friend" role is thankless. Nowadays, his character would end up with the Shearer's, but this film follows the more "appropriate" ending, which is actually a huge disappointment for anyone who loves the pre-Code theme of the rest of the story. Watch it for the luminous Shearer, but be prepared for a letdown.

Those interested in more on Strangers May Kiss should seek out Mick LaSalle's book on pre-Code actresses in general (and Norma Shearer in particular), Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood. LaSalle devotes the majority of a chapter to this film alone.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Most Dangerous Game directed by Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack (starring Joel McCrea, Fay Wray, Leslie Banks, Robert Armstrong)

The Most Dangerous Game (1932). Screenplay by James Ashmore Creelman from "The Most Dangerous Game" — the "O. Henry Award Winning Collection Story by Richard Connell." (I wonder if the wording of that billing was in his contract.)

This Ernest B. Schoedsack / Merian C. Cooper production (executive produced by David O. Selznick) was made while the special effects were being done on the pair's previous film, King Kong (released the next year because of the complexity of those effects), using some of the same sets and a few of the cast and crew.

Big game hunter Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea), on his way to an expedition, is shipwrecked on an uncharted island owned by Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks in his film debut), another hunter of bigger game. Rainsford is kept prisoner with Eve Trowbridge (Fay Wray in a low-cut dress) and her drunk brother Martin (Robert Armstrong, playing a deliberately annoying inebriate during Prohibition), and Bob has to survive the night of "outdoor chess," being hunted by Zaroff, with Eve as his prize (gotta love those pre-Codes!).

What was a riveting portrait of man against man in its original form becomes a bloated waste on film, even at just over 60 minutes. The first 10 minutes of The Most Dangerous Game are mostly laughable, with incredibly heavyhanded foreshadowing: dialogue like "The queen of spades? That's the third time tonight." And with McCrea delivering "There are two kinds of people in this world, the hunter and the hunted. Luckily I'm a hunter and nothing can ever change that" just as the ship crashes. (In fact, 40 minutes passes of this hour-long film before the actual hunt even begins.)

Max Steiner's score emphasizes every melodramatic touch, and the over-the-top performance of Leslie Banks (acting with eyes of fire) requires the usually subtle McCrea to overemote just to avoid being blown off the screen. Look out for his "revelation" later in the film: "Those animals I killed, now I know how they felt."

Remade as A Game of Death in 1945 and Run for the Sun (with Richard Widmark) in 1956, and also expanded into novel-length as Hunted Past Reason by Richard Matheson, The Most Dangerous Game actually managed to be about as profitable as the far superior King Kong due to its smaller budget. But the jokey script and overblown acting make it far less entertaining than it should be (though Armstrong provides some occasional comic relief).

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Mask of Fu Manchu directed by Charles Brabin (starring Boris Karloff, Myrna Loy)

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). Screenplay by Irene Kuhn, Edgar Allan Woolf, and John Willard from the novel The Mask of Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer (pseudonym of Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward).

Author Sax Rohmer's creation, the evil Dr. Fu Manchu ("I am a doctor of philosophy from Edinburgh, I am a doctor of law from Christ College, I am a doctor of medicine from Harvard. My friends, out of courtesy, call me Doctor") was a very popular film distraction in the 1930s. It's interesting to critique The Mask of Fu Manchu now, a film that was never intended to be watched almost 80 years after its release.

The Mask of Fu Manchu — available on DVD only in the Hollywood's Legends of Horror collection — is a diversion, little more, but an entertaining one. Boris Karloff, who reportedly spent over two hours a day in the make-up chair, dives into the role and gives the doctor the right amount of dignity and intelligence without crossing too far into parody.

The story, such as it is, concerns an ancient sword and an archeologist's daughter. The sword will allow its owner to rule the world (what else?), but the daughter ... well, she kind of lets the men do her fighting for her — even though Fu Manchu killer her father in pursuit of the sword.

Aside from Karloff, the only real reason for watching The Mask of Fu Manchu is actress Myrna Loy. As Fu Manchu's daughter, Fah Lo See, Loy offers the ideal level of danger blended with sexiness — and a touch of insanity to spice things up and make it difficult to decide whether being her prisoner would be worth the ultimate price.

