Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Kay Francis Recap


The Siren feels as though she's Auntie Mame. Vera Charles just swept in and asked "have you spoken to your broker?" and when the Siren asks what's happening, Vera replies "Oh, not much, just that nothing is WORTH anything anymore." In this version, Vera adds, "And Siren darling, you just bought yourself a nice big banking system." Perhaps it's time for the Siren to get a job in the roller-skate department.

So what better period to be looking at right now than the 1930s? and what better actress than our own dear Kay Francis? The Siren has been planning to recap the Kay movies she caught during TCM's September Star of the Month festival. In order of preference:

1. The House on 56th Street (Robert Florey, 1933). There was a teensy bit of grumbling about this one going on in the comments to the Siren's earlier post and elsewhere, and Kay herself didn't seem to think much of the movie. Most Kay sources tsk-tsk that it was originally intended for Ruth Chatterton, as though film scripts are like evening gowns and shouldn't be handed down lest they get shabby. After revisiting the film the Siren informs everybody, as diplomatically as possible, that she's right and you're wrong. This is an excellent movie, not a standard sudser at all, with a remarkably grim plot that links Kay's fate to the declining fortunes of a New York City townhouse. (For the record, Filmbrain likes it too.) Lawrence Quirk calls it a "sociological romance," a good way to put it; the device of connecting Kay's declining fortunes to the house off Park Avenue is unusual and very effective.

When the Siren tries to pin down what she likes about a movie like House on 56th Street, she always comes back to structure. It's 68 minutes, and there is not one extraneous scene. Director Robert Florey (later of Beast with Five Fingers fame) quickly establishes his set of visual symbols--the house as both Kay and New York itself, the cherub as the dream of family love she will never have, the gambling as a rigged and unwinnable system--then deals them out with careful economy, like the cards that recur through the plot. Since it's a Kay Francis movie, the best analogy the Siren can use is clothing. An item at a typical mall store may look all right on the hanger, but turn it inside out and you'll find a mess: seams unpressed, unfinished and raveling, no tape on the hems, threads escaping from the buttonholes, great big scratchy tags everywhere just in case you forgot the BRAND NAME. Turn a vintage item inside out sometime and you'll be shocked at the difference. The seams are perfectly sewn down and pressed in, there is hem tape on the hem, the buttons are firmly attached and the lining is as beautifully tailored as the outside, with tiny stitches holding down certain folds so they won't bulge.

Here our Kay starts out as a brunette showgirl, dancing on tables and falling in love with a wealthy, upper-class New Yorker, who buys the house for her and tells her she belongs there "forever," as she touches a melancholy little cherub engraved in the plaster over the fireplace. But his family dislikes her, as families do. The plot plays out with such fatalism it might have served as noir if made 15 years later. Kay is imprisoned for 20 years for a crime that she not only didn't commit, but was trying to prevent. Her husband is killed in the Great War, her daughter is told she is dead. And all the while we see the house, earlier connected to innocence and happiness, becoming grimier and shabbier. When Kay is first sent to prison the house's windows are boarded up; the shot is like looking at someone who's been blinded. She gets a terrible blonde dye job explicitly to cut all ties with her past self, and its harshness adds to the theme. Both Kay and the house are still beautiful, but permanently marked.

Kay runs into an old shady acquaintance and winds up dealing cards in a gambling den that's run out of the very house she once lived in. Over at IMDB you can see some viewers rolling their eyes over this, but the Siren has zero patience for such Gradgrindian quibbles. There's a difference between things that make mathematical, logical sense and things that make poetic, symbolic sense. In the world of the movie, no course other than Kay's return to the house would be possible. And her daughter's appearance in the illegal casino is also needed to maintain symmetry, as is the daughter's mistake that occurs after Kay tries to help her, as Kay was trying to help the man whose death sent her to prison twenty years before. Margaret Lindsay as the daughter is, as usual, grating to the nerves, but that is also deliberate. The point is the quality of Kay's love and sacrifice, not the worthiness of the object.

It's very much a Depression movie, one that looks back at past gaiety, beauty and love and can't stop grieving for the way it's all been snatched away. The sheer bloody unfairness of what happens to Kay must have been so real to an audience whose hopes for comfort had been brutally rescinded through no sin of their own.

2. Jewel Robbery (William Dieterle, 1932). Also a Depression movie, and how, but with a far more pleasant conceit--rich people making clowns of themselves and getting taken right down to their garters by someone more clever. William Powell makes off with the rocks of the title, but also with the "jewels" of Kay's virtue, all with criminal panache ("I studied in Paris," he explains). As John McElwee pointed out, this movie must have been great escapist fun in 1933, and still is. It seems to be the favorite of everyone who caught it last month, and if the Siren has a slight preference for The House on 56th Street that's probably due to her mood. Jewel Robbery is a pip, falling just short of being good enough to be called "Lubitschian," but coming damn close with moments like Powell explaining how he lifted a necklace at a charity ball: "The lady stood beside me. The Prince of Wales was announced. I could have removed her dress." The Siren was sure she was going to like this one from the second she saw Kay in the bubble bath--not a chaste Hays office bubble bath, but a heels-kicking, whoops-that-was-close bath. Francis is so lively and happy in these early movies. Powell is deliciously funny although maybe he had pissed off the cameraman, as his overbite was never more obvious than here.

3. Confession (Joe May, 1937). The Siren has her own confession, that she missed the end of this one, but it was going swimmingly up to that point. It's similar in some ways to House on 56th Street, including the theme of mother love and sacrifice, once so common in American movies and now about as frequent a film element as wipes or noble politicians. (In current big-budget movies mothers with plot prominence usually turn out to have committed infanticide. Mothers who actually give things up for their kids are confined to Lifetime, a channel so ghastly that when the Siren sees it advertised as "television for women" she feels like suing for libel on behalf of her gender.) Anyway, Kay appears rather late in this movie, but when she does show up the plot goes from zero to sixty in a scene that reminded the Siren of both The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Letter. Kay's love scenes in flashback are very well played, as she's aided a great deal by Basil Rathbone, who gives a perfect take on the familiar role of "I am an Arteest and therefore a Tomcat." It's said to be an almost shot-by-shot remake of the German original, Mazurka. Julius Epstein had a hand in the screenplay, as he also did with

4. Secrets of an Actress (William Keighley, 1938). One of the supposed throwaways Kay made when Warner Brothers had her with one jeweled heel out the door and the other on a banana peel. But it's very bubbly and cute, with some nice snappy dialogue. Kay plays an aspiring actress with no discernible secrets, so I don't know what that title was about, much less the plot, which hurtles so hard toward the denouement you no more notice the holes than you do bird poop on the rollercoaster. Part of the reason I liked it was--wait for it--George Brent. I swear I'm not saying that just because it's been a while since we've had a good George Brent debate. He was good in this movie, very funny in the scenes with Gloria Dickson as his scheming not-yet-ex wife, and he had some nice chemistry with Kay.

