…across a crowded room…

Frank Borzage’s LIVING ON VELVET. Possibly the most convincing and touching evocation of love at first sight I’ve ever seen. Elevates it from cliché on a cushion of bliss.

Somehow never seen the wonderful Kay Francis in much. Oh yeah, TROUBLE IN PARADISE. That’s a very good one. But it’s slanted so you have to prefer Miriam Hopkins. And WONDER BAR, but it’s not really the acting that hits you in that one. She has a very distinct rhythmic approach to dialogue, which became all the more apparent when I was looking for frame grabs with the sound off. Try it! Every sentence looks kind of the same, but it works, whatever she’s doing.

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And George Brent. Saw him in BABY FACE, where he doesn’t really stand a chance against Stanwyck. You feel like she could walk right through him, leaving a Barbara Stanwyck-shaped hole, like in a cartoon. But look at him here! How wonderful.

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“He has a lovely smile,” says Fiona. And, “It’s quite a strange film.” She’s said that about most of the Borzages we’ve been watching, actually. But strange is good.

Brent plays a confirmed fuck-up who’s “living on velvet” (an expression I hadn’t encountered before) after surviving a plane crash that wiped out his family. He manages to avoid being detestable while behaving like an oblivious heel to the fragrant Francis, which ought to make us want to hit him with cricket bats. It’s all very finely balanced. After they get married, Brent gives his wife an engagement ring — the kind of screwy gesture of love that makes a lot of his bad behaviour forgiveable… for a while.

“To a man living on velvet, what he does or how much he spends really doesn’t matter. [...] I really shouldn’t have lived. The three dearest people in the world were dead. I had no right to take advantage of a miracle. So you see, Gibraltar, I… I really died with them. That moment. Every moment since then, every moment from now on, is pure velvet.”

And when Gibraltar (decaying profile Warren William) questions the needless risks Brent takes with his flying: “I don’t know. It’s something…up there. Something that tried to get me once, and didn’t. I’m giving it another chance, that’s all. That’s sportsmanship.”

The highly literate and quirkily humorous script is by Julius CASABLANCA Epstein and Jerry ROARING TWENTIES Wald, and also, the IMDb tells me, an uncredited Edward Chodorov, who seems to have been uncredited on most of his best work.

While several Borz movies deal with heroic members of the underclass (SEVENTH HEAVEN, MAN’S CASTLE) this one is about wealthy bluebloods with no real material problems — when Brent and Francis run up a wad of bills because he can’t or won’t find work, it’s their creditors I worried about. All they have to do is accept the help of her rich aunt and they’re fine. But despite the characters’ wealth and status, and his irresposibility, Borzage invites us to care for them just as for the penniless Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor. He’s also quite interested in their dachschund. Going by this and MOONRISE and a canine moment in A FAREWELL TO ARMS, I think we can deduce that Borzage was a dog lover.

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26 Responses to “…across a crowded room…”

  1. Well, I for one have always preferred Kay Francis over Miriam Hopkins in ”Trouble in Paradise” and I think Herbert Marshall’s character does as well but his habit and Hopkins’ machinations compel him to go with her. Francis’ character is more interesting than Hopkins in that one(Hopkins in ”Design for Living” on the other hand…) and she gets the most romantic moment in the film, when she talks about the time they have, “Weeks”(Cut to Couple), “Months”(cut to mirror reflection of couple), “Years”(cut to shadows cast by couples’ profile in embrace). Miriam Hopkins is more the comic relief.

    I have never seen ”Living on Velvet” completely. But I have seen some scenes and definitely the legendary love-at-first-sight scene(almost every piece on Borzage I have read rhapsodies about that). How actors can do that I can never understand, unless of course Brent and Francis did fall in real life when this happened. It’s not uncommon in Borzage’s films, consider Tracy and Loretta Young who lived together when they made ”Man’s Castle”. Borzage had this directness that’s only equivalent is Jean Vigo(any evidence that everyone’s favourite anarchist saw Borzage) or Carl Dreyer. The story of “Living on Velvet” sounds interesting.

