Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The House on 56th Street directed by Robert Florey (starring Kay Francis, Ricardo Cortez, Gene Raymond, Margaret Lindsay, Frank McHugh)

The House on 56th Street (1933). Screenplay by Austin Parker and Sheridan Gibney from a story by Joseph Santley.

In one of five films she made in 1933, actress Kay Francis begins The House on 56th Street as Peggy Martin, showgirl on stage in the Follies of 1905. As she dances to "The Merry Month of May," Monte Van Tyle (Gene Raymond) makes eyes at her from a box, while Lyndon Fiske (Jack Halliday) looks possessive from below. (Frank McHugh, a very busy character actor of the day — see The Crowd Roars — plays Monte's friend who is very interested in meeting a blonde.) Then, just in case we didn't pick up on it, between acts the backstage conversation centers entirely on how Peggy doesn't want to have to choose between romantic Monte and financially secure Lyndon.

The decision is made for her when Monte proposes. Lyndon is not the marrying type and takes the news from Peggy surprisingly well. Monte and honeymoon all across Europe (and discover Peggy's inordinate fascination with gambling, inherited from her father and grandfather), and on their return he carries her across the threshold of their new home on East 56th Street. ("I love it so much, I could just sit down on the floor and pat it.")

A daughter is born. During a visit to the home of Monte's mother (Nella Walker), she introduces Peggy to an old friend of the family: Lyndon Fiske. Fiske is discreet but, alone, plays up his failing health and regrets letting Peggy go. Desperate, he threatens suicide.

Peggy grabs the gun. It goes off. She gets 20 years.

From this point The House on 56th Street becomes a very different movie — at least on the surface. Underneath, schemes are brewing and history will surely repeat itself. Peggy "Stone" gets involved with Bill Blaine (Ricardo Cortez from the original Maltese Falcon in his second of four pairings with Francis), a professional gambler. Working with him takes her back, unbelievably, to dealing blackjack in that same house on 56th Street.

Here, the melodrama swells out of any realistic proportions, leaving the realm of freak coincidences and veering right into karmic predestination, with Peggy meeting her daughter (Margaret Lindsay) — who also has a gambling problem — and getting involved in another murder.

Things get a little ridiculous as these events attempt to twist themselves around into the requisite happy ending, but if you feel like going along for the ride The House on 56th Street is a solid drama with decent writing, really good acting (except for Lindsay, who doesn't even act upset realistically), and an imaginative storyline that gives Francis a rare opportunity to show her range.

Fans should especially check this one out. Even those who only like Francis for her clothes-wearing ability will have to admire how she goes from 1900s to 1930s fashions with ease (with a little gray in her hair and a little darkening around the mouth and below the eyes, she even wears middle-age well). It took two designers to clothe Francis in this film (Earl Luick and Orry-Kelly), and Kay herself said that if The House on 56th Street did better at the box office than her other films, it would be "because I parade 36 costumes instead of 16."

Trivia: Director Robert Florey, and Joseph Santley, who wrote the original story but was also a director, were the two co-directors on the Marx Brothers' first film, The Cocoanuts (which also featured Kay Francis). About them, Groucho Marx — who rarely hesitated to insult someone for the sake of a laugh — is reported to have said that "One of them [Florey, who was born in France] didn't understand English, and the other one [Santley] didn't understand comedy." The House on 56th Street was remade in 1938 as The Return of Carol Deane, starring Bebe Daniels (Cortez's costar in The Maltese Falcon).

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