5. Allotment Wives (William Nigh, 1945). One of the three Monogram cheapies Kay made as her career reached its close, this is a well-executed B picture that shows Kay might have made a good noir dame if only given more of a chance. Here she is running a criminal scheme that has women in Europe marrying multiple GIs for their allotment checks. She has a daughter, of course, and tries to keep the girl out of harm's way at a private school. This works about as well as it ever does in the movies. Paul Kelly, more than fifteen years past his real-life role in a memorably violent and sordid Hollywood triangle, plays the hardboiled investigating major in the same way he'd have probably played it if he'd gotten the Otto Kruger role as Kay's accomplice. Kay gets a fabulous B-noir exit, too.


6. Dr. Monica (William Keighley, 1934). Not a good movie, but has some historical interest for those who want to see how unwed motherhood, infidelity and infertility were treated just on the cusp of the Production Code's implementation. Kay plays the titular ob-gyn, and sports the most amazingly chic outfits you ever saw as she glides from office to operating room to drawing room. Her husband (Warren William, so underused his biggest scene has him trimming a Christmas tree) has had an affair with a young friend of Dr. Monica's (Jean Muir) and gotten her pregnant. He doesn't know that. Dr. Monica at first doesn't know that either. Later Dr. Monica does find out but Jean Muir doesn't know Monica knows. Nobody really knows anything in this movie.

7. Transgression (Herbert Brenon, 1931). Stagey tale of a wife straying, then moving back. The Siren thought it was pretty dreary and Kay was not at her best. But I did like the scenes in and around Ricardo Cortez's Spanish country house, which had a nicely sinister air somewhat redolent of the Mitteleuropean settings of Frankenstein and Dracula.


8. Cynara (King Vidor, 1932) and 9. Raffles (George Fitzmaurice, 1930). Hardly Kay Francis movies at all, these are both about Colman, and therein lies the reason the Siren didn't much care for them. Colman, she has recently realized, usually bores the everloving bejesus out of her (A Tale of Two Cities and Random Harvest are notable exceptions). He's so clipped and restrained and polite, there's no underlying pathos and sensitivity, as with Robert Donat, and no dash either, as with Grant or Flynn. If Colman withdraws from the room with a bow, the better to preserve your virtue, he isn't doing it with a wink and a sexy little flash of regret. He's doing it because he really truly does care about your virtue. No wonder David Niven was so much more fun as Raffles. No wonder the Siren didn't believe for a moment that Colman would actually succumb to Phyllis Barry at a swimsuit competition. Like McElwee, the Siren did enjoy Kay's sleek chic and "butched-out hair" but that was about it. I also expected more snappy direction from the Vidor than I got.

The Siren couldn't resist re-watching One Way Passage and a bit of Trouble in Paradise as well. All right, your turn. Any Kay discoveries to share?

63 comments:

Dan Callahan said...

Of the seven Kay movies I hadn't seen, I was only impressed by "I Loved a Woman," where she had a surprising romantic chemistry with Edward G. Robinson, and a very free-thinking character to play. Conversely, I was disappointed with her team-up with Claude Rain, "Stolen Holiday."

"My Bill" is one of the worst movies I've ever seen; it really is as bad as its reputation. "Playgirl" was almost as depressing, especially the way Kay's age is brought up and used against her in the last scenes.

"Cynara" is not very well-directed by Vidor, and Colman is a snooze, as ever, but I found Phyllis Barry intriguing. It was her debut, and she was reduced to uncredited bits shortly afterwards, but she has a troubling quality I can't quite put my finger on...and she seems to interest Vidor momentarily.

I've now seen 55 of Kay's 67 films. A bunch of her very early work continues to elude me. I hope you saw her two Borzage films?

Dan Callahan said...

Sorry--Claude doesn't Rain--he Rains.

Campaspe said...

I missed Stolen Holiday so I am somewhat comforted that you didn't care for it, though we seem to disagree a bit on House on 56th Street. I agree 100% about Phyllis Barry, she was the only intriguing thing in the movie. There was a certain wildness to her, so much so that she even gave Colman some fleeting sex appeal.

The Borzages are a sad story; I thought our DVR had been fixed but it hadn't and I found out the hard way, when it failed to record. People seem to prefer Living on Velvet of the two. I am trying to think of it as just something more to look forward to.

55 of 67 -- most impressive! If you've seen it, I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on Secrets of an Actress, which was much more fun than I'd expected.

Vanwall said...

My Kay Francis discovery was something more general this time - she had an uncanny ability to steal scenes, especially from other actresses, and I can't quite figure out the method, as she wasn't conventionally pretty - with very unusual eyebrows, she wasn't blonde, she didn't "have a built" that would be buttinsky - she had that lovely contralto with an alluring speech impediment that helped certainly, but somehow she just managed to do it extremely well, even without speaking. I must say, she walked clothes very, very well, and she had one the best bare backs ever in the movies, which was on display enough to qualify for a seperate reference book on that subject. She played well with children, too, and it was hard for even a cute tyke to take the camera away from her in a scene. Must've been hard to beat that if you were looking to shine on camera. I think her work with Powell and and a relatively young Herbert Mashall, (once described to me as "sex on a stick" by an ardent admirer) was marvelous, and it's quite possible no one ever worked as well with Miriam Hopkins before or since.

Campaspe said...

Vanwall, Kay was one of Miriam's few friends in Hollywood, but she still said Miriam was a trial in Trouble in Paradise. In that one scene where she's having breakfast in bed she had to eat something like 20 boiled eggs before Lubitsch could get a shot with her face toward the camera--Miriam kept playing so Kay had to turn.

Kay really did have presence, didn't she? even in the two nothing parts I saw, the Colman vehicles, she was arresting on screen.

Vanwall said...