This was Loy's last in a series of Asian roles. She was mostly wasted in those roles, and she chose to expand her career after making this film. She felt she was getting typecast due to her Asian-sounding surname (which was just a stage name in any case), and she began getting better roles almost immediately. The Thin Man would come only two years later and almost singlehandedly help her on the road to the icon status she holds today.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Barretts of Wimpole Street directed by Sidney Franklin (starring Norma Shearer, Frederic March, Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Sullivan)

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934). Screenplay by Ernest Wajda, Claudine West, and Donald Ogden Stewart from the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street by Rudolf Besier.

Wimpole Street, 1845 — In a time when maids glided across the floor as if on casters (in this case, Wilson, delightfully played by Una O'Connor), the invalid Elizabeth Barrett (Norma Shearer) — affectionately known as "Ba" — and her brood of siblings live under the tyrannical rule of their father Edward (Charles Laughton), who allows none of his children to be married, and demands love though all he inspires is fear. Any thought of dissension is met with passive-aggressive emotional manipulation ("You shall never know ... how much you have grieved and wounded your father by refusing to do the little thing he asked.").

Elizabeth's only joy is in writing her poetry, her dog Flush, and the encouraging letters she receives from fellow poet Robert Browning (Fredric March), whose work she respects and adores. Having fallen in love with her through her words, Browning takes it upon himself to visit her unannounced.

In her room (where most of the action takes place), they hit it off wonderfully in a scene filled with genuine joy. In an amusing exchange, Elizabeth asks Robert the meaning of a rather obscure passage in his Sordello. He looks confused for a bit, then replies, "When that passage was written, only God and Robert Browning understood it. Now, only God understands it!"

From that point, we know they are to be married, whatever the cost. And, though her health and her father are obstacles, each will be overcome in turn. Except for its extraordinary characters, this is in many ways a traditional romance. But the movie's great success comes in actually eliciting suspense, even though we all know that Ba eventually became famous as Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

A parallel subplot comes in the form of Elizabeth's sister Henrietta (Maureen O'Sullivan) and her burgeoning romance with a soldier. Edward puts the kibosh on that quick. ("Is it nothing to you that I shall hate you for this to the end of my life?" "Less than nothing.") Later, it comes out (euphemistically, of course — this was just after the enforcement of the Production Code) that Edward may have some sort of sex addiction that he is railing against (and trying to protect his children from inheriting?), and that he may even have some nonpaternal feelings for Ba. (Their age difference — or lack of it — may have helped: Laughton was 35 to Shearer's 32.)

Laughton plays all of his scenes with fire, but Shearer is the real star here. Some of her readings are a bit "theatrical," but mostly she is terrific as Elizabeth. She even draws the eye away from costar March, though he is perhaps at his most engagingly boyish here. Director Sidney Franklin avoids staginess through a variety of angles

Though it may seem so at first, Ba isn't that much different from other characters Shearer had played. She obviously has no husband to rebel against here, but she does defy her tyrant father's wishes, which Mick LaSalle (Complicated Women) says makes her the "spiritual sister to Jerry in The Divorcee." LaSalle, a vocal fan of Shearer's pre-Code work, also says that this film is the last of hers that "satisfies completely as both a movie and a Shearer showcase," meaning it sort of signifies the end of an era of film history.

Trivia: In 1957, Franklin made a veritable shot-by-shot remake of this film starring Jennifer Jones (Elizabeth) and John Gielgud (Edward). I have not seen it. Gielgud was one of the great actors, but I'm not sure even he could top Laughton's performance in this.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Book Review: Center Door Fancy by Joan Blondell

"When Joan Blondell published Center Door Fancy in 1972, it was labeled a novel, but everyone knew better. She maintained that virtually all events in the book were from her life. No one questioned her; the parallels were too transparent.... The roman à clef included her vaudeville trouping childhood, her days as a fizzy comedienne of the talkies, and her doomed marriages."
— from Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes by Matthew Kennedy

Center Door Fancy is an autobiographical novel by actress Joan Blondell covering her life from her birth into a Vaudeville family until her third divorce. (Click on the "Joan Blondell" tag at the end of this review for reviews of some of her films.)

