090. Anna Christie (Clarence Brown, 1930)
MGM kept Greta Garbo in silent films longer than any other star in Hollywood. It wasn’t until 1930 that she made her talkie debut in the title role in Anna Christie.  It was really the perfect role for Garbo – the world weary prostitute of Swedish descent. The film is based on the play by Eugene O’Neill, who wasn’t the sunniest of playwrights. It’s a grim and gloomy story that could have easily been bogged down by its own sadness and despair had director Clarence Brown not put such importance on the family dynamic between Anna and her father, played by George F. Marion. Anna hides her past from her father, with whom she’s recently been reunited, for fear of disappointing him. While there is a love story in the film, the movie is really about the relationship between a father and daughter and the difficulties they have relating to one another after being separated for 15 years.

089. Of Human Bondage (John Cromwell, 1934)
Bette Davis had been working steadily in mostly unremarkable pictures until 1934 when she appeared in her breakout role in Of Human Bondage. Davis was a brave actress. Not many would take on a character as vile and horrible as Mildred, and even fewer would work so hard to make the character as horrible as possible. As a result, Davis created one of the biggest film bitches of all time, and cemented her place in Hollywood history as one of the all time greats. W. Somerset Maugham’s story of obsession and abuse is a dark one, filled with characters you can never quite feel sorry for. Nevertheless, watching the power Mildred holds over Leslie Howard’s Carey and the inexplicable pull he feels toward her is fascinating to watch. We’re basically watching a series of events that leads to a train crashing. We recognize that these things are going to lead to a disaster, we’re powerless to stop it, but it’s impossible not to be entranced by it.

088. Vivacious Lady (George Stevens, 1938)
Ginger Rogers and James Stewart were close friends for most of their lives, and they shared a really amazing chemistry on screen. In the 1930s and 1940s, they were both the “every man” (or woman) stars. Unlike much of Hollywood, which seemed glamorous and untouchable, Stewart and Roger seemed like they belonged with us. Like they were regular Joes. And pairing the two worked so well on film. Which is why it’s surprising that the only made one movie together, the delightful romantic comedy Vivacious Lady. The basic story is a little hackneyed – Stewart comes from a wealthy and respectable family, so he’s afraid to tell them that he’s married a showgirl – but the fact that director George Stevens can take that story and make something so funny and heartfelt is what’s beautiful about the whole thing. The romance between Stewart and Rogers feels incredibly genuine, and the family dynamic, while screwball and therefor a little daffy, actually feels real and honest. Despite the screwball elements, this is a movie that feels true.

087. Living on Velvet (Frank Borzage, 1935)
Living on Velvet is one of Borzage’s less recognized films. On the surface is seems to be a typical romantic melodrama, but it’s actually one of Borzage’s darkest stories. George Brent’s character, Terry, has lost his family in a plane crash while he was piloting, so he spends much of his life basically courting death, even after he marries Kay Francis’ Amy. He’s so much more damaged than any of Borzage’s other heroes. So damage that not even his love for Amy can save his soul.  Rather, much of the film seems to be about how their love for each other isn’t enough. For once in a Borzage film, it’s the outside forces that his heroes and heroines are usually so isolated from which are needed to save their lives. It’s an interesting departure for Borzage, less spiritual and certainly darker.

086. Dodsworth (William Wyler, 1936)
Hollywood romances, in both classic and modern film, are usually about young people. While it’s becoming a bit more common in current film to give older people the spotlight, that was a rarity in classic film, which makes Dodsworth a breath of fresh air. The leads are Walter Huston and Ruth Chatterton, 52 and 44 years of age, respectively. Chatterton was lucky enough to have an ageless face, and was able to play the leading ladies in roles that might have gone to younger actresses for much of the 1930s. But in Dodsworth she embraced her age to play an older woman, the mother of an adult child, and the wife of a man who’s just retired. The film continues to be unconventional, telling the story of a long time romance unraveling. It’s sometimes heartbreaking to watch, but it’s such a well done film that you can’t tear your eyes away. It’s also brilliantly performed by its entire cast, especially Chatterton, who isn’t afraid to reveal the incredibly unlikable traits of her character.

