Sunday 27 September 2009

Stolen Holiday (1937)

Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: Kay Francis, Claude Rains and Ian Hunter
Opening with the standard disclaimer that this is a story of fiction yaddah yaddah yaddah, it's really based on a true story, that of Serge Alexandre Stavisky. It never ceases to amaze me that golden era Hollywood had a habit of making utter fiction out of fact, but never being honest enough to admit it. This loose adaptation is at least honest up front. It's also apparently a woman's picture, as highlighted by the fact that it's Kay Francis's name above the title, co-stars Claude Rains and Ian Hunter. It never ceases to amaze me how often that happened at Warner Brothers, even though history has told us that real women's parts were so few and far between, Hollywood being reserved mostly for the men.

It's 1931 and we're in Paris for the Delphine Summer Fashion Show, where Francis is a model apparently trying to show us how masculine she can be. With her lack of bust and a deliberately mannish haircut, she looks more like Servalan from Blake's 7. She's picked out of a lineup by Stefan Orloff because of her air of confidence though, ostensibly to model for a lady who is sick and so can't come to the salon. There is no such woman though, as she soon finds out. As she suggests, he's cwooked and his story is vewy fantastic. He merely has 500 francs and a whole heap of ambition. What he needs is her confidence to match his own and prop up his confidence games.

Sure enough, they grow in importance as five years whizzes by, until she's running the Maison Picot, a premier Paris fashion house, and he's running investment brokerages, strings of pawnbrokers and benefit events for crippled children. How much is built on a sound foundation and how much on sand is hard to tell, but it would seem to be biased towards the latter, with Orloff constantly building a new scam to firm up the failings of the last one. Everything escalates, though Orloff is never fearful of building his scams higher.

Picot doesn't seem to be actively involved in any way other than knowingly lending an air of respectability to Orloff's shenanigans, but that's still involved, however unwittingly. Also involved to a similar extent is Suzanne, Picot's assistant, played by the joyous Alison Skipworth who sounds more like Edward G Robinson than ever. She tells fortunes with cards and knows from moment one that Orloff is the King of Spades. She also knows that when Tony Wayne enters the picture in the romantic form of Ian Hunter and captures Picot's attention that he's the Jack of Hearts. The symbolism is hardly opaque.

Stolen Holiday is an interesting story, which builds slowly but surely, but it contains no surprises and will be easily forgettable. Orloff's empire is a house of cards and it inevitably begins to tumble, card by card, prompting him to enact countermeasure after countermeasure, which only get lower as time goes by. Rains plays Orloff as a villain but not an overt one, merely a charming one with no scruples, someone you'd like to know and hang out with but never trust. Unsurprisingly he's spot on.

Francis is decent in the lead, though she can't carry many of the more fashionable dresses that Mme Picot is naturally seen in. Hunter is a worthy romantic lead but we get to see far too little of him. There are worthy supporting actors like Walter Kingsford and Charles Halton to prop up the story but they're infrequent too, never being given much of a chance to be anything except another card in Orloff's house. Skipworth may just be the best of the bunch as Nicky's knowing assistant, but while there's naturally more of her than anyone else, not being a small lady, there's far too little of Suzanne which is not a good thing. She could have been the narrator from the inside.

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