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.
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