Except for one thing: the heroine of Center Door Fancy is not Joan Blondell but "Nora Marten." The name of every other major "character" in Blondell's life has been changed, too (with walk-ons like James Cagney and Clark Gable retaining their monikers) — but, presumably, everything that Blondell writes about really happened.

Blondell doesn't shy away from anything: her attempted rape by a policeman, her multiple abortions during her first marriage, and her third husband's volatile nature are all here. Her childhood and each of her marriages are handled in detail, making it very easy, as Matthew Kennedy states in the quote above, to tell who is who. "Johnny Marten," writer and star of "The Boy Is Gone," is her ambitious vaudevillian father Ed Blondell (writer and star of "The Lost Boy"); "Ceecy Quinn" is her ultrareligious mother, Katie Cain.

Then there are Blondell's three husbands: the distant and impenetrable David Nolan (Oscar-winning cinematographer and serial husband George Barnes), the caring but insecure Jim Wilson (actor and crooner Dick Powell, also her costar in nearly a dozen films), and the unstable and ambitious Jeff Flynn (Oscar-winning producer Mike Todd).

The years are not specifically stated most of the time, but it's fairly easy to keep up with the time, especially if you look up the real dates. The novel ends around 1950, right after Nora's divorce from Jeff, with her "trying to revive a career" that would continue with movies and regular TV appearances until her death in 1979.

I'm not sure why Blondell chose to write her autobiography as fiction. I don't think it was to avoid a lawsuit — all three of her husbands had passed away by 1972 — so perhaps it was simply in order to achieve a certain amount of distance from painful events. In any case, Center Door Fancy is incredibly readable in that "listening through the keyhole" kind of way.

But it's also very well written. Blondell has a upfront and open style (much like her film persona) that presents a lot of information in few words. I imagined I would like it, but it's even more engaging than I expected. Center Door Fancy is one of those books that fill your every possible moment until it's finished — when I had to put it down, I couldn't wait to get back to it. (And anyone who reads a lot knows how rare that is.)

Friday, May 30, 2008

September 2008: Kay Francis month on TCM

Kay Francis movies every Thursday evening through Friday morning on Turner Classic Movies in September 2008.

Eighteen (18) pre-Codes. Forty-two (42) films in all!

September 4–5
8:00 PM Raffles (1930)
9:15 PM Jewel Robbery (1932)
10:30 PM One-Way Passage (1932)
11:45 PM Divorce (1945)
1:00 AM Man Wanted (1932)
2:15 AM Women Are Like That (1938)
3:45 AM Comet Over Broadway (1938)
5:00 AM I Loved a Woman (1933)
6:45 AM Living on Velvet (1935)

September 11–12
8:00 PM Trouble in Paradise (1932)
9:30 PM Cynara (1932)
11:00 PM A Notorious Affair (1930)
12:15 AM The Feminine Touch (1941)
2:00 AM Street of Women (1932)
3:00 AM Give Me Your Heart (1936)
4:30 AM Stolen Holiday (1937)
6:00 AM Mary Stevens, M.D. (1933)
7:15 AM Passion Flower (1930)
8:45 AM Another Dawn (1937)
10:00 AM The Goose and the Gander (1935)
11:15 AM The House on 56th Street (1933)

September 18–19
8:00 PM Transgression (1931)
9:15 PM Secrets of an Actress (1938)
10:30 PM Women in the Wind (1939)
11:45 PM King of the Underworld (1939)
1:00 AM It's a Date (1940)
2:45 AM Play Girl (1940)
4:15 AM Little Men (1940)
5:45 AM My Bill (1938)
7:00 AM In Name Only (1939)
8:45 AM The Keyhole (1933)
10:00 AM I Found Stella Parish (1935)

September 25–26
8:00 PM Mandalay (1934)
9:15 PM Doctor Monica (1934)
10:15 PM Confession (1937)
12:00 AM First Lady (1937)
1:30 AM Always in My Heart (1942)
3:15 AM Stranded (1935)
4:30 AM Storm At Daybreak (1933)
6:00 AM Guilty Hands (1931)
7:15 AM Allotment Wives (1945)
8:45 AM The White Angel (1936)