Siren -
I didn't know that Hopkins and Francis were friendly, that explains why Miriam played reasonably well with Kay, altho she seems to have had her moments. I always get a feeling of brittleness from Hopkins' performances that wasn't on display in Trouble in Paradise, which was a real surprise for me, as I expected more of the same.

Kay Francis always seems fairly relaxed, which can be a hindrance when she's supposed to be excited sometimes, but then maybe that's part of the lens love affair with her. Of all the TCM Stars of the Month, this was prolly my favorite series, as plenty of pre-codes, and plenty of Kay Francis, was on display. I'll have to work on seeing more - Mr. Callahan has a lead on me. ;-)

Edward said...

Over the years I've been curious about Play Girl, or Playgirl, or whatever the heck it's called, because the plot sounded so sordid -- older golddigger realizes she's past it, so she finds a younger model to pimp out. Whoa. Of course, with the Production Code in full force in 1941, the whole thing seems to be about how many diamond necklaces and steak dinners the two girls can trick a pompous Chicago businessman into springing for. Bizarrely, RKO cast Nigel Bruce in this role -- I presume for his complete inability to project lust. The only moments I enjoyed were Kay imitating Nigel's bumbling, stuttering speech habits, and then later when he turns the tables by imitating her, speech impediment and all. Dan's right that the harping on Kay's age was obnoxious, especially since she looked radiantly youthful and her protege had nothing.

I watched Confession again since it blew me away the last time TCM ran a Francis festival. As a big fan of Basil Rathbone, I am always amazed at how he found new ways to play villains... compare his seducer here to Lord Rockingham in Frenchman's Creek, a movie I know you love as much as I do. It's basically the same part (horndog bastard), but whereas "Rock" is a slimy, relentless insinuator, Michael Michaelow is a patient, devouring spider with a heart of stone. Bazz certainly made up for his earlier teaming with Kay, A Notorious Affair, in which he gives a truly booby prize performance.

Campaspe said...

Vanwall, I completely agree, this was the best SOTM in ages, although the current Carole fest is pretty goshdarned good too. I am wondering, in all seriousness, if an email campaign might get us a Ruth Chatterton or Warren William fest.

Edward, you are so right about Rathbone--what a great way of phrasing it. He really was a peerless screen villain, he never just lets it slide into anything standard. And so sexy as well. Confession was a particularly good turn from him--you see every machination he's working on the young girl and then on Kay in flashback, but you still believe that they would fall for him because DAMN he's good at it.

Exiled in NJ said...

Rathbone was the Rickman of his generation. Maybe his voice didn't purr, but with that long nose to look down...he was sublime. Colman was fine opposite him in If I Were King since he often sounded as if he were writing his lines as he spoke.

And you are not alone, Siren, in these times. Many clients tell me that their retirement plans are now a 101K.

Campaspe said...

Exiled, If I Were King is on my "must see" list, because of the Sturges screenplay.

DavidEhrenstein said...

My biggest Kay discovery (which I think I've mentioned in here before) is Stolen Holiday. It's the Stavisky story with Claude Rains as the suave swindler and Kay as his fashion plate wife. Michael Curtiz directed. Needless to say he's no Alain Resnais but he keeps it moviing, and it's a fabulous piece of 30's craftsmanship.

Surprised you were disappointed, Dan.

Campaspe said...

I am sure I will have to see Stolen Holiday at some point because not only does it have Kay, but also Curtiz and Claude Rains.

Dan Callahan said...

Kay looks great in "Stolen Holiday," but no one involved seemed particularly interested in what they were doing. Whereas in "I Loved a Woman," there are real and interesting sparks between Eddie G. and Kay. I liked especially how the script doesn't judge her for being so independent and honest when it comes to sex and what she wants from it.

I seem to be harping on her unsung co-stars, but I also thought Jane Bryan was terrific in "Confession." Her scenes almost seem like a separate movie, something primal and disturbing.

I saw "Secrets of an Actress" a while ago, but remember it has some interesting visuals.

Most impressive re-watch: "Mandalay." What a fantastic, incredibly sleazy movie! She really turns up the heat there...she's all moist and tanned and sluggish, like the most satiated woman in the world. Which of course she was.

I'm liking the Lombard fest, but it would be so nice if they could show more of her obscure Paramount work. If they had those Paramounts, they could also do a good Ruth Chatterton fest. And Nancy Carroll is another Paramount actress whose films are impossible to see.

Campaspe said...

The situation with pre-1949 Paramount pictures makes me want to storm the barricades.

mndean said...

I liked Confession, but I was the only one in my little group that seemed to. Others thought it overwrought. I really am sorry I missed some of the other films, but I was too busy to get them all.

It's interesting to see George Brent get some positive attention. I've seen enough Brent films to realize that he's occasionally good, but it really is hard to predict when.

I am very surprised that they got as many Paramounts in the Lombard festival as they have. They really couldn't have had a decent Lombard fest without even one. They got none of Kay's Paramounts, and I would guess that the same would apply to Chatterton.

BTW, I've seen If I Were King way back when it was on VHS, and it's one Colman I like and Rathbone is part of why the film is good. In a way, I can see why the studios didn't want to let Sturges direct - they'd lose a damn good writer.

Campaspe said...

M., grrrr to overwrought! but everybody's already heard my little speeches on behalf of melodrama so I won't recap.

"I've seen enough Brent films to realize that he's occasionally good, but it really is hard to predict when." You nail it right there. It's enough to make me wonder if some biographer could come up with an explanation. Brent getting laid a lot during filming, Brent gives good performance? Brent on/off the sauce affects performance? Brent cares deeply about script quality and that affects Brent's performance? Brent subject to violent mood swings? There's so many things that it could be, but what you can't deny is the wildly varying quality of his acting.

Edward said...

Siren, you know what Bette Davis (co-star in 11 movies, and sometime lover) said about Brent: "he had an excitement he rarely was in a mood to transfer to the screen." What an understatement. Speaking of Rathbone, the two of them had nice relaxed chemistry in a forgotten WWII spy movie called International Lady; they play a 40's version of James Bond and Felix Leiter and Basil has a truly startling moment at a party where reveals himself in disguise. In Rudy Behlmer's "Inside Warner Brothers" there are fascinating memos about Basil's fruitless and frustrating pursuit of the part Brent played (nicely) in Dark Victory... guess he got over it pretty fast. As for Brent, I like him quite a lot in Jezebel -- he nails a certain common kind of doltish guy who puts his own ego and thin skin off on the women around him. And in The Rains Came, I love the scene where he and Myrna Loy share a sad zipless fuck while her boorish husband (Nigel Bruce!) sits helpless during a power outage. But more typical is the remake of One Way Passage, Till We Meet Again, where he has the William Powell role, and compared to Powell he's a black hole on the screen.

