Richard Boleslawski is another of the many, many great, yet underappreciated directors that we love here at Obscure Classics. While he directed a few films in his native Russia (in the area which is now Poland) between 1915 and 1921, his career didn’t really take off until he came to America. His first job wasn’t exactly the brightest omen of things to come. He did fill in work for Erich von Stroheim on the ill-fated Queen Kelly, which was something of a disaster that was never finished. Fortunately, his first job was not an indicator for the rest of his career, and while he never made a picture as big as Gone With the Wind or Grand Hotel, he made many excellent studio pictures before his career was tragically cut short by his sudden death in 1937. A few of his films, Beauty for Sale and Fugitive Lovers, get quite a lot of talk on this site, so here are a few of his films that haven’t received quite as much attention.
The Mystery of Mr. X (1934)
The Mystery of Mr. X is one of the man mystery/comedies to come out of the 1930s, and while it’s not quite as good as The Thin Man or The Mad Miss Manton, it’s definitely in the upper echelon of these types of films. It’s a little bit different than these other films in that its lead character, played wonderfully by Robert Montgomery, is not a detective, or a doctor/detective, or lawyer/detective. He’s ‘technically’ not a good guy at all, he’s a gentleman thief. He gets caught up in a murder when he’s stealing a diamond at the same time a policeman is being murdered just outside the building. Scotland Yard assumes the murder and theft were committed by the same man, and Montgomery is left to prove himself innocent.
His leading lady is Elizabeth Allan, and the two of them share a really wonderful chemistry that really makes me wish they had made more films together. The screenplay sparkles, and Boleslawski easily mixed the humor with some truly suspenseful scenes.
Men In White (1934)
I’ve talked about this movie a few times on this site. It’s a really incredible pre-code film, which tackles some pretty taboo issues with incredible finesse.
In Men In White, Clark Gable plays a young doctor in love with Myrna Loy, but his constantly busy schedule puts a strain on their relationship, and he ends up having a one night stand with nursing student Elizabeth Allan. She gets pregnant and has a back alley abortion, which is predictably botched and she ends up in the hospital, fighting for her life.
Abortion was perhaps the most taboo subject that could be covered in film in the 1930s, and even during the pre-code era, films had to be delicate about the way it approached the topic. The word “abortion” is never used. It’s hinted at without the word ever being spoken. Boleslawski takes a topic that could be sensationalized and tells a very personal story with it.
The Painted Veil (1934)
Boleslawski’s version of W. Somerset Maugham’s brilliant novel The Painted Veil isn’t nearly as good as the almost perfect 2006 adaptation starring Naomi Watts, Edward Norton, and Liev Schreiber. Naturally, the subject matter had to be handled much more delicately in the 1930s. But for what it is, which is basically a watered down version of Maugham’s story, it’s still a pretty good movie, with a really good performance from Garbo.
Garbo plays a restless woman who marries scientist Herbert Marshall even though she doesn’t really love him. This lack of love, combined with Marshall’s constant working, leads to Garbo having an affair with George Brent. When he husband discovers her infidelity, he takes her with him to inland China to fight the region’s illness, assuming they’ll both probably die. But in these worst of conditions, Garbo grows as a human being, as does her love for her husband.
This movie really only tells half the story of Maugham’s novel, leaving us with the happy ending, rather than going past that to the true, tragic ending of the story. But despite the sunny-ing up of the story, Boleslawski’s film does something that very few films at the time did. It takes a very honest and mature look at adult relationships and marriage.
By Katie Richardson