  2. Kay and George’s indifference to global warming would be considered shocking today.

    There was a big discussion of Kay a couple of weeks back over in “Self-Styled Siren.” I reccomend Stolen Holiday, a shockingly ealry rendition of the Stavisky saga with Claude Rains as the great swindler and Kay as his fashion-plate wife.

    Mr. Cukor used to tease Judy Garland during the shooting of A Star is Born by commenting on a take “a bit too Kay Francis” if he wanted something more of her and “better than Kay Francis” if she surprised him wioth something original.

  3. They’re indifferent to a great many things in this movie! I feel sorry for diner manager Edgar Kennedy who wants to close for the night (he runs his hand down his big bald head to his face, so we know this) while they’re busy canoodling.

    Stolen Holiday sounds thrilling!

    Kay Francis may have limitations but she works perfectly within them — no need for her to stretch. But that might make her a good yardstick for Garland, who’s at her best when there’s a visible strain.

  4. Arhur, I forgot that Spence had an affair with Loretta — and got her knocked up. Although I think that was on call of the Wild, I heard.

    As for how the actors do it, some of that is mechanical: the quiet voices, the hesitations. And the rest may be emotional memory: they might be thinking of someone else they love. But it’s awesomely effective in this scene. There are of course cases of actors who hated each other but played great love scenes together.

    When Lubitsch has characters end up with their own class at the end (as in The Smiling Lieutenant) I rarely like it so much, but Miriam as a sexy jewel thief just seems inherently more appealing to me than some perfume manufacturing heiress. But I like the spanking dialogue: “These accounts are a disgrace. If I was your father I would spank you.” “And if you were my secretary?” “I’d do just the same!” “You’re hired.” a strange reversal of the usual secretary fantasy, but there it is.

    As for Vigo: Dita Parlo in L’Atlante, like Mary Duncan in The River “clasps her own tit” as Fiona sweetly put it. And both films are about boats…

  5. Nope, not Spence. It was Clark Gable.

  6. Of course! No reason I should get them mixed up, except I don’t usually like either of them. Though both turned in great perfs for Borzage (Gable in the truly nutty Strange Cargo)

  7. Great coverage on Borzage David! I just saw this on TCM too, and feel exactly the same way about Brent: I knew I’d seen and generally disliked him in things before, but here he is utterly charming and pitch perfect.

    Like BAD GIRL, this film has some problems with the vagueness of the psychology of the characters (Brent’s “state” after the death of his family is one grand abstraction, and the way it leads to the finale I’m not sure I can follow). But you picked out one of my favorite moments, the exchange of loving looks across a room (unusual for Borzage, usually people give those looks in one another’s arms!). I also have a fondness for all the domestic squabbles between the newly married couple after they move into their house. I found it charming, sad, and quite real in its own whimsical way.

  8. Maybe you can touch on that if and when you cover ”Man’s Castle”(a few days still left for Borzage Week to end). Somehow Tracy and Loretta Young make a very convincing couple. Like Tracy, she was also Catholic, though Tracy made enough peace with the Church(and booze) to not let that get under his skin.

    I like Tracy more than Gable. He’s a great actor(in his active years, he was seen as the best actor in cinema) and a fantastic performer, though like many a fantastic performer from Olivier to Brando to Laughton, he could be prime ham at the drop of a hat with no one to reign him in. Tag Gallagher has an article that talks about these qualities of Tracy and it also touches on Borzage(and deals with ”Strange Cargo” though he’s not a fan) all under an umbrella covering Mankiewicz’s time producing at MGM.

    http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/03/28/joseph_mankiewicz.html

    The thing about ”Trouble in Paradise” is that I found Kay Francis more erotic and attractive than Miriam Hopkins(although I like her very much), especially that black dress of hers. To me the ending of the film is very ironic in that there seems to be this possibility of a romance that gets interrupted because of the pursuit of money(a key Lubitsch theme). ”Design for Living” by comparison is utopian.

    As for global warming, they don’t have an opinion because they were interrupted by…each other. I am sure that they would have been all ears otherwise. Still it’s pretty amazing that the film included that conversation.

