Archive for Kay Francis

The Sunday Intertitle: Whirling Pants

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 15, 2012 by dcairns

LET’S GO NATIVE is an odd early Leo McCarey feature, unstructured and undecided as to what it’s about, but fitfully very funny indeed. Like a Laurel & Hardy film, it has jocular intertitles (even though it’s a talkie).

Jack Oakie plays Voltaire McGinnis, cab driver (but much of the action takes place on an ocean cruiser). Jeanette MacDonald plays a costume designer (but spends most of the story as a performer in a Broadway musical [but much of the action takes place on an ocean cruiser]). Kay Francis plays her rival (but doesn’t appear for the first half hour).

My copy of the film is really too ratty to show of the gowns, but here’s a still sourced from Everyone Says I Love You.

Apart from its obvious double-feature potential with DOWN TO THEIR LAST YACHT, I’m not quite sure why this film exists, but then I’m not sure why DOWN TO THEIR LAST YACHT exists (although it might have something to do with dressing Sidney Fox in revealing desert island undies).

McCarey stages a mass tit-for-tat routine involving hats being flung overboard, a direct descendant of PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP, and overall, the spirit of Laurel & Hardy hangs over the proceedings. If, as a friend remarked, RUGGLES OF RED GAP takes a step from L&H slapstick towards reality and real people (with Laughton sometimes seeming to directly ape Laurel), LET’S GO NATIVE shows McCarey taking those first faltering steps from short subjects to coherent features, without having grasped structure, character arcs, thematic development, or the level of conviction usually needed to keep an audience occupied for over an hour.

In later films, for instance the aforementioned RUGGLES, McCarey nailed all of those qualities, but in DUCK SOUP he triumphantly found a way to do without them.

Pre-code Love

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 8, 2012 by dcairns

My scavenging through the archives to find films for my Forgotten Pre-Code season at The Daily Notebook naturally threw up some interesting entries that didn’t make the final cut — here are some thoughts.

THE GIRL IN 419 (1933)

This medical/crime thriller was one of the best things I saw, but arrived too late to be prominently featured. Thanks to La Faustin for the disc. Dr James Dunn refuses to let patient Gloria Stuart die — “She’s too beautiful!” and falls in love with her while she’s still comatose. You’ve seen her act, there’s really no point waiting. If the central love interest is a trifle anemic, the comedy relief from Vince Barnett and the villainy from William Harrigan and Jack LaRue more than compensate. La Rue gets a spectacular death scene, after shooting everyone in sight. One survivor is David Manners, whose slightly bland demeanor is brilliantly exploited by the script’s final moments. Although this is a Paramount Picture, the social microcosm and throwaway black humour is reminiscent of the best Warners capers. Jules Furthman wrote the story, no doubt laying down the creepy, sick tone — he was Sternberg’s go-to-guy for scriptwork at this point, and the medical gallows humour here parallels the death row skittishness in Sternberg’s THUNDERBOLT.

DOWN TO THEIR LAST YACHT (1934)

~ is even weirder than it sounds. It starts out with a family of millionaires, busted by the Crash, reluctantly agreeing to sail a bunch of horrid nouveau riche types around on the titular last yacht. Shipwrecked on an uncharted island, they fall under the thrall, if “thrall” is the word I want, of Mary Boland, an insane dowager who’s declared herself Queen of the native population. The plot disintegrates before our eyes, nobody seems to know who or what the film is about, but every so often there’ll be a sideways snarl from Ned Sparks or a bit of fey haplessness from Sterling Holloway. A fever dream.

THE WITCHING HOUR (1934)

This is the earliest Henry Hathaway job I’ve seen. It’s a slightly stagey mystery/drama/thingy with telepathy, hypnosis and a ghost thrown in. Best thing in it is Sir Guy Standing, who previously I’ve mocked because I find his name funny, but he’s wonderfully natural for a theatrical knight. (ERROR — I am confusing Standing with John Halliday, who looks a touch similar and gives the best perf in this) I guess he never made a canonically recognized great film, although LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER was rumoured to be Hitler’s fave.

Sir Guy John Halliday plays the owner of a gambling house who can always anticipate raids due to his mysterious sixth sense. One evening he hypnotizes his prospective son-in-law, as you do, to cure him of a phobia pertaining to cat’s-eye rings. Unfortunately, he unconsciously implants a post-hypnotic suggestion to kill Halliday’s enemy, which the obliging youngster does. Much of the plot turns on the quest to find a lawyer eccentric enough to take on this case — while one can appreciate the difficulty of such a chore, it’s just about the least interesting tack the drama could have taken. Hathaway directs with somewhat bloodless efficiency, but with some nice low angles.