Campaspe said...

Edward, I think Dark Victory is one of the reasons I always groaned when I saw Brent's name in the credits. And you say Rathbone wanted the part? He'd have been a gazillion times better. I barely remember Brent from The Rains Came, that one belonged to Loy, Arthur C. Miller and the special effects department. (God, poor Tyrone Power, playing that non-character and trying to be dignified and sexy in those turbans. He had some all right scenes toward the end though.) But when I re-watched Jezebel for last year's Wyler blogathon, I was struck by how animated Brent was, how he played that part with some real gusto. I'll have to see International Lady at some point. And supposedly Brent was quite good in the two Borzages he did with Kay.

Edward said...

One thing that sets Jezebel apart in Brent's career is that he creates some real tension. He's actually dangerous as he insists on acting out his own pigheaded notion of the South's code of honor -- and then he becomes a figure of perverse sympathy as we see that he's being played for a chump, and that he's viewed with indifference and contempt by his social circle. But I suppose anyone would look good with dialogue by Huston and direction by Wyler.

mndean said...

Strangely, I even liked Brent in a silly Jean Arthur screwball comedy unpromisingly called More Than A Secretary. For half of the movie, his character is like a parody of the stiffs George often played, and he seemed to get it and play it to the hilt.

I liked him also in another bit of fluff called Housewife, where he played an office grind whose wife (Ann Dvorak) was the real brains of the outfit and gave him the confidence (i.e. got him drunk enough) to start his own business, and after success his head gets puffed up and he goes for employee/homewrecker Bette Davis. All ends well as a code film must, which was the depressing part of the film. If not for the code, it might have been worthwhile picture.

Neither picture was any more than a minor diversion, but those were a couple of the movies that showed me Brent could act. I liked his older films with Chatterton, but you could see lassitude in his acting in spots there as well. He really should've met Selznick and copped some bennies from him. It might have helped.

Karen said...

I saw a bunch this time around that I hadn't seen before, and revisited a couple that I had (notably, The Keyhole, which was great fun and in which Kay's gowns--especially the slinky beaded number she wears under the cape with the INSANE feathered collar--are practically a featured character. I don't know that I could rate them, but I was struck by some.

But before that, I have to holler out some Ronald Colman love--seriously, Siren, have you seen The Light That Failed? I would argue that Colman gives a truly passionate performance, ably assisted by a fiery Ida Lupino. I love that movie. That being said, I found Raffles completely unwatchable and deleted it not too far in (which is unbelievably rare for me to do), and Cynara I only barely suffered through.

I love that you quoted the Prince of Wales line from Jewel Robbery, which is delicious beyond words, and is vastly improved by Powell's delivery. I proudly confess to being the person responsible for it being in the Memorable Quotes section of that film's IMDb entry.

I don't know that I could rank the films I saw this time around. I was pleasantly surprised by all those George Brent pairings, and happy to have been provided further evidence of how fun and sexy he was in his earliest years. Living on Velvet started off a lot more strongly than it ended (sheesh!), aided handily by the Brent/Francis first encounter (and who would ever have believed it plausible that someone could fall in love with George Brent at first sight, based on all those films with Bette Davis?) and the simply terrific scene where Brent discovers Francis' speech impediment and makes her recite "Around the rugged rocks the ragged rascal ran."

He was enormous fun in The Goose and the Gander, too, which was pretty much just great fun in general.

There was also a scene in Give Me Your Heart in which Brent curls up around Francis on her bed and is just incredibly sweet and flirtatious and boyish, and which left me dying to know what the hell happened to him by 1939 that turned him into such a wooden prig.

I wasn't quite as taken with Allotment Wives as you, in part because it just felt wrong to see Francis in the role of someone quite that despicable. I think I would have been OK with her as a crime lord, which she carried off with aplomb, if she hadn't been involved in such a sordid crime. To show Kay defrauding the government and exploiting soldiers back from the war was a little tough for me to take.

Incidentally, I really really liked The House on 56th Street, too, for all the reasons you cite, but Trouble in Paradise and Jewel Robbery will always top it in my personal Kay Francis Hall o' Fame.

It was a great month!

Karen said...

Sorry for the double post, but I've just read through the comments and had to say something about Stolen Holiday. I really liked it--what's not to like with Claude Rains in the lead?? Not to mention it appears to have been based on a true story!--but I was incredibly struck by Francis' first appearance. She's a mannequin in a couturiere's showroom, and for once her costume designer, I thought, really let her down. She's sporting the mannish bob she also had in A Notorious Affair (seven years earlier, in 1930), and a sequined black gown that emphasizes both her flat chest and her previously unnoticed broad shoulders. Combined with her striking height (did you know she was 5'9"??), she looked like a drag queen to me. It was extremely disconcerting!

Orry-Kelly does right by her in the rest of the film, but that opening scene was gobsmacking.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Karen, have you seen Stavisky... ? Rush right out an buy it now. Belmondo'd greatest performance, Charles Boyer's last, a score by Stephen Sondheim, Michel Lonsdale, Claude Rich, Anny Duperey and Alain Resnais' direction at its most ineffably smooth.

What's suprising about Stolen Holiday is that the Stavisky scandal was quite new when it was made.

George Brent is a very solid supporting actor for women -- a rare cinematic commodity. I really love his work in Dark Victory. And Ronnie Reagan is good in it too as an obviously gay socialite. Don Siegel's The Killers (where he plays a mob boss who smacks Angie Dickinson upside the head) was his only other interesting role.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Karen, have you seen Stavisky... ? Rush right out an buy it now. Belmondo'd greatest performance, Charles Boyer's last, a score by Stephen Sondheim, Michel Lonsdale, Claude Rich, Anny Duperey and Alain Resnais' direction at its most ineffably smooth.

What's suprising about Stolen Holiday is that the Stavisky scandal was quite new when it was made.