Stay tuned for 85-81.

By Katie Richardson

Year: 1931

Director: Marion Gering

Cast: Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis, Clive Brook

The director takes an interesting approach to this story by setting it during a 24 hour period in Manhattan. Literally one day, from 11:00pm to 11:00pm. The camera opens the movie with an exterior shot and swings through the window into a posh Park Avenue apartment. A handful of uptight people dressed to the nines are exchanging banalities following the evening meal. All except for one couple: Jim and Fanny Towner — played by Clive Brook and Kay Francis, respecitvely. They are arguing non-stop and it becomes quite clear to the viewing audience that their marriage is an unhappy one. Tired of bickering, the couple doesn’t even go home together. Jim is still thirsty and he’s got numerous squeezes on the side. He staggers down the sidewalk until coming across a speakeasy he frequents. Brook’s character notices the blood on the snowy steps that lead to the door, but Jim shrugs it off and proceeds to take a couple of belts.

Having really tied one on, Mr. Towner decides then to visit his favorite lover: Rosie (Hopkins). She is a chanteuse @ a popular night spot not far away. When Jim arrives at the club, Rosie is in mid-song and the crowd is eating out of her hand. He gets a booth and the singer joins him for cocktails between takes. When the waiter informs the lovers that a man is waiting to see her, Hopkins’ character is irritated but she excuses herself to see who it is. Unfortunately, it’s her no good husband. He is dressed in rags and obviously not doing well for himself. As they talk and argue we understand that Rosie’s been disappointed by this bum over and over again. She refuses to let him come home with her and won’t give him any dough either. Eager to get rid of this embarassment, the singer orders the bouncers to throw him out on his ear. Tony (Regis Toomey) swears he’ll get even.

Aware that her sugar daddy has been overserved, Rosie takes Jim to her home to put him into bed. She helps him with his things and discretely puts him in another bedroom where he passes out. Not long after, Tony breaks into the house and becomes insanely jealous. He knows she’s got another man with her. They struggle all over the home until the brute heaves her onto the bed and begins choking her accidentally while cross examining at the same time. Will her lover be aroused from his stupor in time to intervene? Much of the remaining film plot is fairly lame as Mrs. Towner has an epiphany and realizes that her husband is the only man for her.

Given such a small role relative to the characters Brook and Francis get, Hopkins’ Rosie is unforgettable and she steals the show. The beautiful blonde is easily the most memorable aspect of this picture. She performs two songs exquisitely and her brassy, take-no-guff nightclub singer is one of the best characters in Pre-Code film. A decent copy of 24 Hours isn’t easy to find but if you get the chance to see it, don’t hesitate.

By James White

It’s finally here! The long awaited Kay Francis podcast…

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Year: 1940

Director: George Marshall

Starring: Randolph Scott, Kay Francis, Broderick Crawford, Brian Donlevy

This Western is a notable one from the resume of the legendary Randolph Scott. The production values aren’t quite up to a Hawks, Ford, or Mann film but it distinguishes itself in more than one respect from the rest of the B-Western category. It sports an awesome cast aside from Scott including the female lead played by Kay Francis; and great supporting turns are turned in by Broderick Crawford and Brian Donlevy. The stunts in the picture involving trains are unusually good and quite dangerous as well. The story is a fictional take on the real-life Dalton gang and it puts the viewer in a position to see how they got into a life of crime from their perspective.

Lawyer Tod Jackson (Scott) is on his way to establish a practice in Guthrie, Oklahoma when he decides to get off the stage at his old hometown: Coffeyville. Childhood friends of the Dalton brothers, Tod is eager to catch up. He meets a beautiful young woman named Julie King (Francis) while sending a telegraph and is instantly smitten by her. After some amusing confusion over identities, Bob (Crawford) and Grat (Donlevy) insist on Tod staying over so he can attend their mother’s birthday the following day. Much to Tod’s dismay, he finds out that Julie is already engaged to Bob. The brothers relay the current state of affairs that faces their farm: the Kansas Land and Development Company is claiming plots all over the countryside, kicking any existing farmers off the land. The Daltons appeal to the Scott character’s legal expertise in such issues and want the counselor to represent their interests.

