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Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Censors Scrub Warner Battlefields

Part Two of The White Angel (1936) 

Censorship tamped down explicit aspects of patient suffering, leaving Florence/Kay to combat unsanitary conditions rather than doctors too handy with hacksaws. Gone With The Wind of a few years later would be a lot more blunt where gangrene and amputations were applied. Was the PCA an easier crowd to deal with by then, or did Warners lack Selznick's heft in negotiating with them? A boldest stroke for this White Angel was denying her romance of any sort. No man would touch the hem of Florence's nurse uniform. It was bad enough that Kay Francis had to go nearly a feature's length without a costume change, and now was further edict that she, and her audience, had no man or men to fuss over. Warner merchandising, NY based, must have got apoplexy when they screened this. Slippery selling had before, and would this time, intervene where product veered off formula path.

Her Heart Was Too Big For One Man To Possess was typical of ad copy, implication being that it took many men to satisfy Florence Nightingale's hungry heart. What wasn't revealed was Florence's yearn for men laid prostrate or shot full of holes. Yes, Kay had never spent so much footage tending men in bed, but this wasn't exactly what her followers had in mind. One World Was Too Small To Share All Her Love again implied romance where The White Angel offered none, other than what Florence Nightingale denies herself, and it's to Warner's credit that changes weren't made to accommodate fan expectation. Comparisons with The Story of Louis Pasteur accompanied most ads, a device Warners put blunt to showmen: “This picture was filmed because of the tremendous success and acclaim accorded The Story Of Louis Pasteur.” Besides that came “a lot of” prestige, or so they promised, and what’s more, Florence Nightingale was “an even better known central character than … Louis Pasteur,” which set me to recalling which name I heard first from history, and yes, it was Florence, if not Kay as Florence.

By all means “re-use your Pasteur contacts,” advised WB, “this show will appeal to the same people.” Still there was lack in “essential sex clash,” as Variety noted. Conceded was fact that women who accomplished great things, like Florence Nightingale, forfeited a love life, since being a Great Woman left no time to moon over men (certainly not an antiseptic Donald Woods, would-be love interest of The White Angel). MGM would be among few to successfully hit all bases with later Madame Curie, wherein Greer Garson had romance cake of Walter Pidgeon and ate it too (radium discovery). Trade reviews often pointed out what seemed obvious to all but studio handlers, in this case potential re-brand for Kay Francis that she, and now we, knew would be ignored. Again from Variety, re Kay: “Her fine, sensitive, and altogether impressive performance opens up (a) new screen cycle for a personality already high in public esteem, and (it) is for Warners and exhibitors probably the outstanding significance of the picture.” Had but WB acted on such trade perception.

Not that I propose The White Angel as paragon among bios, for it was compromised by Code ninnies (nix the gore, and don’t reflect badly on Brit medical procedures, although degree of that could hardly be helped if you were going to tell this story). Florence/Kay gets in licks at women of the era denied opportunity to serve like men, per speech right to camera, and us: “How I envy the Queen, the only woman in England who is allowed to do a man’s work, to have a man’s point of view.” Did such declarative stir stenos and Automat table wipers denied opportunity elsewhere? --- and they didn’t even have a Queen to model after. Maybe it’s better distaff fans didn’t see raw deals handed Kay by WB overseers, The White Angel a fantasy in so many more ways than one. Narrative is broken by chapters led into by text titling, as if Griffith were aboard to evoke good old talk-less days. Florence visits a stage-built graveyard that looks like happy revisit to Bride of Frankenstein, only missing a Dr. Pretorious to offer her a gin break. Tale was backstage told that Kay mimicked Florence by demanding blankets and hot refreshment to shivered extras after a downpour scene. She’d walk off lest they were fed and warmed! A real happening, or dreamed by publicity eager to link the actress with the martyr she played? However way, I’ll buy it, just for liking Kay and wanting her to have been a stand-up gal (also love those Francis diary entries --- makes Mary Astor look like a convent dweller).

Graves Look But Recently Vacated by Henry F. and Fritz

It's Cooled Air They're Selling in Buffalo
The White Angel has Florence at one point sitting stoic in snow after entrance forbade to a field hospital, her adversary a stern-visaged Donald Crisp, a sort of all-purpose barrier to medical progress. For Hollywood artificiality writ large, there is no delight like Kay/Florence under faked winter onslaught, the downpour like soothing oatmeal and nothing to approach genuine cold (at least they could have shot at the Ambersons ice house --- would it have been available in 1936?). Release year’s Warner Blooper reel has fun footage of Ian Hunter trying to emote with faux flakes forever getting in his mouth, Ian spitting furious to keep it out and say his words. To theme of cold, note from ads that The White Angel played summer ’36 when weather was hot. Shea’s Air-Conditioned Buffalo (did we say Air-Conditioned?) promised a “Glorious” July 4 with The White Angel, seen “The Healthy Way” in cool clime with Mickey Mouse besides. Three dimes for this till 2:30? I’m in. The White Angel can be had from Warner Archive, has played TCM in HD. Would The White Angel be Muniificent if he were in it? I say it’s Kay-lossal without him, if a bittersweet record of a 30’s star stepped upon the sled that would eventually see her out at Warners, all for handing them a hit this certainly was.


Blogger DBenson said...

On selling non-existent sex:

Warner's "The Prince and the Pauper" is definitely a boy's adventure. The twin heroes' mothers are effectively dead after the opening scenes, and after that the most substantial female part is a shy but frank barmaid with a yen for Errol Flynn. Said barmaid is there for one scene, and gets as far as Flynn's lap before he literally dumps her to dash back into action. Of course she's featured in the trailer, and they even give the actress billing to imply a major love interest.

Surprised they didn't provide Florence with a nubile assistant who could fall in love with a patient. Unromantic figures, historical and fictional, were frequently equipped with attractive young relations or subordinates to deliver a romantic subplot. That's something Nathan Rothschild, Brigham Young, and John Philip Sousa had in common with W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers.

3:29 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

Don't forget Hopalong Cassidy!

8:13 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Aldous Huxley wrote that when he worked briefly at MGM as a screenwriter he was assigned to research Marie Curie. One detail found which could not make its way into the screenplay (and couldn't today) was that Madame Curie made love with her assistants under a painting of her departed husband. Yesterday that was too much truth for the movies. Today it is sexual harassment in the work place. Censorship robs us of the truth.

11:55 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Thelma Todd looks so full of joy there. Her rainy day came far too soon. The cafe did not help.

5:45 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Erich Von Stroheim, told that GREED had lost money huge, filmed THE MERRY WIDOW for a percentage. It was a HUGE hit. When he asked for his share he was told the losses from GREED ate it up. Thomas Quinn Curtis for his book on STROHEIM discovered that GREED had actually made a profit.

11:05 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers Kay's height advantage over potential leading men:

I carry no brief for George Brent, who almost fatally unbalanced “The Rains Came” with the caricature he offered in place of a performance, but I can understand why he might have been an acceptable leading man at Warner Bros., when you consider that Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney were five feet seven inches and five feet five inches tall, respectively. The long, languid Kay Francis was five feet nine, almost too much woman even for the redoubtable William Powell in “One Way Passage,” a most touching romance, by the way. Powell, who was soon to leave for M-G-M, was five feet ten inches tall. I suppose that Warren William, at six feet one, might have filled the bill, but his saturnine personality would have been a bad fit for Kay’s smoldering sexuality. So, that left George Brent, rather bland but also six feet one, to lend some stature as someone she could look up to, with a slight, charming tilt of her chin.

5:19 PM  

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