Saturday 20 January 2007

The Bachelor Father (1931) Robert Z Leonard

C Aubrey Smith, that curmudgeonly paragon of Victorian English virtue is hardly a paragon here as Sir Basil Winterton, though he's just as curmudgeonly. He has a whole bunch of honours appearing as initials after his name, but he's also an elderly bachelor with only illegitimate offspring. Given that this is 1931, and thus firmly within the precode era, he's allowed to mention the fact and in fact they're the key focus of the plot! He decides that he wants all these diverse bastard kids summoned to his home, Rooksfold Manor in Surrey, to live with him. They're Toni, a lively American dancer, Maria, an emotional Italian singer, and Geoffrey, an English musician, played respectively by Marion Davies, Nina Quartero and a very young Ray Milland.

Milland and Quartero are not bad but it's hard to even notice them, because this is really all about the connection between Davies and Smith, two very different people and two very different characters who work through complete enmity to find some common ground. Toni doesn't just move in but takes over too, ordering him around for his own benefit and much to his annoyance, becoming in the process as much mother and wife as daughter. Smith came to the part from the stage, having originated it on Broadway three years earlier and Davies has always been great in anything that isn't entirely serious. She has fun here and that's contagious, and she stretches a few boundaries here that would never have been permitted after the code kicked in.

Beyond the two of them there are a couple more characters who are far more noticeable than the other kids. There's Halliwell Hobbes as Larkin, one of the butlers. He obviously paid a lot of attention to Marion Davies, because he obviously enjoys making a fool of himself as much as she does, leaping around to scare off a plane or trying to dynamically explain how Toni plays craps. Then there's the Irish woman who brought up Toni in New York, played with much gusto by Elizabeth Murray. Compared to either of these, Maria and Geoffrey fade into the background completely, and compared to Marion Davies they're more like props.

Watch this for Marion Davies's spontaneity and C Aubrey Smith's fits of apoplexy, and for the fact that 1931 was a year where filmmakers had started to get things right. After the silent era had reached its pinnacle in 1928, the studios had to scramble around learning how to work with sound and there's not a lot worth watching from 1929. Things improved during 1930 until 1931 became a new pinnacle, only for the styles to change completely by 1932. The distinguishable greats from 1931 are ones like this, successful translations of very watchable stage plays onto film, mostly without the benefit of soundtracks and with seriously good actors making themselves known.

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