George Brent is a very solid supporting actor for women -- a rare cinematic commodity. I really love his work in Dark Victory. And Ronnie Reagan is good in it too as an obviously gay socialite. Don Siegel's The Killers (where he plays a mob boss who smacks Angie Dickinson upside the head) was his only other interesting role.

Campaspe said...

David, what do you like about Brent in Dark Victory? I'm curious to hear!

Edward, Margaret Lindsay still didn't look that good in Jezebel despite script and direction so I am willing to give Brent full credit.

M., I saw More than a Secretary but remember Arthur much better than Brent.

Karen, I think I did see The Light that Failed but so long ago I would need to see it again. I read the book as a girl. Colman was great in Tale of Two Cities so I'm not willing to write him off altogether but lord he can be dull.

As for Allotment Wives, yeah, the woman is creepy. I think we're supposed to find her devotion to her daughter redemptive but that kind of plot thing never works for me, any more than I give rabid homophobes credit when they bleat "but I love my gay child/sibling/friend/UPS driver." You don't get bonus points for everyday human decency. But I found Kay as a despicable villainness to be a fascinating change. I can see her in the Ida Lupino part in The Hard Way. (Mind you, Lupino is perfect in that movie, just saying I think Kay could have done that kind of thing well.) And come on, that last moment on the staircase!

Gerard Jones said...

Thanks so much for this, Siren. Tragically, Kay Francis month hit at a time of extreme overcommitment for me (work, politics, family), so I've only seen a few of the movies I Ti'Voed. I also really miss being here...it broke my heart to realize I even missed the NewCritics discussion of The Apartment, one of my very most favoritist movies ever. Oh, well. 'Tis life, and I'm pulling out of the thicket.

Why am I simply not able to like The House on 56th Street? I've tried to come up with a critical rationale for my reactions, but in the hand I just have to say that it bores me. If I'd read your comments first I'd have been eager to see it--it sounds good--but it left me cold when I first watched it, and when I tried again I gave up after 15 minutes.

I do appreciate the post-prison chunk fairly well, after Ricardo Cortez smarms his way onto the scene. Unfortunately, the sequences set in the past bore me so much that I can never get into it. Maybe it's just John Halliday and Gene Raymond. A couple of stiffs.

I wonder how I'd feel if it had hooked me by starting in the present, with the grim haunted Kay, and then given us the early story in flashback? That's how I'd have written it, for sure.

Campaspe said...

Gerard, you definitely have more company on House on 56th Street than I do. And yes, Gene Raymond is really, really Gene Raymond-ish. (He does make you appreciate George Brent, however.) The movie definitely gets better and better as it gets darker and darker, but I loved the beginning too. I knew it was going to play out badly from reading the Quirk book so perhaps that enhanced it--I could see all the foreshadowing very clearly.

I didn't see nearly as many Kays as I wanted to, either. If you compare what I saw to the schedule you'll see I wasn't able to record, and wound up watching at night and then the next morning if possible. We've replaced the region-free but the recorder is still a question mark.

mndean said...

In More Than A Secretary, the movie kinda stalls after Reginald Denny gives Brent a golddigging ex-student of Arthur's and Brent sorta fades out at that point, becoming somewhat irrelevant.

As for Arthur, I don't know who or what threw a switch in her, but in 1935 suddenly she was hot stuff. I saw her in an early precode where she was good and sexy, but not the breezy, assertive Arthur of the screwball days.

Early in the picture the stiff, humorless health-nut Brent played before that mid-point plot development made me laugh as it looked like self-parody. I realized something else - both movies I mentioned earlier had the same director (not like I'm a great fan of Alfred E. Green films, but it's an interesting coinkydink).

What Brent always seemed to lack with me was any sort of humor that I could plug into. He may smile and laugh at something, but I never felt the feeling to go along with him because he never seemed to want to laugh at himself. Some actors, like Jean Gabin could get away with that, but Brent couldn't. Brent could project menace, but didn't do it often in his career, and I fear it was a case of romantic-lead typecasting. I'm sure he didn't mind. Collecting fat checks and bedding beautiful women isn't the worst life to lead during the Depression.

mndean said...

Karen,
Don't knock small-breasted women. I've dated some awfully sexy ones. It's funny that the back in the day, the flapper ideal didn't have big knockers. Now a modestly-endowed woman can't have a decent film career without implants.

Doughboy said...

Damn. Both interesting and depressing. Knowledgeable enough to know most of the actors you're talking about, depressed cos it's extremely unlikely i'll ever get to see these films: any of them - at least until there's a download service I can log into from the UK. I'd love to see the William Powell jewel film but will have to content myself with more Thin Man films (those at least are on DVD). keep up the good work

Edward said...

Well, Siren, I don't know if I want to get into defending Margaret Lindsay... or even thinking about her.

Earlier you mentioned If I Were King. Don't get your hopes up -- it's mostly just the usual 30's Hollywood period piece, with hordes of peasants waving pitchforks and lots of extras hoisting flagons of ale. However, the Sturges script does have some witty lines, Colman's part is right down the center of his narrow range, and Rathbone is sly and funny (if a bit too much like Sherlock Holmes in disguise). He was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to Walter Brennan playing Colonel Sanders.

But back to Kay:

Have to say I found Jewel Robbery disappointing. Warners really couldn't manage wit and sophistication, and there was clearly no corporate sympathy with the frothy goings-on of the rich. Trouble in Paradise, coming a few nights later, really put it to shame as a tale of what Ethan Mordden calls "sex-as-theft." In Jewel Robbery, Kay is just kidding around. In Paradise, she's astounding -- you really feel her coming back to sexual life around Herbert Marshall, and her reaction to being betrayed is complicated, grown up and wonderful. It's her finest hour, I think.

And then there's One Way Passage, which is trash but perfect, juicy, classic trash. Somehow its absurdity works in its favor; the five characters are so tough yet so gallant that they make the Depression seem like a state of grace. After watching it a couple of years ago I learned to make a Paradise cocktail and I can attest that the wast dwops are indeed always the most pwecious.

I keep hoping it will turn up in a TCM Forbidden Hollywood collection... it's my favorite Pre-Code of all, along with the incredible Two Seconds.

Campaspe said...

M, any fashion devotee can tell you that it's easier to hang an elegant ensemble off a relatively flat chest, which is part of why both Kay and Audrey Hepburn always looked so superb. Katharine Hepburn as well.