Things heat up while Bob is out of town as Julie and Tod start seeing each other socially. When Francis’ character confesses her love for the lawyer over her fiance, a conflicted Tod leaves town. One of the heads of the KLDC appears armed with surveyors and he intends to overtake part of the Dalton spread. The brothers confront the trespassers and a melee breaks out with one of the surveyors dying by freak accident. Ben is accused of murder and he’s put in jail pending trial. Having come back to town to help his friends, our hero is prepared to provide a legal defense. When Crawford’s character realizes that the trial is fixed against him, he escapes with the help of his brothers. The Daltons are falsely accused of several bank robberies and they are devastated to learn that their mother’s farm was burned down after they attempted to see her.

When they get wind that the railroad is behind all the land grabbing, the Daltons target several trains carrying payroll. This is where the great stuntwork comes in as the brothers are shown jumping via horseback from a car while the train is moving. Also, they manage to board a train @ full speed from their mounts. Very impressive. When the brothers get greedy and attempt to knock off their hometown bank, they bite off more than they can chew. The carnage is complete and with not a Dalton left standing, Tod and Julie are free to pursue matrimonial bliss.

When the Daltons Rode really sets itself apart from other Western offerings of comparable budgets. The actors are all quite good — Crawford especially — and the execution of the story is compelling, if untrue, as it paints a portrait of the legendary gang from the late 19th century.

By James White

Year: 1938

Director: John Farrow

Cast: Kay Francis, Dickie Moore, Bonita Granville, John Litel, Anita Louise, Bobby Jordan, Maurice Murphy, Elisabeth Risdon,  and Helena Phillips Evans

Okay, okay, so it is rather predictable.
 
Okay, okay, so it is rather hard to swallow at times
 
Okay, okay, perhaps it is a little sentimental and perhaps the plot all unfolds a little too conveniently, but it is touching.
 
That’s right.  My Bill with Kay Francis and Dickie Moore, is heart-warming and fun, despite some weaknesses.  It won’t particularly stand out as the ultimate example of film making at its finest, but it is carried by very competent performances, universal dramatic themes and a scandalous subtext that it dances around but lends some meat and depth to what comes across as a pretty fluffy film on the surface.
 
It follows the life of a family that has recently lost their father.  The widow (played by Kay Francis) has done the best she can with the money she was left by her successful husband but due to some unfortunate investments she is rapidly running low and the family is in danger of loosing everything.  She has four kids to look after ranging in age from approximately seven to approximately eighteen or nineteen.  As mentioned before, the performances in the film are all very impressive, especially from the children.  Amongst the children shines a more then competent actor, Dickie Moore who plays the youngest son, a precocious young man who is as loyal to his mother as he is cute.  Of all the performances Dickie Moore’s portrayal of Bill really steals the show and elevates the film from mediocre at best to not only charming and enjoyable but touching and quite emotionally engaging at times.
 
Kay Francis is as charming as ever.  She had a lot of range and it is fun to see how much her many characters varied from one another yet a certain screen presence always bleeds through and Kay is always there, whether she is playing a whore, a business woman, a doctor or a nurturing and loving homemaker like she is in in this film.  You can’t help but sympathize with her as she struggles through difficult financial times but all the while keeps chipper and shields the family from the trouble.
 
Soon she is on the brink of loosing everything and worst of all a relative of her recently deceased husband materializes with some nasty accusations and even nastier intentions for this struggling mother and her emotionally fragile young family. 
 
Kay Francis often faced hardships in her films, she was like the soap queen of the time, long before there were soap operas obviously, and while there is very real drama in the film, it is all rather light-hearted and fun, not melodramatic like some of her rolls in some of her films.  You never doubt she will prevail and you never doubt her son will play a part in it and while it is somewhat predictable, it is still a great little film about persisting even when you hit rock bottom and about the importance of family and loved ones, espeically during hard times.
 
