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).

Monday, October 4, 2010

Union Depot directed by Alfred E. Green (starring Joan Blondell, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Alan Hale, Guy Kibbee, Frank McHugh)

Union Depot (1932). Screenplay by Kenyon Nicholson and Walter De Leon, and dialogue by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright, from an unpublished play by Joe Laurie Jr., Gene Fowler, and Douglas Durkin.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. stars as Chick, a vagrant just out of jail — and traveling with his partner "Scrap Iron," played by prolific character actor Guy Kibbee (Rain) — who takes advantage of a drunk's forgetfulness to get himself a shave and a change of clothes (and an unexpected pocketful of money) in order to get a hot meal at Union Depot.

His stomach full, he looks to satisfy another need and propositions Ruth (the cherubic Joan Blondell) due to her resemblance to a hooker who had just offered her services to him in the diner — and she takes him up on it (nothing explicit is ever mentioned) because she is desperate for money for a train ticket. Chick soon finds out Ruth is not a pro, however, and after he reprimands her, they hit it off romantically.

Meanwhile, Alan Hale (who had a memorable role in It Happened One Night, and who was the father of Alan Hale Jr., the Skipper on Gilligan's Island) plays a German violinist who turns out to be an American counterfeiter (guess what's in his violin case?). How Chick and Ruth get the case and start inadvertently passing phony money is complex but believable (the police spend the last quarter of the movie trying to figure it all out), as is their burgeoning affair, since they're both such pretty people.

Union Depot is a lot of fun but it also shines a light on the problems of the Depression — namely a lack of opportunity. Everyone in this film is making their own luck (both good and bad), and since this was made in the pre-Code era it's interesting to see how some crimes are "OK" in this context (Ruth's amateur prostitution and Chick's theft of the drunk's clothes) — since the crimes get them something they genuinely need to get along — and some are not (the counterfeiting, since it just involves greed). This take on relative wrongness would change completely with the enforcement of the Production Code by Joseph Breen in July 1934.

The story was reportedly a knockoff of the popular play that would inspire Grand Hotel (which followed Union Depot into theaters 3 months later), but I feel that the similarities are few and only on the surface. Director Alfred E. Green (The Goose and the Gander) does an admirable job of making light of Depression-era troubles without being disrespectful. And, best of all, things end the way they should end, not necessarily the way we want them to.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Goose and the Gander directed by Alfred E. Green (starring Kay Francis, George Brent)

The Goose and the Gander (1935).
Story and screenplay by Charles Kenyon.

Kay Francis stars as Georgiana in The Goose and the Gander, a surprisingly racy (given that it was released during the enforcement of the Hays Code) bedroom farce from 1935. Georgiana runs into her ex-husband Ralph Summers (Ralph Forbes), whose current wife Betty (Genevieve Tobin) Georgiana has just seen making plans with her paramour, Bob (George Brent). In order to show Ralph the kind of woman he left her for, Georgiana schemes to get everyone together at her lodge under false pretenses, so Ralph can discover Betty with Bob.

Ralph agrees because he wants to be alone with Georgiana — remember, what's good for the goose is good for the gander — but things get more complicated when a pair of jewel thieves (John Eldredge and Claire Dodd) steal Betty's car and are sent to the lodge by mistake, whereupon they pose as "Ralph and Betty Summers."

Confused yet? Well, eventually the police show up and get everything all mixed up. Georgiana figures things out pretty quickly, though, and deviously plays along to the hilarious discomfort (O, joyous schadenfreude!) of the others. Meanwhile, she takes the opportunity to put the moves on Bob, to his reciprocal glee, but to Betty's chagrin. But it is a comedy, remember, so most everyone ends up happy in the end (even if it doesn't always quite fit with their characters' preceding actions).

The beautiful and charming Kay Francis, an actress with a vast filmography of which little is available on video, is truly the star here. She is in her element playing a member of polite society with amusingly intentions. She is so in control of all the actions on the screen that the other characters seem to be acting merely as her puppets.

The acting is solid all around, with the simple direction of Alfred E. Green serving Charles Kenyon's script quite well. At just over an hour, The Goose and the Gander is the ideal length for an afternoon's diversion, and a fine example of the kind of sophisticated comedy in which Hollywood specialized in the 1930s. It's also only one of several films Francis made with Brent, so if this pairing was enjoyable, there are more to seek.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Lady of the Night directed by Monta Bell (starring Norma Shearer)

Lady of the Night (1925). Screenplay by Alice D.G. Miller from a story by Adela Rogers St. Johns.

I first became aware of Lady of the Night while reading Complicated Women, where author Mick LaSalle refers to it as the breakthrough of star Norma Shearer: "After the film's release, MGM stopped lending her to other studios. She was too valuable." He also praises Shearer's collaborations with Monta Bell (the director of this film and several others with the actress) as "delicate, poem-like films with a bite to them."

I'm not a huge fan of silent films in general, as much as I would like to be, but when I saw that it was going to be broadcast on Turner Classic Movies, I set my recorder. I'm so glad I did. First off, in reference to my previous comment, once Lady of the Night began, I never once remembered that I was watching a silent film. Not only is the brand new score by Jon Mirsalis wonderfully apt to the point of invisibility, but the story is immensely involving because the characters are so engaging. Monta Bell's direction tops everything off with further storytelling touches using only visuals.

The plot of Lady of the Night involves two women from the proverbial opposite sides of the tracks: Florence Banning (Shearer) is the daughter of a rich judge/businessman, and Molly Helmer (also Shearer) is the daughter of a man sent to jail for 20 years on the day of her birth. Years later, they both graduate from school, Florence from the "Girls' Select School" and Molly from the "Girls' Reform School." Watch as Bell instantly sets up the different worlds: Florence leaves to much pomp and affection from her classmates, and Molly is kind of pushed out the front gate (of what looks like a prison) with her two friends, who immediately go their own separate ways. On the way home, Molly checks her reflection in a passing vehicle: a hearse.

Some time later, Molly has set herself up with "Chunky" Dunn (George K. Arthur), a milquetoasty "prince of fashion" who introduces her to ambitious inventor Dave Page (Malcolm McGregor), whom she instantly falls for, much to Chunky's chagrin. In fact, Molly is attempting to advise (and romance) him when he meets Florence while selling her father his new invention. (One could assume that the similar appearance of Florence and Molly is a consideration, but this is never mentioned in the film.)

One could say that the usual love-triangle conflict occurs, but the characters (especially Molly, one of Shearer's best performances, a true tour de force) are much too complex to be rules by cliches. Though both are played by Shearer, I never imagined Florence and Molly as anything other than two people who look alike.

Both are around 19 years old, but Shearer plays Molly as more worldly and "older," while Florence is giddy and much "younger." This speaks volumes about Shearer's work in Lady of the Night and suggests why she was so famous and respected in her heyday — in addition to bringing a sharp focus on the sad fact that so few of her early roles are available on video in any form.

The special effect of having both women sit together looks impressive even today (I couldn't see the line!). The only flaw is that, when they embrace, we do catch a glimpse of the double in profile. Interestingly enough, this is another famous face: that of a young Lucille LeSueur, still trying to break into the movies. Not long after, MGM would have a contest to rename Miss LeSueur (due to her surname resembling "le sewer"), and she would eventually be crowned "Joan Crawford."

At just over an hour, the story is tight and succinct, with no wasted film -- ideal for an evening's entertainment with time left over for discussion because the writing, acting, and direction are all top notch. It's only unfortunate that the Academy Awards would not begin for a few more years, or perhaps Lady of the Night would be better remembered as the terrific little film that it is.
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