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Kay Francis news: Four Jills in a Jeep coming to DVD in August 2008

Fans of actress (Kay Francis know how rare it is to find any of her movies on video, let alone DVD, so this new release of Four Jills in a Jeep (also included in the Alice Faye Collection due to an appearance by Faye in the film) is great news. This is from the back:

This star studded musical is a cinematic tribute to the successful USO tour of Kay Francis, Martha Raye, Mitzi Mayfair, and Carole Landis, who entertained soldiers from England to North Africa. Embellished with some fictional romance, striking choreography, and plenty of laughs, this patriotic film salutes all the entertainers who did their part for "the boys." Includes special appearances by Alice Faye, Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda, George Jessel, and the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra.

I'll have to look further into this, but I believe one of the extras on Four Jills in a Jeep is an interview with Lynn Kear and John Rossman, authors of two books about Kay: The Complete Kay Francis Career Record: All Film, Stage, Radio and Television Appearances and Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Crowd Roars directed by Howard Hawks (starring James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Eric Linden, Frank McHugh, Guy Kibbee)

The Crowd Roars (1932). Screenplay ("Dialogue and Screen Adaptation") by Kubec Glasmon, John Bright, Seton I. Miller, and Niven Busch (credited as "Nevin") from a story by Howard Hawks.

Joe Greer (James Cagney) is a famous race car driver coming home to visit his kid brother, Eddie (Eric Linden). Joe knows exactly how dangerous a profession racing is and balks when Eddie wants to get involved because he idolizes Joe. Joe's feelings on the subject even extend to not marrying his best girl, Lee (Ann Dvorak), though it's pretty plain they are married in every other sense.

When Joe realizes Eddie is determined, however, he promises to show him the ropes while trying to shield him from the darker side of life — like his relationship with Lee, which he calls off when he finds Eddie drinking with Lee and her friend Anne (Joan Blondell). Anne responds to the blow to Lee by seducing Eddie, but they fall in love instead.

Soon, Eddie becomes Joe's rival on the racetrack, and the ultracompetitive Joe's impulsivity leads to a confrontation on the track. Joe's relief driver, "Spud" Connors (Frank McHugh, who had a small but important role as the drunk in Union Depot), puts himself between the brothers and gets killed for his trouble. (Reportedly, Cagney and McHugh began a conversation on the first day of filming that would lead to a life-long friendship.)

Cagney's star was still rising during the time of The Crowd Roars, and he displays the usual angry hothead persona he specialized in during this period — throwing men and women around equally. Blondell also offers few surprises, playing to type in her usual tough-talking, no-nonsense guise. But both actors are comfortable in their typecasting and give solid performances.

The real surprise was the fantastic acting of Ann Dvorak. I'd never seen her in anything before this, and she steals the movie away from Cagney and Blondell. Her performance is heartbreaking, going from indignant to desperate to loving in an instant, but always with a good heart, making us feel Lee's pain at the way Joe treats her. Eric Linden is forgettable as Eddie, his main contribution being an enthusiastic "I'll say!" Also watch for ubiquitous character actor Guy Kibbee in a small role (I'm not even sure if he had any lines) as Joe and Eddie's father, "Pop" Greer.

The story is thin, the characters two-dimensionally drawn, but the dialogue is entertaining and Blondell in particular has some great lines. Unfortunately, the ending tends toward the ridiculous, as it tries its best to take the melodramatic events and make a happy ending out of them by quickly forcing the characters through a series of unbelievable situations and coincidences.

But it remains a lot of fun even then, with redemption just around the corner and a quick chuckle before the end titles — and seeing racing in this era, with no visible protection for the drivers, was an eye-opener especially during the crash scenes. The Crowd Roars is not a classic by any means, but fans of director Howard Hawks will likely want to see this early venture (released just two weeks after his legendary Scarface, also with Dvorak).