One last thought on Dickie Moore.  As I watched the film I felt like Dickie Moore was familiar.  I knew his face was a face I had seen before many times and clearly in something I knew well but couldn’t recall.   I couldn’t place him however and even after finishing the movie I still couldn’t figure out where I had seen him before.  I knew he must have grown up to be an adult and perhaps played a part as an adult that I was very familiar with, but yet I couldn’t come up with a title to save my life.  Now, if you plan to watch it and you are familiar with classic films and you want to see if you can place him, don’t finish this paragraph.  For the rest of you, I’ll tell you what he was in, and I kicked myself for not being able to come up with it.  It turns out he had a key part in one of the best known film noirs of the 40s.  None other then Out of the Past.  He plays the deaf boy working at the service station.  For those familiar with Out of the Past, you know exactly who I mean, and you can understand why I kicked myself for not placing him.  He does have a distinct look, and he is someone a film noir fan should recognize, but in those 9 years from 1938 to 1947 he was completely transformed from a round-faced little child into a slender, even lanky young man, with a thin face.  It is the same face though.  He was great in both movies, and both are movies worth seeing if you haven’t seen them already.

The pre-code era allowed women to do a lot of things. They were allowed to openly express their sexuality. They were allowed to cheat on their husbands. They were allowed to kill people and actually get away with it. And they were allowed to live in the professional world. To take jobs that made them equal to men.  Usually, this was in the business world (for example, Ruth Chatterton in Female). There really weren’t many films about women becoming doctors. There are two really great ones, and they both star Kay Francis. I wonder what it was that made her so convincing as a woman of medicine that she took on the role twice. She certainly possessed a unique strength that gave her both a commanding and comforting presense.

In Mary Stevens, MD, Francis plays a gifted doctor who goes into practice with her best friend (who she really loves) played by Lyle Talbot. The film shows her talent as a doctor, but it also shows people’s prejudiced views against a female doctor in those times. We’re shown on more than one occassion adults who refuse to be treated by her because she’s a woman. So she specializes in children.

We get to see Francis’ Dr. Stevens as an incredibly strong woman, both in her professional life and her personal life. She becomes pregnant by Talbot while he is still married, so she goes to Europe to have the baby on her own. This really is a great depiction of strong professional women. In a lot of movies like this, the woman gives up her career because the man wants her to. Here, they get together in the end and continue practicing medicine. It’s really an impressive pre-code film.

The next year, at the tail end of the pre-code era, Francis played Dr. Monica, who isn’t quite as strong a character as Mary Stevens. It’s also much more of a soap opera. She discovers that her husband (Warren William) has had an affair with her best friend (Jean Muir). William leaves them both, and without his knowledge, Muir is pregnant. Monica discovers the truth, and decides to stick by her friend and help with the baby. And of course, true love has to prevail in the end. Whether he cheated on her or not.

Made at the end of the era, this follows the conventional storytelling of the man being completely forgiven for cheating on his wife. All in all, it’s a little difficult to watch Francis play such a strong character as Mary Stevens, and then to watch her play someone not half as strong as Dr. Monica. It’s not a bad movie, and its themes of adultery are pre-code goodness. But the martyrdom of the characters is hard to swallow.

They do handle similar themes, just in very different ways. There’s adultery in both, but in Mary Stevens Kay Francis is the other woman, while in Dr. Monica she’s the one being cheated on. Babies are also a core plot point in both films.

Both are good movies, but if you really want to see Francis as a strong professional woman, watch Mary Stevens, MD.

By Katie Richardson

Yes, in the Robert Montgomery podcast we said that our next one would be Obscure Hitchcock. But that was recorded a month ago, and in that span of time we decided to take a little bit more time to think about our Obscure Hitchcock list, so we decided that our next podcast would be on Kay Francis, who just had a whole month dedicated to her on TCM.

Help us out by going to the Podcast page and filling out the survey and sending it to obscure_classics@yahoo.com. If you watched her films last month, we’d love your input. If you missed them, there are a few playing on TCM throughout October.