THEY LEARNED ABOUT WOMEN (1930)

Vaudevillians Gus Van and Joe Schenk lack screen chemistry, but Bessie Love plays her ukulele nicely, and you know how I love a good uke. Interesting to trace Love’s progress from Hollywood starlet to character actress in Britain (THE RITZ, REDS, THE HUNGER). And no, that wasn’t her real name (it was Juanita Horton).

THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET (1933)

Oddly structured but affecting, with Kay Francis suffering and Ricardo Cortez dependably oleaginous. Robert Florey merits more love: he made a slew of great pre-codes, some decent 40s films, and some excellent TV episodes (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits). Pair him up with John Brahm as a pro with expressionist chops. It all dates back to THE LOVE OF ZERO in 1927, with cardboard designs by William Cameron Menzies. Nothing as baroque here, but Florey was in synch with the pre-code era, for sure.

UP THE RIVER (1930)

Early John Ford, but really it’s primo Maurine Dallas Watkins, the snappy women-in-prison stuff being the highlight. This is also Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart’s only movie together (it’s a co-ed prison), but Bogart isn’t really Bogart yet — the rather preppie young fellow can act a bit, but doesn’t compel attention. Tracy is in his loutish, disorderly, proletarian Irishman mode, much better value than his stolid paterfamilias trudging later on. The surviving print is incomplete, with some missing scenes and some scenes spliced into blipverts by absent frames. This adds a not-unpleasant, but quite unintended William Burroughs feel to the jaunty hi-jinks.

BIG CITY BLUES (1932)

Mervyn LeRoy, in his most insanely prolific phase, presides over this little beauty. Eric Linden is the naive goof trying to make his way in New York, Walter Catlett is his rip-off artist distant relative taking him for a ride. The mood darkens when an uncredited Lyle Talbot and Bogie crash the party. Bogie gives us a news bulletin –

I enjoyed this so much I forgot to even notice the solution to the whodunnit part. Most of the film is Linden and la Blondell, typically soulful. Grant Mitchell bookends it with a nice turn as station agent, commenting on our hero’s prospects, or lack thereof, in the big smoke.

MIDNIGHT CLUB (1933)

When Billy Wilder pitched DOUBLE INDEMNITY to George Raft, what the actor wanted to know was “When do I flip my lapel and show her the badge?” He assumed his character, outwardly a stinker, must turn out to be an undercover cop. Well, MIDNIGHT CLUB is the origin of that misconception, with Raft flipping his lapel for fire-and-ice Helen Vinson. This diverts the film from its weird starting point, in which heist team Vinson, Clive Brook and Alan Mowbray operate under the noses of the law by hiring lookalikes to impersonate them at the titular club, providing a foolproof alibi. These unruly doppelgangers threaten to develop into some kind of storyline, but never do. Hall & Somnes, who helmed this, also made the more successful GIRL IN 419 (see top). Alexander Hall went on to a long-ish career, Somnes packed it in.

CHILD OF MANHATTAN (1933)

Lugubrious rewrite of a Preston Sturges Broadway hit, with only a few moments of real wit –

“While my carriage was detained, I looked around.”

“Naturally, Miss Sophie.”

“Naturally or not, I looked around.”

Nancy Carroll seems like she could have handed out the required pep if they’d given her the authentic Sturges script, but John Boles would have dragged it down no matter what. Watchable, in a thin way. Luis Alberni would get some proper Sturges dialogue in EASY LIVING — I can’t work out why Sturges didn’t pick him up for his rep company of gnarled bit-players. Still, we’ll always have Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis.

This scene strikingly anticipates the big shopping trip in THE PALM BEACH STORY. You can certainly see how such sequences would have resonated with depression-era dreams.

Man Unwanted

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2010 by dcairns

“I’m your… secretary.” David Manners is quick on the draw.

One of the pleasures for the code-literate viewer watching movies from the post-1934 classic Hollywood era is figuring out how the writers are going to come up with an ending which pulls off a dramatic surprise, satisfies viewer requirements (not necessarily a happy ending, but an apt one) and gets by the production code. If the protagonist commits a crime, for instance, morality demands that they be punished, but box office demands they be somewhat sympathetic or anyhow compelling, so there’s a potential conflict of interest.

In pre-codes it’s different. Not only are subjects verboten in later years frequently dealt with or at least hinted at, the films’ attitudes to them are rarely predictable. Some of the movies are shamelessly sexist or racist, others would seem unusually sophistic, nuanced and acute if made today. In MAN WANTED, Kay Francis plays a magazine editor whose playboy husband is always urging her to take it easy, like him. But Kay loves her job. And does she lover her husband? The arrival or male secretary David Manners tests that proposition.

