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Sunday, September 07, 2008

Kay-Rations at TCM

Somebody at Turner must have a big yen for Kay Francis. They’ve shown her a lot over years I’ve watched. This month is another marathon of her Warner (and Monogram!) pics. Last night I watched Raffles off the DVR. This was a Goldwyn/Colman new to me. It’s not as good as The Devil To Pay or The Masquerader, but fun withal and happily precode in letting its crook hero get away at the finish. Colman has this way of keeping at least three quarters of his face before the camera at all times, never mind dialogue directed toward others frequently standing behind him. He’s pleasingly vain and entirely justified in being so. Surely his parents foresaw a future upon Ronnie’s first spoken words --- Now there’s a natural for talkies. Raffles has that measured pace of theatre faithfully transcribed before Hollywood knew sound would need fresh tempos. It revels in a Mayfair weekend party milieu familiar to 30’s audiences not yet dismissive or contemptuous of upper class characters with attendant chauffeurs and footmen. There’s even a cricket match played in some detail, a generous dose of the game that movies did not often give us. It looks like a weird kind of baseball. I thought of Boris Karloff playing it during hours off around this period. In fact, there’s much cross-pollination between Raffles and classic horrors being made across the valley at Universal. Frederick Kerr (Frankenstein), Frances Dade (Dracula), and Bramwell Fletcher (The Mummy) are all here, their parts a seeming continuum from ones they had in the monster pics. Fletcher might as credibly be working his way out of the Raffles mess he’s in before dashing off to Egypt and a fateful Field Expedition, with straight-jackets to complete his odyssey. We take for granted the wondrous continuity supporting players brought to films then, a thing so lacking today when every show exists like an island divorced from other screen fare (unless it's sequels). Raffles thievery is a lark practiced by gloved aristocrats who leave teasing notes for working class Yard men we enjoy seeing trumped. Heists are committed without gunplay or any one getting bashed in the head. Minus fatalities, or even injury, it’s easier to be a good sport at the end and let miscreants off with jaunty farewells (and often the loot). Raffles was less  vehicle for Kay Francis than a showcase for Colman, long sections where she opts out and leaves exposition to him. Reliably slinky and butched out hair-wise, Kay’s so flattered by the look as to make me wonder when it might be coming back.

Jewel Robbery is again a celebration of elegant thieves and how they prosper fleecing dense diamond merchants and dumb gendarmes. You can’t help speculating upon depression-era viewers, already short of bread at home, so inspired by rascally goings-on as to hold up boxoffices on their way out (and indeed, theatre robberies, often at gunpoint, were rife during the early thirties). This is precode beyond mere lacking of moral and legal compensation so soon to be enforced. Jewel Robbery frankly applauds crime and artful means of getting away with it. Casting William Powell as chief purloiner guarantees rooting interest on our part for whatever he does. This actor could drown puppies and make us like it. The great thing about Powell at Warners is how blithely he walks away from consequences of behavior egregious even to modern sensibilities. Adultery and rogueing are games he manages as adroitly as others play checkers. He must have been some role model for young men on already uncertain ethical footing. What a pity he’d spend future years bound up in Code chains at righteous Metro, that strident dispenser of justice to characters blurring societal edicts (watch sometime how he suffers in 1942's Crossroads). Kay Francis would soon be wiped out by her own market crash of censorial intervention. Where was fun seeing KF tiptoe about post-Code drawing rooms when patrons remembered ones she’d heated up in Jewel Robbery? Always the fashion goddess, Francis in precode also modeled the latest attitudes with regards marriage (preferably open), fidelity (optional), and that eternal expediency of trading sex for gifts (diamonds preferred). Once you took these away, there was nothing left for her but clothes (assuredly staying on), a burden groaning beneath scripts with all semblance of reality siphoned off. Audiences listened to Kay Francis prior to 1934. After that, they merely watched (how many cared about fashions without red meat stories behind them?). Her struggle with the "R" enunciation gets laughs yet, but then and now it served as endearing equalizer for a woman who might seem too perfect otherwise. When she answers Powell’s flawless diction with talk of "wobbers" making off with gems, we’re reassured that this is a mere mortal after all. Such impediment registered strongest, if unconsciously, among fans who stayed loyal even as Kay took studio money and ran, serving less art than bottom lines.

