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?