Interesting trivia: A French version called La foule hurle was being filmed concurrently with director Jean Daumery and star Jean Gabin. In 1939, The Crowd Roars was remade as Indianapolis Speedway. Rumor has it that all of the racing footage was taken from the original and used in the remake, and when the attempt was made to replace the footage back into the original, some of the remake's footage was included by mistake, and so both films are practically indistinguishable during their racing scenes. Conveniently, Frank McHugh played Spud in the remake, too.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Pre-Code films based on Dashiell Hammett novels

Author Dashiell Hammett wrote some of the great novels of the 1930s. These, in turn, were made into some of the classic films of the era. Below are reviews of two of these films, both made in what is now termed the "pre-Code" era.
  • The Maltese Falcon (1931) — The main difference in tone between this and the 1941 version with Humphrey Bogart comes from Ricardo Cortez's portrayal of Sam Spade. Cortez's Spade is much more of a ladies man than Bogart's.... He goes throughout the movie with a huge smirk on his face, as if everything going on around him is endlessly entertaining. And I can imagine why. When Ruth Wonderly (Bebe Daniels) comes into his office, he probably already knows she'll end up naked in his bath, in his bed, and in his kitchen....

    Read my entire review of The Maltese Falcon.
  • The Thin Man (1934) — William Powell and Myrna Loy are the best things on the screen. Their banter floats the film from being a normal sleuth picture to another level. This is my idea of the perfect married couple. The wordplay gives a welcome break from the detection....

    Read my entire review of The Thin Man.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Rain directed by Lewis Milestone (starring Joan Crawford, Walter Huston, Guy Kibbee)

Rain (1932). Screenplay/adaptation by Maxwell Anderson from the play Rain by John Colton and Clemence Randolph, based on the story "Miss Thompson" (reprinted in Collected Short Stories as "Rain") by W. Somerset Maugham.

It's obvious that the filming of Rain was inspired by a popular play because the direction by Lewis Milestone is purely point-and-shoot, with only a few shots of rain falling on different areas of the island to break the monotony. Also, the actors project their voices far too much. Sound was still in its relative infancy in 1932, but other films of the period managed to produce natural-sounding dialogue. (Maybe they just wanted to be heard over all that water.)

The direction of the actors appears to have been gleaned from the stage version, as well — and an amateur production, at that: No one's back ever is to the camera. People walk during their lines and not at other times. (To appreciate Milestone's true ability, see All Quiet on the Western Front [Academy Award winner for Best Director] or Of Mice and Men.)

The acting is also less than remarkable. Joan Crawford is very good as Sadie Thompson (probably literature's most famous prostitute) — she inhabits the character as if she was born to play her. But Walter Huston as Alfred Davidson appears to be playing a one-note character, the religious zealot, until the point when his attempt at "redeeming" Sadie fails and he falls prey to his baser instincts. He uses dramatic facial expressions to show this change, but it just looks like he is turning into Mr. Hyde.

The other characters are really just spouting dialogue, and we aren't told much about them other than Joe Horn, the proprietor of the General Store on the island of Pago Pago (where the action takes place). As played by prolific character actor Guy Kibbee, he is the most interesting character in the film.

The movie was very slow going, but after the first half-hour, I began to follow and was entertained. (I was not previously familiar with the storyline, and only watched this because of an appreciation of other Maugham tales.) Despite these flaws, Rain is on the whole a powerful experience. At the very least, it offers a good look at cinema history: to see Joan Crawford's early work from when she was a sex symbol, and to catch Walter Huston before son John Huston directed him to an Oscar in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Crawford reportedly bad-mouthed Rain for the rest of her life — very likely due to bad reviews and numerous letters from fans outraged that she had played a prostitute — saying "I hope they burn every print of this turkey in existence."

The story was previously filmed as Sadie Thompson with Gloria Swanson and was later turned into a musical, Miss Sadie Thompson starring Rita Hayworth.

Monday, May 5, 2008

A Kay Francis cocktail?

Reportedly invented by Señor F. Garcia Bode, this is "a time-tested favorite from Venezuela" — at least according to The Gentleman's Companion author Charles H. Baker, Jr.

