Saturday 19 September 2009

Hearts Divided (1936)

Director: Frank Borzage
Star: Marion Davies
Thomas Jefferson wants the million square miles of the Louisiana territory but Napoleon Bonaparte doesn't want to give it up, at least not for anything less than the $20m he needs to fight his wars back in Europe. Of course being a Hollywood production, Jefferson and Bonaparte are astute and sophisticated leaders while the British consuls are outmanoeuvered at every step. After all, if this film is to be believed it's never cold in Baltimore. But this isn't a serious film, not in the slightest. The main thrust of the film is a romance between young Betsy Patterson and Napoleon's younger brother Jerome, who's representing the French leader on a goodwill tour. Backing that up is an attempt to expand on the success of the Charlie Ruggles/Edward Everett Horton double act from Trouble in Paradise by adding Arthur Treacher to make it three.

Treacher plays one of the most racist characters I've ever seen in film, and there are quite a few here to contend with. He's Sir Harry, a knighted English gentleman who exclaims that 'His Majesty would be most displeased' to find out that the United States is no longer a British colony. In other words he's a pompous moron in the worst stereotypical way. His chortling is painful. To be fair Ruggles and Horton aren't exactly the pride of America either, which is unfortunate as they're both United States senators. All three of them are only in the picture to make us laugh by courting Betsy Patterson in the most inept way possible, as none of them apparently have anything better to do.

Betsy is Marion Davies, decent as a Baltimore society girl who everyone and his dog seems to think the world of, but outshone by her courters. She's the darling of the races, the negro washerwomen love her to bits and even Jefferson observes that seeking her has become something of an American pastime. She's at once respectable and down to earth, hardly surprising given that her father is played by respectable Henry Stephenson and her aunt by down to earth Clara Blandick. Only her new French instructor/singing coach/fencing teacher can fluster her, which is hardly surprising given that he's Capt Jerome Bonaparte having fun on an idyllic interlude, incognito of course, having fallen for Betsy at the races while pretending he's not himself to avoid the fuss.

And that's the story, if you can call it that. Captain Jerome is played by Dick Powell, hand picked for the role by Marion Davies herself, so we get a couple of songs to sit through, even though the film is only 76 minutes longn to begin with. Apparently it used to be 11 minutes longer so I wonder what William Randolph Hearst had cut out to better highlight his mistress. He had a habit of doing that, which makes it all the more surprising that he'd allow a cast like this to even be in the same film. Why hire professional scene stealers like Ruggles, Horton and Treacher, not to mention Claude Rains as the Emperor Napoleon, if you're not going to let them do what they do.

Rains looks notably different here than I've ever seen him before. Partly, and most obviously, it's because he has a cunningly enhanced prosthetic nose and a pronounced and lopsided widow's peak. Partly it's because he's cleverly made to look even smaller than his 5'6½" height by the careful use of clothes that are too big for him. Partly it's because one scene has him sitting in a bath and somehow it seems wrong to see Claude Rains topless. Partly though it's because he has a wicked grin and a presence that is far bigger than his body. This Napoleon is an utter Hollywood invention that doesn't bear much of a similarity to the real one, but the magnanimous, grateful, patriotic character Rains is given to play here he plays superbly. Only in his last scene does he become petty and blindly ambitious, yet still willing to do whatever his mother asks. Give me a break.

Davies isn't bad but she's been far better elsewhere. Even the comedic scenes are below than her usual standards and that's disappointing. She's best here at the teary heartbroken ones and that's surprising, given that she was always a better comedienne than a dramatic actress. What I'm finding is that while her voice was a great asset, especially when doing impressions, her greatest roles were in silent films. I'm now only missing one of her sound films and can say that of her final ten films only one could be called great: Page Miss Glory, the one she made before this. Hearts Divided doesn't even come close to coming close.

Dick Powell does everything that's expected of him but a few dramatic scenes and an idiotically happy ending aren't enough to give the part any substance. He's there to look charming and sing well and hed does fine at both. For my part I was watching Rains and the triple whammy of Ruggles, Horton and Treacher. As criminally wasted as as they are, especially when compared to the genius of Trouble in Paradise, they're the best thing about the movie.

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