Doughboy, welcome! do not despair. Some time back I wrote about a number of films that are available in Region 2 DVD but not Region 1, and there's a thriving net culture of film swapping too. Plus Kay has a real devoted fan base and at some point someone will (I hope) wake up and put this stuff in a box set. Plus, Trouble in Paradise is available already and she's so, so good in that, as Edward says.

But Edward, One Way Passage trash? Never! I know you love it too but to me it's a simply great romance, no qualifications. It was Kay's personal favorite and she watched it many times toward the end of her life. Hmm, need to make a Paradise cocktail myself.

If you want to defend Margaret Lindsay you have good company, as James Wolcott was impressed by her in something a while back, can't recall what. She grates on me the same way Maureen O'Sullivan and Margaret Tallichet do, they all strike me as high-maintenance, screechy, sexless dames.

operator_99 said...

Well it was a great couple of weeks, that's for sure. I'd have to go with Jewel Robbery, Mandalay and Stolen Holiday near the top of the crop for this TCM grouping, but I love Kay and tried to watch as many as possible. What was missing (or at least I didn't see it) was King of the Underworld (1939), a film that generally gets mixed reviews, but I enjoy the Bogey/Francis pair up and how Kay manages to keep up her part of the acting bargain against Bogey.

And let me second the request for a Warren William festival. I find him always turning in a lively and well-crafted performance as bad guy, think Employee's Entrance, detective, of which he played three, Philo Vance, Michael Lanyard, known as the Lone Wolf, and Perry Mason, and straight dramatic roles in many, many films.

Opps, didn't mean to go on so long on William. A Chatterton festival would be also be nice, and Nancy Carol, and...the list is long.

Karen said...

Oh, gracious, mndean, if my comment about Kay's outfit at the beginning Stolen Holiday came off as a knock on small-breasted women, I do apologize, as that was most certainly not my intention! But did you see her in that dress? She looks like a linebacker in drag. I've never seen her look so awkward and masculine in anything else. She and Constance Bennett and the young Joan Crawford were probably the clothes-horsiest actresses in Hollywood, and I love nothing better than settling in with a bowl of ice cream and watching them comport themselves like something out of my couture-iest fantasy.

But that dress just looked ... WRONG.

mndean said...

I'm all for a Warren William festival. From the meanest bastard put on the screen in Employee's Entrance to an amazingly funny detective, lawyer and even Mae West's manager.

I have most of the Perry Masons and I like 'em even if Erle Stanley Gardner didn't. It's amazing how they each were different in tone from the others. The first was deadly serious and almost a blueprint for the TV series, except for the precode ending. The second was the best balanced with humor, suspense, and a better Della Street in Claire Dodd. It had a regrettable Chinese stereotype and Margaret Lindsay (she even smiles! something I almost never see her do). The third was flat-out comedy and had a wonderfully funny performance by Genevieve Tobin as a quite sexy and pixieish Della Street. The fourth was a B picture that somewhat started as something of a continuation of #2, with a lot of the same cast. I only saw the first 20 minutes of, but it had promise, Claire Dodd as Della and Wini Shaw as a twisty liar with a gun. I never saw where it went, though. The Lone Wolf series I keep waiting for TCM to show as I've only seen one, but it was a good one - how can any movie be bad when your partner in crime is Eric Blore? It wasn't great, but it was good. And I may be the only one here who actually thinks Satan Met A Lady might have been an amusing light comedy detective film except that Bette Davis wrecked it. It was pretty obvious to me she didn't want to be in the movie. One thing that saved it for me was Marie Wilson. And I never hate Alison Skipworth.

There are still some Warren William films I want to see, like Goodbye Again and The Mind Reader.

Gerard Jones said...

I still haven't had a chance to watch Stolen Holiday, but Karen's passionate descriptions of that dress drove me to watch that much of it--and yeah, it's the most awkward looking thing Kay ever had to wore. As I mentioned to Karen elsewhere, I wonder if it might have been a part of Jack Warner's campaign to get her to break her contract.

I'm also a vigorous supporter of One Way Passage and resist calling it trash even in a complimentary way. As well as being a nearly perfect shipboard romance, I think it's a genuinely wise contemplation of death and acceptance.

Could've used a little less Frank McHugh, though.

I'd like to put in a word in defense of Margaret Lindsay. Never very complex or compelling, I'll agree, but I hate to throw her into the screechy, high-maintenance set with Maureen O'Sullivan. Mostly I like her for her quality of self-containment and vaguely masculine hardness--as, say, the horny, exploitative snob in Bordertown. If she was sometimes screechy, I'd say that actually suggested a bit of rage.

I'd rush to a Warren William festival, anytime, anywhere. Shall we start a petition?

Edward said...

Oops, time out -- I didn't mean "trash" in a bad way... just trying to draw a distinction with Trouble in Paradise, which is, if not art, at least artfully lighter than air.

Still, in honor of Joan, Dan, Skippy, Steve and the Countess de Barilhaus, I withdraw the adjective. And I'll make it up to you:

Paradise Cocktail
1 oz. gin
1 oz. apricot brandy
3/4 oz. orange juice
twist of orange

Auf wiedersehen, Siren...

DavidEhrenstein said...

What I like about George Brent in Dark Victory is his steady assurred calm in the face of Bette Davis at her most overwhelmingly powerful. He's quite aware of whose film this is and gives her something a flashier and more dominant actor could not -- space to breath.

Davis is of course the Prima Donna Absoluta od Damn the Torpedoes Full Speed Ahead. But in Dark Victory her fires are banked by impending death. But those embers burn white hot. Brent gives her the full for of his sympathetic concern. it may not sound like much on pixels but on the screen it works.

mndean said...

What a surprise, I actually did record Stolen Holiday. And I agree, what an awful, awful dress she has on at the opening fashion show. The mannish hairstyle is just fine, it reminds me of Kay's hair back in days of The Cocoanuts. I can't believe that they had it in for her in '36, she was still doing good box office for Warners. If it was a '38 film, I'd believe it was deliberate. I think they just wanted a "radical" dress on her and Orry-Kelly lost his mind for a second.

Karen said...

mndean, I feel so much better knowing you agree about that dress! You have no idea!

And, yes, the hair is awesome. It's just that the combination of it with that particular dress is not particularly...fortuitous.

mndean said...

