Friday 24 October 2008

No More Orchids (1932)

In many ways this is a role reversal version and pure opposite of Brief Moment, the last Carole Lombard film I watched, made a year later with Gene Raymond. In that film he was a spoiled and drunken millionaire's son living on his allowance and she was a nightclub singer that he fell for. This time out it's Carole Lombard who's a spoiled and drunken millionaire's daughter living on her allowance and her co-star Lyle Talbot plays a lawyer working for her grandfather who doesn't want anything to do with such a spoiled brat.

The big difference is that this one is full of the charm and affection that made films like this magnetic and seem to avoid films like Brief Moment entirely. Part of that is certainly because it's Lombard doing the pursuing and the changing. Partly though it's just written so much better, providing the characters with far more depth, likability and memorable lines. The writer here is Gertrude Purcell working from a novel by Grace Perkins, the writer of Brief Moment was Brian Marlow, working from S N Behrman's play. I know little about either of them, beyond noticing that both had decent careers in Hollywood without ever sparking a great classic. Marlow's was ended by the blacklist.

Lombard is Ann Holt, who is just as spoiled as Rodney Deane in Brief Moment, but she's far more likable and far more believably redeemable. She obviously handles plenty of excess, presumably because she can, but the excess doesn't seem to own her the way it owned Deane. Arriving at a cruise liner in Cherbourg late and drunk because her grandfather owns the line and it won't leave without her, Ann meets her grandmother and Tony Gage, who is a passenger on the same cruise back to New York. Perhaps because he wants nothing to do with a spoiled brat, she falls for him hard. He resists, not wanting to be a shipboard romance, but she continues to pursue him back in New York and eventually they become a great couple.

Needless to say, it isn't quite that simple. Ann's grandfather Cedrick, played by C Aubrey Smith, as deliciously curmudgeonly as he ever was, has a long-standing vision for her, given that she's the apple of his eye. He's the man with the money in the family and he's been carefully arranging things for decades the way he wants. In order to marry her into European royalty, he even organised a revolution to get the right man onto the throne, and now he's in the position to finish what he set in motion. Ann's father Bill is a kind father but he's not very good at running a bank and he's bungled it to the point of no return. Now Cedrick can blackmail Ann into marrying Prince Carlos, because if she doesn't, he'll refuse any help to her father causing the bank to fail and him to be locked up.

Beyond being far better than Brief Moment, this is what classic Hollywood should be. It's not really a great film, but it's full of those magic little touches that make it a delight to watch. There are quite a few main characters, all of whom have flaws but we can easily engage emotionally with all of them. Perhaps Gage is a little too perfect, only letting his knight in shining armour image down for a couple of scenes of jealousy. We can root for Ann and Tony though, without ever needing to despise his competition, the Prince. Lombard sparkles throughout here, hinting at how great she would be in screwball comedy. Talbot is solid too, as he generally was in literally hundreds of B movies.

We can also hiss at Cedrick's villainy, while never hating him as a monster. He has his reasons which we can respect even while disagreeing with him. C Aubrey Smith was great at this sort of character and he's aided here by some clever choices in how to pose and light him. We rarely see him anywhere but in his carved oaken chair, lit carefully and always dominating the other character in the scene, perfect for the master manipulator role. Ann's father Bill is a bungler but seemingly good at being a father, friend and a human being, Walter Connolly playing the part to jolly perfection.

Best of all is Ann's grandmother, who I don't believe was ever named. She's a riot, delightfully down to earth, drinking everyone under the table, testing them with tongue twisters and even sticking her tongue out at the prince. The actress doing the work is Louise Closser Hale who made all but one of her 30 films in a very short period of time, from 1929 to her death in 1933, thus restricting her almost entirely to the precode era. I've seen a number of her films and while she's always been a delight to watch, whether in Dinner at Eight, Rasputin and the Empress or as the English gentlewoman in Shanghai Express with her dog Waffles, this is still the best I've seen her.

The dialogue sparkles too, helping the actors no end in giving life to their characters. The best and most obvious has to be the scene where Tony Gage and Bill Holt discuss a lovely girl who's expensive to maintain. In another direct opposite to Brief Moment, the poor love interest gets on with the potential in-laws like a house on fire, but the joke is that they're discussing a yacht not little Annie. It's far from the only great line though, because they're littered throughout this film like Purcell had access to the memorable line box at Columbia and stole them all. I remember classic Hollywood being full of memorable witty repartee, but the more I work my way through it the more that memory gets battered. It's films like this that restore the memory.

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