  9. Can’t say that I like Tracy as much as you do Arthur. He can be very effective in certain roles but rather bland in others. And Hepburn’s mythologizing of him gives me a pain.

    Kay Francis and Miriam Hopkins are both gorgeous and desirable — in very different ways — in Trouble in Paradise. That’s part of what gives the film such a charge. Marshall ends up with Miriam, but he could have had Kay like that.

  10. Well…I don’t know about mythologizing much. Tracy is wonderful in films like ”Me and My Gal”, ”Fury”, ”Adam’s Rib”, ”The Last Hurrah”, ”The Actress” and of course ”Man’s Castle”. I am not seeing he’s the best but at his best he’s a very lithe, very natural actor. Can’t say I care for the movies he won Oscars for though, as usual the Academy dealt it to the least impressive works of an actor.

    And yes, he could have had her, “it could have been divine”. The odd thing is that for me ”Trouble in Paradise” took me a while to get into. For years as one of the most famous of the Pre-Codes out-of-circulation, it had this reputation as Lubitsch’s best and because of that it took me a while to see what a marvellous beautiful and rich film it is. It’s him at his best even if I prefer other films of his over it, especially ”Design for Living” or ”Heaven Can Wait” and especially ”The Merry Widow”. And Herbert Marshall in that film is in a class all by himself as is Kay Francis.

  11. Man’s Castle is coming up. Tracy triumphs over his own physically unprepossessing form.

    The thing with both Tracy and Gable is that the hype around each (can you imagine people thought of Tracy as subtle, Gable as irresistable?) is quite inaccurate and the bulk of their films not that great. But given a good movie, both could rise to the occasion and be outstanding.

  12. Daniel, you’re absolutely right about the end of Living on Velvet: George’s change of attitude isn’t explained in dialogue of shown in imagery or readily understandable in plot terms, and he doesn’t get a chance in the narrative to SHOW that he’s changed in any way, they just talk about it, so it’s unclear and untrustworthy. But clearly not meant to be.

    The crane shot with the statue is one of Borzage’s bits of self-plagiarism, since it also appears in A Farewell to Arms. “If it worked once…”

  13. I like Tracy best in <i.The Actress — the most seriosuly underrated of all Cukor’s films and the closest to his heart. Jean Simmons couldn’t resist a fit of the giggles when playing opposite Tracy and the wiley Cukor works it right into the film. What’s so beautiful about th film to me is that this bulldog of a father and his incredibly determined daughter are made of the same cloth. And what;s so otuching is Tracy’s realization of this — as Simmons strides ff into th world at the film’s conclusion, which remains the most radical-feminist Hollywood ever produced.

  14. Cukor’s pretty good at channelling Tracy’s ebullience, I think. I still have The Actress to look forward to. I never look forward to seeing Tracy in anything, but sometimes I greatly admire what I find, so I expect that’ll be the case here. My chief interest probably lies in Ruth Gordon as writer.

  15. Is it snowing in the crane shot with the statue? I seem to remember it snowing, but I could be confusing it with some of his other movies. There’s that gorgeous sequence in Three Comrades, and there must be one in Mortal Storm. I know there are others…

  16. The Mortal Storm has lots of snow, yes, especially the snowfall at the end.

    It’s snowing in the last scene of Living on Velvet, which reprises the crane shot from earlier. Beautiful scene — not quite satisfactory as a conclusion, but very beautiful.

  17. Yeah. It’s like the quintessence of Cukor, it’s light but there’s a serious side underneath that lightness which comes out and Tracy realizing the passing-of-time. It’s really a very mature film.

    As for most radical-feminist, it’s very much up there but I consider Minnelli’s ”The Pirate” closer, and maybe not a much but Judy Holliday(Cukor’s Toshiro Mifune) in Minnelli’s ”Bells Are Ringing”, her final performance before her tragic, unfortunate death. It’s like James Dean in ”Rebel Without A Cause”, she’s so full of life you can’t concieve that this is the end.