That dress does everything NOT to flatter her, and that's coming from me who knows so little about fashion that I'd have been a customer for one of Orry-Kelly's painted ties that he sold on the street before he went to Hollywood. So you can say that yes, that dress was a fright with her short hair.

The movie wasn't bad, but it wasn't Stavisky, either. It did follow the broad outlines of the scandal (including the outright claim he was murdered) and Rains was an oily manipulator, but why stuffy Ian Hunter as Kay's true love? Then I realize it's Warners and they probably couldn't do much better. Their stable of male actors tended more toward the...proletarian.

Funny thing is that I was labeling DVDs I recorded yesterday, and I found I had recorded more Kay than I thought. I even have Secrets of an Actress. Sometimes I go on automatic pilot and forget that I've done them.

Campaspe said...

Via the kindness of ErichK I am getting Living on Velvet so I am filling in some holes myself. M., let me know what you think of Actress.

mndean said...

Secrets of an Actress really is helped by George Brent (and I was quite surprised, as in Housewife), Kay was excellent (but that line of her being 30, so she didn't have many chances left was a bit of a dig at her age). Gloria Dickson adds a lot of spice to a role where her meanness could have been overdone. She's not nice, but is like a cat toying with her favorite plaything. Even Ian Hunter is a lot more likable here than in Stolen Holiday (a mistake I can make when I don't see an actor in enough parts is to underrate them), and Isabel Jeans does a good turn in an Alice Brady type role.

mndean said...

Oh, and about Margaret Lindsay. I've seen stunning stills of her, but somehow she doesn't come across in any of the movies I've seen her in. High-maintenance is one way of putting it. Patrician is what I usually use. To me she's like a cut-rate Mary Astor.

Gerard Jones said...

I'd go with "patrician" for Margaret Lindsay. Which is sort of inherently dull, although most of the roles she got didn't allow much else. Again, I find her rather compelling as the villain (for such she is, really) in Bordertown. Muni's pretty awful in that, and Davis isn't too interesting, but Lindsay spooked me a bit.

As with George Brent, she's another one who became more interesting to me after I learned a bit about her life. Like how she arrived in Hollywood as an "English" actress, when in fact she was from Dubuque and had moved to London when she couldn't land roles on Broadway. And the fact that she was (probably) gay and didn't seem inclined to conceal it. Put those together with the over-self-contained patrician quality and the general lack of chemistry with male costars and she develops kind of an on-screen subtext.

mndean said...

Most gay/lesbian actors can and have been excellent as straight romantic leads, but there are some that can't do it (to be fair, some straight men/women don't come off as romantic even if billed as such, either). Lindsay didn't connect with her male costars well in any films I've seen (I've not seen Bordertown so I reserve judgment on what else she might be able to do), and she does so in a way that reminds of Ann Harding (who I'd though was similarly inclined - at least I'd read she had affairs with women). Ann is beautiful, but there's often no spark with her male costars.

When I saw G-Men, it was a real disappointment to see Cagney save Lindsay instead of Ann Dvorak. And it was also a shame that Lindsay got cast more often than Dvorak at Warners (they really didn't seem to know what to do with Ann after the code came into force).

DavidEhrenstein said...

I'd cast Ann Dvorak over almost anybody on principle. She was always blazing hot -- which in turn may have been the problem with her in conventional Hollywood terms. "Bad Girls" had all the fun -- but went to Hell. Only Bette Davis found an "escape clause." A shame Dvorak didn't get the clout by which vehicles could be created expressly for her.

Towards the very end of her career in a Lana Turner vechicle called A Life of Her Own (which Mr. Cukor said was "No Birth of a Nation but Lana is a great camp") she arives early in the proceedings looking spectacularly debauched, kills herself and is gone -- leaving in her wak an audience that can't stop thinking about her.

Gerard Jones said...

God, I love Ann Dvorak! I first saw her in Scarface when I was young and impressionable--the evil half-smile she surrenders when she realizes he's murdered her love and is taking her over was a revolutionary moment in my feelings about women. All of sudden I understood the whole Bad Girl thing.

I recently saw Three on a Match on the big screen (Stanford Theater), and was knocked out by her again. Her decline was so overstated, her hop-head make-up so overdone, and yet she brought such a terrifying reality to her final scenes.

She apparently had the same kind of fights with Warners as Bette Davis, pushing for better parts and bitching about the quality of her movies. Sad that she never quite had Davis's clout.

mndean said...

My guess was Dvorak didn't have the clout in that she was younger than Davis, which hurt her as I would guess Davis was working against her in getting parts and had more experience in getting the perennially cheap Warners to do what she wanted. Second, I think it was harder to write a good part for Ann - she had a voice and manner that suggested emotional/psychological fragility. The sort of character that wasn't much around in the '30s, but was in the '50s.

That said, she was quite good in Heat Lightning, even though it was really Aline MacMahon's movie, and was a little bit like the later Petrified Forest, with the desert setting. She played a frustrated teenager who was aching to toss her virginity to the local hot stud - there's mighty slim pickings in the desert as you might imagine and he was, ahem, unsatisfying as you could see when she gets home. When she sits in the chair with that look of anger on her face, my first thought was, "oh boy, was he a lousy lay".

The movie's simpler and has more modest aims. It's not filled with a lot of big stars and windbag prophesies like The Petrified Forest (I still like Petrified Forest a lot, but the philosophizing does get overdone), but Heat Lightning is a well done mix of comedy and extreme drama (there's crooks on the run in this movie, too). And it's a very late precode, which is a plus in my book.

mndean said...

Speaking of another actor who didn't transfer to the screen well, I was surprised by Lyle Talbot in No More Orchids in the Lombard fest. Usually I only like Talbot as a crook (he gets a little life in him then), and when he's a boyfriend or other romantic presence, he comes off as very bland. In No More Orchids, he actually comes across sexy and witty on the boat trip with Carole. Later, Walter Connolly and his problems take over the movie, but I was pleasantly surprised by Talbot here. The movie wasn't bad for a pretty standard melodrama.

Edward said...

Ann Dvorak... yes yes YES. What great taste you guys have. I happened to see A Life of Her Own one morning on TCM and was so happy to see her getting one last chance, even in the 50s, to blaze through a movie. At least the first third of one; when she dies the movie dies with her.