One Way Passage may rank among better precodes just for being well remembered by people who saw it new, positive vibes passed down as received wisdom to generations since. Much as we like raw energy of shows from the early-30’s, there’s realization of sameness creeping in with ongoing exposure to them. Seen it all scribes out of city room universities preferred fast and cynical, which explains why love seldom found Lee Tracy. So many precodes were about putting over sock openers, then peppering rest with verbal gagging. How much genuine emotion was managed in running times of seventy minutes or less? I watched my trio of Kay Francis pics in under three and three quarters an hour. Among these One Way Passage puts over romance and tragic dénouement in less time than Ken Maynard took quelling rustlers and runs a straight line contrary to so many Warner precodes where  writers routinely failed sobriety tests at coherent narrative. WB for good reason felt serious romance was indulgence better left to novelists or richer studios. Expanded length allowed Paramount to faithfully engage A Farewell To Arms, and Universal drew tears over Mae Clarke’s fate in Waterloo Bridge. Both these and One Way Passage were talked about years after most titles of like vintage were forgot. We deplore seeing  Powell gallows bound on a bum rap, and indeed, most vehicles from that period would spare him the rope, but unlike post-code morality lectures, One Way Passage is less about justice being served than how easily chance and rotten luck can make us pay for actions justified or at least understandable. Powell forfeits opportunity to escape out of love and/or decent impulses we never feel are imposed upon him. One Way Passage won't patronize viewers in that way post-codes would. It surely traumatized 1932 viewers (jaded ones most of all) to see Bill so close to freedom, only to sacrifice all in a selfless act atypical of precode heroes (he plays it beautifully). No wonder Robert Osborne called One Way Passage the best of co-starring Powell and Francis films.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A delicious post! I suspect that you'll be receiving a good many comments, for here is red-blooded "Greenbriar" meat if ever I smelled it! So glad to know you share my admiration for "The Masquerader", in fact you're virtually the first person I've ever heard discuss it at all! Another great Goldwyn/Colman/Francis is "Cynara", from the same period, beautifully directed by King Vidor. Like yourself, I have never seen the '30 version of "Raffles". I don't think it was part of the Goldwyn package that was released to local television at the time I was first exposed to these films. Goldwyn had remade it in '40 with David Niven, and it was that version that was shown.

Finally, totally in agreement with you on "One Way Passage". I first saw it when I was in college, with no prior conception of what I was about to see,and I still remember the closing scene as one of the most moving, unsettling things I've ever seen. "One Way Passage" is truly that "Exhibit A" for the defense, when they say, "They don't make 'em like that anymore." It's not that they don't -- they can't!

Best, R.J.

8:51 PM  
Blogger Erik Weems said...

It seems like whatever made Francis popular in those early talkie films is working for her all over again in the 21st century.

Another fine, thoughtful posting at Greenbriar!

10:12 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

One good thing would be that somebody puts back on the market the two silent versions of RAFFLES.

Both of them, the 1917 Paramount version (with John Barrymore) and 1925 Universal's, are available although their visual quality left everything to be desired.

It would be nice to compare the three versions although I like the way the Argentine uncredited director did his job for the Goldwyn sound remake.

1:03 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

"One Way Passage" is an extraordinarily romatic movie that, unlike contemporary turkeys, never goes overboard with gooey dialogue or music to cue your feelings.

Ditto "Jewel Robbery," although in a comedic, near hilarious, vein. And don't forget how Powell makes his escape by making his victims smoke marijuana!

Powell is one of my favorite actors of that time, while Kay Francis has a strange hold on me --she's either dangerous or hot -- or both.

10:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the photos of Kay Francis. My favorite films are Mandalay , Jewel Robbery and One Way Passage. Maybe now with her being Star Of The Month and having three books out on her. Maybe we can get some of her films on DVD now.

5:25 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

The Kay Francis / Lubitsch "Trouble in Paradise" is a Criterion DVD from 2003

4:59 PM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

This is one of TCM's better moments - Kay Francis is so much fun onscreen. When I first heard her speak, I caught the Fudd-like w-for-r, and my first thought was how hard she must've worked to keep in films, beauty or not. She also has the most unusual eyebrows, next to Louise Brooks, and sometimes I see faces like her's with those particular big, limpid eyes and I grin a little - she was something else.

1:41 AM  

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