For the curious, the recipe (along with a commentary on the results of its mixing) is at Paul Clarke's (no relation) weblog, The Cocktail Chronicles.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Book Review: Complicated Women by Mick LaSalle

Subtitled "Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood," author Mick LaSalle's eye-opening book Complicated Women casts a loving eye on the films and actresses in the time before Will Hays's Production Code was enforced, and shows how movies that many people think of as painfully outdated actually contain some of the most modern-thinking females seen on celluloid to date.

(Comparisons are even made to films of the 1990s, with the newer films showcasing much more "old-fashioned" beliefs, which just goes to show that the Production Code pretty much destroyed how women are portrayed in movies.)

Though many actresses are covered, LaSalle's focus is mainly on two: Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer. These two women (Shearer in particular, and with much more concerted effort on her part) made great leaps in women's roles in a very short period, and were trailblazers, allowing the women that came after the ability to do the same.

Only a few pages of Complicated Women are devoted to Kay Francis (the original focus of this weblog, she was the reason I picked up the book in the first place), but LaSalle recognizes her for her portrayals of unmarried professional women who, in a few of her films, became mothers with no negative repercussions. He later proposes a theory regarding why many pre-Code stars, Francis among them, were labeled "box office poison" in 1938, only a few years mid-Code. "Actresses lost their edge" under the censorship of the Code, LaSalle states, and thus their "social relevance. After all, what is the point of a Kay Francis movie in which Kay Francis is less sophisticated than the viewer?"

The most eye-opening part of Complicated Women is that Will Hays was hardly involved at all in the enforcement of the Code that bears his name. The man truly responsible was Joseph Breen, a devout Catholic and director of studio public relations — certainly an individual with far too much power.

Another surprise was the sheer number of actresses that were active in the period. Along with Shearer (of whom I was mostly unaware until now) and Garbo (of whom I was unappreciative), there are several more women whose movies I feel compelled to seek out — or at least watch for on Turner Classic Movies. A partial list includes Joan Blondell, Mae Clarke, Madge Evans, Ruth Chatterton, Glenda Farrell, Ann Dvorak, and Constance Bennett — as well as films from the period by such big stars as Marlene Dietrich, Myrna Loy, Jean Harlow, Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck

Complicated Women also takes time to mention LaSalle's thoughts regarding the actresses of the modern day who are best carrying on the pre-Code legacy. Some of his choices may be surprising, but he backs them all up with substantial cinematic evidence.

LaSalle deftly rides the line between passion and scholarship. It's obvious he feels strongly about the films and women he chronicles, but he hasn't let that get in the way of telling the facts accurately (there's a bibliography of his sources in the back for further reading).

(In 2003, LaSalle was interviewed for a documentary based on his book also called Complicated Women. Featuring clips of films from the period, the documentary is shown occasionally on Turner Classic Movies. Watch TCM also for the films mentioned in the text, or check out the DVD collections Forbidden Hollywood, Vol. 1 and Forbidden Hollywood, Vol. 2 for eight of the most prominently covered.)

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Kay Francis Photo of the Day

"Kay Francis 1941 The Man Who Lost Himself" from Legendary Classic

Monday, April 28, 2008

OTR Review: the Jack Benny Program on the set of Charley's Aunt (41-05-18)

In a typically funny and clever episode of the classic Jack Benny Program, the cast visits the set of Charley's Aunt (a film starring Jack Benny and Kay Francis, and directed by Archie Mayo, who also helmed Francis in Street of Women).

This episode is special in the series because the marriage between Phil Harris and Alice Faye is first announced. (Harris and Faye would later go on to star in their own comedy radio series together, with a supporting cast that would include such radio veterans as Elliott Lewis and Walter Tetley.)

Several early jokes are made regarding Benny's cross-dressing performance, and especially funny is the scene where Benny tries to explain to dim tenor Dennis Day why Charley "doesn't have an aunt who's a woman." Later, there's a bit of hubbub when Jack offers to introduce Kay Francis to the gang. Phil refuses, "I'm a married man ... you know how weak I am," while Mary Livingstone shouts, "You charged me 25 cents to come on this set and I wanna meet Kay Francis!"

Both Francis and Mayo make appearances. Francis proves herself deft with Benny's writers' comebacks, insulting Jack with grace (though the words don't quite feel real coming from her mouth). Mary makes a jealously mocking comment (Jack is obviously infatuated with Kay), and Kay ripostes with a comment about where Mary must buy her clothes (Francis was famous for her taste in fashion), prompting Mary to ask for her quarter back.