Heat Lightning is also quite wonderful, especially for its casually feminist point of view. Preston Foster, who plays the louse who ruined Aline MacMahon's life, is another forgotten treasure of Pre-Code. At first, his oddly over-emphatic acting style put me off, but then I found out he was a musician and the writer of the immortal "Got My Mojo Workin" -- and I realized he was a proto-hippie stuck in the early 30s, which opened up his performances for me in a whole new way. His finest hour is as Edward G. Robinson's best friend Bud in the truly amazing Two Seconds.

Edward said...

By the way, speaking of Foster, I was excited to see him with Kay in First Lady in the TCM festival. The premise sounded good, even kind of relevant: Washington society wife schemes to get her husband nominated as president. But it's a Warner Bros. comedy, and true to form it had not a single laugh... and the two stars, sadly, had zero chemistry -- likely because they had nothing to act.

mndean said...

Edward,
Who does make good comedies, then? I'm not saying Warners is the best of the major studios, but I've seen enough good Warner comedies that are worth watching not to ever make such a blanket statement as that.

mndean said...

I've found Preston Foster irritating at times, most recently when I watched Love Before Breakfast, where he plays a rich prick who thinks his money entitles him to marry Carole Lombard. Since it's from a Faith Baldwin novel, I'm not surprised how dumb the movie is, but Foster isn't even remotely likable, and the manipulations he and her mother force her through made my teeth hurt.

I did like him quite a lot in Annie Oakley and found him good in Heat Lightning (he has the sort of sexual confidence such that he knows he can manipulate Aline into bed with him whenever he wants, which leads him to fatal overconfidence).

Gerard Jones said...

Edward, thank you for that insight into Preston Foster. Another case where learning something about the actor enhances one's appreciation of what happens on screen, as with George "IRA" Brent and Margaret "Pseudo-English Lesbian" Lindsay. I know some people don't like to know too much, in the spirit of the "New Criticism" in literature that held that all that matters is the text itself, not the biography of the writer. But I like knowing that what I'm seeing on the screen or the page is the product of a particular human being trying to wrestle something out of his own experience, strengths and weaknesses.

I've also been caught off guard a few times by Lyle Talbot being almost charismatic. Mary Stevens, MD, for one, until he had to act all dissipated. And of course Aline McMahon was wonderful. Really, has there even been a group of actors in one place more fascinating than the Warner Brothers stock company of the early '30s?

Edward said...

mndean: I'd say that in the 30s and early 40s, the great comedies came from Columbia, RKO, and Paramount, with an occasional one from MGM. That's where the comic talent was. Warners... not so much. Some of their comedies, like Jewel Robbery or Tovarich, are at best mildly amusing -- but if a great comedy is one that makes you laugh all the way through, I honestly can't think of a single one produced in that era by Warners. Or by 20th Century-Fox, for that matter.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Treu. Warner Bros. was the serious studio. There was dark humor in its films, but that's about it.

mndean said...

Dark humor still makes me laugh, David. A comedy like Jimmy the Gent or Hard to Handle (not to mention my favorite, Blessed Event) aren't dark and almost glory in their lack of sophistication (Warner was the studio for the proletariat, after all) and I admit that actors like Guy Kibbee are almost always funny to me. The Busby Berkeley musicals (except for 42nd Street, that is) were pretty much all comedies as well. I was going to put Paramount and Columbia above Warners, but RKO? I've seen more bad RKO comedies than Warners, but they did have my guilty-pleasure comics, Wheeler and Woolsey. I know I should be ashamed, but Diplomaniacs and a few others are quite good to me. MGM? They were good at castrating the Marx Bros., but they did give the brothers one great movie. RKO couldn't even do that. Even the comedies that MGM gave Jean Harlow were widely varying in quality. Some, like Bombshell, were corkers. Others, not so much. Warners did show the hard side of the Depression far more than any other studio, which is why I think their scripts tended to be darker than other studios.

Campaspe said...

Ugh, I do not like this new comment system. It ate my prior attempt. Now I'm depressed.

Anyway, I had never thought about it before, but it's true that I am having a hard time coming up with great Warners comedies from that era, though surely Bugs and Daffy count for something? But they weren't until the 40s. All I can think of is The Strawberry Blonde, which is from 1941 and isn't a straight comedy. (Although it does seem to come up in my comments almost as frequently as Borzage.) And as M. points out, the Berkley movies were comedies, delicious ones at that. Thanks too for reminding me of Blessed Event!

Gentlemen, you have made Lindsay much more interesting for me, but we shall see if that translates to more interest the next time I see her on screen. But thanks so much for reminding me about Heat Lightning! Preston Foster was indeed quite good in it, making me think I needed to forgive him for his waxworks IRA leader in The Informer. Great pre-code movie, shows that rural anomie that doesn't pop up too frequently in classic Hollywood cinema.

And vive Ann! I want to do some more research on what the hell happened with her career. She was girlfriend to Howard Hawks for a while, and he had superb taste (at least up through Slim.) Usually it isn't any one thing that has someone missing the big time. She was sexy as all hell (I mean, my new banner is Exhibit A, yes?) but not a standard classic beauty, and then as now that mattered more than it should.

mndean said...

I always figured Warners miscasting of Ann was a matter of blindness or punishment. When you see a movie like Love is a Racket, and see her being wasted in a part that would have been much more suited to someone like Glenda Farrell, you had to wonder what the hell they were thinking. It made Doug Jr. look like a blind idiot to be going after Frances Dee when Ann was obviously smitten with him.

Matt said...

I taped [on DVD] 10 Kay Francis films from TCM. But I have only seen 3 so far. I enjoyed 'One Way Passage' with William Powell and Kay. The precarious ending was a nice touch. Thought 'Women of the Wind' was good too - although no critic I could find liked it. I found it to be much like 30's style TV. Plus, I'm a sucker for aviation pictures that have women doing the flying. I also caught 'Stranded' the Frank Borzage picture set in San Francisco.

surlyh said...

Siren- A friend has Tivoed some of the more scure Francis films on TCM, but sadly I've yet to screen any of them.

I certainly know what you mean about Ronald Coleman, but I probably knew him first from his very funny work on radio on the Jack Benny show (as well as his own program, The Halls of Ivy). In his exaggerated dislike of Benny he did plenty to spoof his own too-nice film persona. And I don't remember finding him being boring in the interesting early talkie from '29, Bulldog Drummond.

surlyh said...

I meant to write "some of the more obscure Francis films" ...I do need to use that preview function.