This is one of the slowest pre-codes I’ve seen (well, after we get past the early talkie slump, when everybody was enunciating like classically-trained zombies), but that works for the picture. The general rule seems to have been that rich folks led languid, relaxed lives, and so their stories have an easy-going, meandering approach, whereas the working class were all fast-talking go-getters, so a rambunctious tone and a rat-a-tat pace were compulsory. Here, the working stiff is Manners, who never had much rat-a-tat in him, poor boy, so the overall feel is elegant rather than hectic. Andy Devine rasps comedically in the background. The slow pace suits the story: a gradual creeping-in of illicit sexual attraction allows sympathy to be maintained even as everybody is cheating on everybody else.

Best of all, without the Production Code’s floor plan, we get lost in the story and have no trail of moralistic breadcrumbs to lead us out. Is divorce occasionally the lesser evil, and do some women like to earn a living outside the home? These conclusions are at least up for discussion in films of this period, and you might guess from my enthusiasm that the movie gets things right, but I don’t want to spoil anything…

“It’s too lovely an evening to wun down womance.” The writers entertain themselves by giving Kay Francis a lot of lines with R in them.

A more problematic, but nevertheless invigorating case is SHE HAD TO SAY YES. Loretta Young is in peril again! How could we say no? That title leers suggestively at you.

A movie which basically preaches that men are all fucked up could be accused of stacking the decks in its favour by casting Regis Toomey and Lyle Talbot in the lead roles, and indeed Toomey, though looking less like a plain-clothes circus clown than usual, is vile and pinched, but Talbot actually achieves sympathetic moments. The premise: young exec Toomey suggests that his firm use girls from the stenography department to “entertain” out-of-town clients. But he doesn’t want his own girl, Loretta, taking any part in that. At least until he starts an affair with office floozy Birdie (Suzanne Kilborn, in mysteriously her only movie role) and then it seems like a good idea to keep Loretta busy. Once Loretta becomes a hit entertainer, the unjust suspicion that she’s going all the way with clients provokes Toomey into breaking up with her, although he’s soon tormented by doubts. He’s the kind of paranoid-jealous type who seemingly NEEDS to believe his lover is cheating.

Meanwhile Loretta has met Talbot, one of the out-of-town clients, who drunkenly paws her. She tells him she doesn’t go for that stuff. “Perhaps you just haven’t been pawed properly! It’s really very nice.” Sober, he apologizes sweetly, and starts to win her heart. Talbot is actually quite good at the vulnerable stuff. God knows, he can’t carry off cockiness without provoking bemusement (“What’s this chump so cocky about?”) The early 30s was a thin time for genuinely attractive leading men, it seems to me. Cary Grant was still learning to act, the young Ray Milland looks like an Yves Tanguy abstract (cloth draped on sticks), and John Wayne’s mouth was still a Pandora’s Box, spoiling everything by opening. David Manners is easy on the eye, but he has a Ken doll’s sexuality.

A glance through Marlene’s roster of screen squeezes illustrates the problem neatly: yes, there was Gary Cooper, who makes up for a lot, but there’s also Victor McLaglan, for whom nobody can possibly atone. Cesar Romero, Clive Brook, Lionel Atwill… possibly Sternberg was just seeing how far he could push a grotesque private joke…

SHE HAD TO SAY YES is a pretty ferocious attack on the kind of man who wants a desirable woman, wants other men to desire her, and becomes psychotically jealous whatever happens next. And it classifies that type of men as ALL MEN. Which may have some degree of truth in it, or at least be a relevant analysis of a certain trend of male-female relations in the early 1930s in America. What it doesn’t lend itself to is the kind of happy ending where the hero gets the girl and the audience feels happy. The screenwriters attempt to be true to the box office formula of boy meets girl and produce an awkward, unconvincing and disturbing finale where Loretta joyously accepts a marriage proposal from Lyle minutes after he has tried to rape her. In between, all he has to do is punch out Regis Toomey to win her over. Admittedly, he earns our eternal gratitude for doing so, but it’s fair to say we don’t quite trust him yet.

Nevertheless, an ending that sits so uncomfortably can’t fail to provoke thought: one thought being that it’s perhaps impossible to make a solidly feminist piece with the underlying assumption that the girl must always end up as half a couple, no matter what. That darkened-bedroom moment, with Lyle Talbot in the throes of fervid lust-hate, wanting to believe Loretta is good so he can love her, but wanting more to believe she’s bad so he can screw her, and Loretta stopping him with the plaintive words, “Is that all you think of me?” is a pretty strong scene. I guess we’re meant to think he’s an OK guy at heart because he’s capable of stopping himself. I’m not convinced this is a sign of the film’s age, I think audiences have always had a higher ideal for their leading men characters than that.

Still, Winnie Lightner is around to provide snappy put-downs, and Hugh Herbert plays things surprisingly straight as a cheating husband, apart from a high-pitched laugh signaling the character’s sexual arousal/anxiety.
MAN WANTED is directed by William Dieterle, with shapely compositions and lots of art deco. SHE HAD TO SAY YES is directed by George Amy, a successful editor who only helmed a few films.
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