There's a little too much anger in the deliveries for my taste (Benny is usually a lighthearted comedy), and this is by no means a classic episode (it was obviously written as a promotion for the film), it still has many funny moments and is recommended to fans of the movie, its actors, or its director (though Mayo portrays himself as the stereotypical tyrannical dictator).

Download Jack Benny on the set of Charley's Aunt from the Internet Archive.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Keyhole directed by Michael Curtiz (starring Kay Francis, George Brent)

The Keyhole (1933). Screenplay by Robert Presnell from the story "Adventuress" by Alice D.G. Miller.

Ann Vallee (Kay Francis) married her dance partner Maurice Le Brun (Monroe Owsley), and they had great success together professionally under the moniker "Maurice and Valentine". But it didn't work out, and Maurice wanted a divorce. Ann subsequently married aging millionaire Schuyler Brooks (Henry Kolker). But it turns out Maurice never went through with the divorce, and is now blackmailing Ann to keep things quiet.

When Ann goes to her sister-in-law Portia (Helen Ware) for advice, she recommends Ann leave America temporarily and let Maurice (a non-American) follow her. Then, Portia will make sure he cannot reenter the country. This quick trip abroad makes Brooks suspicious, however, so he hires private detective Neil Davis (George Brent) — who is tired of "scheming females" — to follow her.

Ann and Neil get friendly during the trip, and things get more interesting in Cuba. The handsome Brent has a natural acting style and an easygoing charm that makes it easy to see why he was such a popular romantic lead in his day (he worked with Kay Francis on at least six films, and with Bette Davis on a dozen more): he's just like a regular guy, only a little better.

The Keyhole is a lighthearted romantic comedy with just the right amount of tension. The title comes from the camera entering the story via a bedroom keyhole at the beginning, and leaving through a different one at the end. I'm sure it was a perfect diversion for Depression-era audiences (from prolific director Michael Curtiz). There are some clever twists at the end, all geared toward the expected conclusion, and even a suicide note introduced in the first scene becomes useful in tying up a loose end.

A minor subplot is provided by a one-sided romance between Hank (Allen Jenkins), a fellow private eye traveling as Neil's valet, and Dot (Glenda Farrell, later of the Torchy Blane series), a gold-digging con artist. The actors play well off each other — and Farrell is immensely charming — but their relationship offers only a little comic relief and seems mainly there to pad out The Keyhole's 70-minute running time.

Fans of Trouble in Paradise may spot George Humbert as a waiter in a couple of scenes. Humbert served Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) in that film's unforgettable opening scene. Viewers with a particularly keen eye may also spot another recognizable face waiting tables: Gino Corrado. Corrado was the piano accompanist to Basil Rathbone's violinist in A Notorious Affair.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Street of Women directed by Archie Mayo (starring Kay Francis, Roland Young, Gloria Stuart)

Street of Women (1932). Screenplay by Mary McCall, Jr., from the novel The Street of Women by Polan Banks. Adaptation and dialogue by Charles Kenyon and Brown Holmes.

People don't think that these things can be beautiful.

Kay Francis is Nat Upton, a successful fashion designer who has to break off her affair with ambitious contractor Larry Baldwin (Alan Dinehart) — whose wife Lois (Marjorie Gateson) is a controlling social climber — when Nat's architect brother Clarke (Allen Vincent) comes to live with her. Roland Young (best known for the Topper films) features as Baldwin's business partner Link Gibson, who spends most of his screen time asking Nat to marry him.

We've had our happiness, and now we've got to pay for it.

Clarke gets hired by Link's firm, but things get really complicated when Clarke hooks up with Baldwin's daughter Doris (Gloria Stuart from Titanic in her film debut) and Baldwin confesses his love for Nat to her. The self-professed "modern" girl shows herself to be old-fashioned in her response, and discomfort abounds with Lois overhears and goes to visit Nat at her office, armed with an arsenal of suggestive remarks. Thankfully, Young steps in to clean up the mess, and all ends happily.