Year: 1935

Director: Frank Borzage

Cast: Kay Francis, George Brent, Warren William, Helen Lowell

Terry Parker (Brent) walks away from a plane crash that kills his family. The loss causes him to feel massive guilt since he was the pilot, and makes him feel as though he’s living on borrowed time, making him preoccupied with death and danger, with his head constantly in the clouds. He meets Amy Prentiss (Francis), who is engaged to his best friend, Gibraltar Pritcham (William). They fall in love, and Gibraltar loves both of them enough to let them be together. They marry, and while Amy tries to be supportive, the marriage runs in to difficulties due to Terry’s problems.

Living On Velvet is exactly the kind of film where Borzage seemed most at home – the small, intimate romances. Borzage had a fixation on the relationship between love and spirituality, and this is one of his most literal uses of those themes. Terry’s struggle comes from his issues with spirituality, wondering why he didn’t die along with his family and coping with the thought that he doesn’t belong on this earth. When Amy enters the picture, there’s a mingling not just of their spirits, but of their spiritual ideals. Terry doesn’t know how to bring his closer to Amy’s earthier and realistic ones.

While Francis’ solid performance and character anchor the film, it’s heart and soul is Brent’s Terry. The film is about Terry’s changing spirit and his rebirth. Amy is the catalyst for this rebirth, and his anchor throughout. The dialogue of the film shows constantly that she completely understand him, that their minds and spirits are linked. So often Terry doesn’t have to speak for Amy to know what he wants to say.

As the film goes on is becomes clear that Amy is more than wife, she’s also acting as Terry’s mother. Terry is little more than a child. He can’t be expected to follow simple instructions without allowing his mind to be preoccupied with more romantic and dangerous ideas. He can neither act like an adult husband or like a member of the society to which he belongs until he’s overcome his problems.

Early in the film, it is Gibraltor who is in the role of supporter until Amy enters the picture and takes over that role. But whereas Gibraltor seemed to be an enabler, Amy gently prods Terry into fighting his demons. This leads to a very interesting revelation between the characters that love is not enough to sustain their relationship, and not enough to fill the void in Terry’s soul.

Year: 1932

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Starring: Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis, Charles Ruggles, Edward Everett Horton, C. Aubrey Smith

Lubitsch was a brilliant director who had a way with stylish, sophisticated, sexy comedies. His films were living, breathing innuendos, winking to the audience slyly. He did his best work with this type of film during the pre-code era where he had more freedom. His most high class and lush comedy of the era is Trouble In Paradise, a clever story about thieves in love.

The most important thing to note about Lubitsch’s films is that the sexuality is mature. Unlike so many films about sex today, the story and characters are sexy because they’re sophisticated and behave with dignity, even when they’re lying and breaking the law. The think so highly of themselves, and even of each other, that everything they do, including sex, is done with respect. These people are adults, and it’s nice to see the subject handled in a mature and adult way.

Because Lubitsch was so sophisticated, his films had very littel physical or slapstick humor. The film is constantly funny, but the humor comes from the people, the situations, and the dialogue. Lubitsch could craft a film around words and dialogue like no one else could. He could make a sentence sound physical, and that kept the films from feeling too dull and ‘talky’.

And, of course, Lubitsch had a gift for picking a cast, and Trouble In Paradise has one of his best. The chemistry captured between the trio is strong and inimitable. Heading up the cast is the always classy Herbert Marshall as the master thief. He’s great with Kay Francis, the wealthy woman he romances with plans to rob, until he falls for her. But as great as Francis is with Marshall, his true match is Miriam Hopkins. Their class and unmatchable chemistry turn the thieves into a pefect duo in love and crime. Even though Francis is great, and her scenes with Marshall are excellent, when you see him with Miriam Hopkins you know that Francis doesn’t have a chance.

While the films certainly deals with themes of sex and attraction, in the end it’s about companionship and love. Francis is just a lonely woman looking for companionship, and even though she’s charming, sweet, and has all the money Marshall could ever want, his match, his soulmate, is Hopkins. Love can’t be bought, and Marshall and Hopkins realize that money isn’t worth risking their relationship, and they come to the conclusing that nothing is better than them together.

By: Katie Richardson