Monday 15 March 2010

Desirable (1934)

Director: Archie L Mayo
Stars: Jean Muir and George Brent

Stage actress Helen Walbridge is apparently a huge success. She opens in Lady Surrenders in a sold out Irving Theater and it's already booked up for the next four weeks. Her audience is more than appreciative, the women especially driven to tears, though even the backer calls it 'a big dish of unmitigated tripe'. She's played by Verree Teasdale, who is more than up to the sophistication of the role, however much of it is false. In fact her biggest talent was in clever womanly deceit, which is why she so often played the other woman and why her best films are from the precode era, playing opposite people like William Powell, Warren William and George Brent.

Brent is the leading man here too, in the form of advertising executive Stuart McAllister, better known as Mac, and Helen has him well and truly on her hook. Only at the post premiere party does he finally convince her to have dinner with him alone, though it won't be for another three weeks. Even then, after he neglects his work to design a perfect menu and set up all the accoutrements of a romantic night out, she skips out on him after turtle soup. You might think it was all just done to string him along for the attention, but she gives him a key to her apartment with instructions to wait for her until the play is done for the night.

Instead of an empty apartment, he finds a real wake up call. Her daughter is there, courtesy of a quarantine at boarding school, a daughter neither he nor anyone else in New York even knew existed. It's as plain as the nose on your face that she's utterly unwanted, as while she has all the excuses down it's obvious that they're excuses. Her mother never visits her and in fact nobody even knows who her mother is because, well, you know how actress's daughters get treated. She calls her mother Helen as if she isn't even related, which perhaps is what Helen wishes, given that she was stuck with her at sixteen by a dead husband. She's already graduated but she's still there because her mother suggested it would be a good idea for her to stay, even though she's nineteen years old. 'It'll be so dreary for you here in town,' she tells her on the first night, while planning a trip for her to Delaware, or in other words, somewhere else.

This daughter is Lois Johnson, played by Jean Muir, and both of them are a delight to watch, a breath of fresh air in the high falutin' society of endless soirées and parties and social affairs. I haven't seen much of Muir, but this is by far the best I've seen. She was the lady in The Lone Wolf Meets a Lady in 1940, but she was outshone by more than just Warren William. As William's bit on the side in 1934's Dr Monica she was passable but outshone by her screen mother here, Verree Teasdale. In A Midsummer Night's Dream she was lost in an ensemble cast that included Teasdale again and a whole slew of scene stealers including Frank McHugh, Joe E Brown and Hugh Herbert, along with James Cagney as Bottom. It's never easy to see anyone else in a Cagney movie because he was always so dynamic and alive, but it's Jean Muir that's dynamic and alive in this film.

Mac takes her out on the town, without any initial intention towards romance, merely to introduce her to life outside of boarding school, not to society but to shows, restaurants and sightseeing tours round Chinatown. As the weeks pass and he can't fail to notice the attraction she has for him, he doesn't take advantage of her even though she's the picture of youthful innocence and it would hardly be difficult. 'Never say that to a man,' he keeps telling her as she innocently compliments him, but he never explains why, naturally leaving that for the punchline at the end. He understands her character. 'She hasn't an ounce of deception in her own being,' he tells Helen as he aptly appoints himself as her guardian and watchdog. The ensuing romance is a sweet and decent one, and while the age difference is made apparent, it wasn't scary. Muir was 23 and playing 19. Brent was 35 and going through his first divorce, from actress Ruth Chatterton.

It helps that both the lead characters are so engaging, especially against a background of vaguely decent people who still aren't worth much, like Helen Walbridge and the Grays. In fact Lois ends up connecting far more with the help, the Grays' maid or the attendants in the restrooms at the unending stream of parties Helen has her attend. While Mac hasn't always made the right decisions in his own life, he's a decent man who would be a good friend and Lois is so alive it's impossible not to be enlivened watching her. It could well be that her innocent inquisitiveness was real, as she gained a nickname of 'the studio pest' at Warner Brothers because she asked questions about everything to do with the production of the films she was in. It almost feels strange to want to wish the loving couple all the best, but that's how this film makes us feel. It's a precode even the Mormons would like.

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