Street of Women is a little different than most of the Francis "adultery" pictures I've seen in how it really seems as if she and Dinehart have feelings for each other. They appear taken with one another in every scene they share together. Neither Francis nor Stuart are up the intense emotional scenes, but this is otherwise a well-acted and -photographed pre-Code comedy/drama that tells its story in less than 60 minutes.

The only real downside is how the unsubtle writing forces everything to happen artificially just to get things going the way it wants them to. The metaphors (Lois takes lemon in her tea, while Nat takes sugar) as well as some scenes (e.g., the car crash) seem there just to provide "drama" to a film already filled with it — just in case some viewers don't "get it."

Look out for Louise Beavers as Nat's maid, Mattie. Two years later, Beavers would get her best role as the business partner of Claudette Colbert in the 1934 version of Imitation of Life (the superior one, in my opinion). Her presence almost makes up for the appearance of yet another wide-eyed Negro used for comic effect in an early scene (didn't that get old, even then?).

The title refers to the concept of all the skyscrapers in the city having been inspired by the women behind the men, as Nat inspires Larry in this film. Director Archie Mayo would again direct Francis in 1936's Give Me Your Heart (also with Roland Young, as well as Francis's frequent costar George Brent) and in the cross-dressing comedy Charley's Aunt (1941) starring Jack Benny. He would also helm the Marx Brothers misfire A Night in Casablanca in 1946.

Monday, April 7, 2008

A Notorious Affair directed by Lloyd Bacon (starring Kay Francis, Billie Dove, Basil Rathbone)

A Notorious Affair (1930). Screenplay/adaptation by J. Grubb Alexander from the play Fame by Audrey Carter and Waverly Carter. Features music by Felix Mendelssohn (both his violin concerto and "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing").

When heiress Patricia Hanley (Billie Dove) marries (below her station — and without permission!) up-and-coming Italian violinist Paul Gherardi (Basil Rathbone), she immediately loses access to her father, her rich friends, and her fortune. But success comes quickly to Gherardi, and with success comes cockiness. Gherardi begins an affair with one of the people he met at Patricia's home, the countess Olga Balakireff (Kay Francis).

In fact, the Gherardis' relationship breaks down so quickly that it's actually kind of funny. His wife practically steps aside as he and the countess spend more and more time together. (But when her opportunity comes with a doctor friend, watch how he gets in her way!)

From her very first scene, Francis's character's way with men is established, as she practically forces her way onto the hired help — really turning on the panther charm. This is actually a continuing thread throughout the movie, giving very little depth to an otherwise uninteresting character (with an awfully unfetching hairstyle).

Fans who only know Rathbone from his series of Sherlock Holmes films will be surprised to find him so young and very much the leading man. But he soon overdoes it, from his accent to his delivery (he could have been in Top Hat).

There's not much to recommend A Notorious Affair. This little potboiler definitely belongs to Dove — a silent star in her first talkie — though Francis steals every scene she's in as the insatiable maneater. And after all the back and forth suffering from affair to affair, the "happy" ending is just confusing.

(Watch for Gino Corrado in a rare non-waiter role as Rathbone's piano accompanist.)

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Passion Flower directed by William C. de Mille (starring Kay Francis, Kay Johnson, Charles Bickford)

Passion Flower (1930). Screenplay/adaptation by Martin Flavin from the novel Passion Flower by Kathleen Norris. Additional dialogue by Laurence E. Johnson and Edith Fitzgerald.

Cassy (Kay Johnson) and Dan (Charles Bickford), her father's chauffeur, get married against the objection of her father, which starts them off at the bottom. Kay Francis stars as Cassy's rich cousin Dulce who married for money. Five years and two kids later, Dan loses his job and has to accept Dulce's original wedding present of a farm.

It's obvious from the beginning that the constantly feuding Dan and Dulce are going to fall into each other's arms, but things move too quickly too soon. The whole thing is rather melodramatic, but the acting is good, the direction of William C. de Mille (brother of Cecil B.) is unobtrusive, and it doesn't go on for too long.

Zasu Pitts makes an impression as the landlady despite the awkward dialogue. Also, look for a young Ray Milland as a party guest.
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