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.)
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