    It’s also certainly Jean Simmons’ best performance, her best role as well.

  18. One last thing to add, Cukor’s chief regret with that film was the fact that the studio interferred in the editing just like those miserable men did for ”Bowani Junction” and ”A Star is Born”. What exactly is the content of the cut scenes?

  19. One for David E, I think.

    I have interesting discussions with my regular producer about producer’s vs. director’s rights. My argument is that since all films contain mistakes, I would rather have the mistakes of a single mind rather than many different people’s mistakes.

    Of course I’m delighted if someone can talk me out of making a mistake, but if I’m convinced I’m right I’d rather be given the chance to prove myself wrong…

  20. From what I understand a lot of it had to do with clarifying why she tunred Tony Perkins down. Cukor said her decision to hhave a career and not marry the guy went against the grain of the 1950′s, which indeed it did.

    Speaking as a major Jean Simmons fan I’d say its one of her best performances. She achievd Absolute Cinematic immortality early on for her matching nymphets in Great Expectations and ,i>Black Narcisssus. As a full-fledged adult she’s amazing in Home Before Dark, Elmer Gantry and Brooks’ scandalously underrated The Happy Ending.

    Like Gene Tierney she’s a actress whose beauty overwhelms. But she’s mushc more technically skilled the Tierney. The trouble is her beauty makes that hard to see. In ,i>The Actress it’s very much apparent in her set-tos with Tracy.

    The film is also Mr. Cukor’s most personal. He was theater-mad just like his heroine, being a teenager in that very sameperiod. The scene where Simmons is high up in the balcony watching “Hazel Dawn” play the violin on the stage below is the auteur’s POV. Yes this is Ruth Gordon’s memoir, but Cukor was RIGHT THERE.

  21. Brilliant, thanks!

  22. A lovely scene. The romantic stichomythia of Francis and Brent made me think of the balcony scene in Act I of “Private Lives” — traces of which might also be scene in the exchange between Holden and Nancy Olson during the party scene in “Sunset Boulevard.”

    It might be a good idea, too, while talking of Brent, to mention his performance in “Jezebel.”

  23. I would if I could remember… wait, oh yeah, he’s damn good in that. Bette had kind of sidled in front of him in my memory, but yes, sensational role for any actor, and he makes it his own. Devil-may-care!

  24. Should have also mentioned that that’s the song from The Shining! It adds rather a strange vibe to the scene if you recognise it…

  25. I’m lifelong Borzage-lover–just found my way to this one via avi file magic… quite excellent! The two leads are just incredible–I’m just beginning to appreciate each of them… Brent is always excellent in support of Bette Davis, but in those films (Dark Victory always dominates in my mind) he HAS no psychology at all…

    Kay Francis is a star that I am only really starting to get a handle on… I had the misfortune of seeing her first (as a 12 year old) in In Name Only (1939), in which she plays an outrageously monstrous wife–perfectly (so perfectly, I’m afraid, that I always half-feel, even now, that that venomous characterization is “the real Kay Francis”)… But the tide began to turn a few years ago, when I latched onto the Criterion Trouble in Paradise, which I agree (with Arthur–and yes, that black dress is memorable) that she completely dominates (which I never expected, considering my ardent feelings about Miriam Hopkins)–and now the internet (piggybacking upon TCM, which I can’t get in Quebec) is really helping to flesh out KF’s career for me…

    the love at first sight scene is indeed the standout, but I was also delighted by the “Apwil” scene–which beautifully turns all of that nonsense about Francis’ “speech impediment” to comedic and character-development gold… it’s exactly the kind of thing a loving pair would joke about, and it should have done wonders for her overall star image (not sure if it did though)

    that global warming stuff at the party is amazingly fun–and did anyone else notice that, at one point, two ladies in the background are having a discussion about a novel that is “like The Well of Loneliness” (one of the ur-texts of lesbian literature–albeit a deeply flawed one)

    Dave

  26. You’re right, the “Apwil” scene is a standout. I like his playing throughout, especially when he’s just done something foolish and upset her. You can’t quite tell if he’s doing it on purpose.

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