Sunday 25 April 2010

Living on Velvet (1935)

Director: Frank Borzage
Stars: Kay Francis, Warren William and George Brent
George Brent must be someone pretty important this time out because when his family need to go to a dance in Newport he can take them by plane. Unfortunately he must be someone pretty dumb too because he hasn't stocked up on enough fuel and he can't find his way through the clouds. He ends up coming down the hard way, but while his sister Cynthia and both his parents die in the crash, his character, Terry Parker, comes out unharmed. Well, three scratches and a headache don't count, at least not in his book, so he spends the next two years pleading with the heavens to take him too. The crash happens in February 1933. Two months later he disappears. A year after that he's found in Shanghai serving in the Chinese Air Service. Then he's arrested in Venezuela for continued flying above border fortifications. By June 1935 he's buzzing the military squadron flying manoeuvres over Benton Field in Long Island for Aviation Day.

He even steals the plane he uses for that particular stunt, from his best friend Walter Pritcham, who is aptly dubbed Gibraltar simply because he's a rock. He's played by Warren William, an actor who's as perfect a calendar for this era of movies as there ever was because you can always tell whether a film was made under the restrictions of the Production Code or not just by looking at his role. This one has nothing salacious to it in the slightest, for instance, so you know has to be post-1934. It's Terry Parker that has those characteristics here, in a more restrained version, because he's damaged goods. The two years after the crash added up to ten days in jail, two smashups, two broken ribs, one lawsuit and $50,000 dwindled down to a mere $500. He's a tumbleweed, drifting wherever circumstance takes him while he gives the heavens yet another chance. It's Gibraltar who finds a way for him to settle, but it's hardly a deliberate one.

He takes him to Amy Prentiss's party, because he's keen to show off the girl he plans to marry. Unfortunately from the moment Terry's eyes meet Amy's, it's obvious she's not going to be marrying anyone else because they're both smitten from moment one. This is a melodrama, something that director Frank Borzage specialised in, but this scene demonstrates just how good he could be at it. Brent is utterly alive in this film and so is Kay Francis, who plays Amy Prentiss. What hangs in the air between them is palpable as they just look at each other across the room, oblivious to anything else. It's love and fate and eternity. It might be his redemption. It might be her future. It's certainly her party and yet he still persuades her to leave at the beginning of it without even really asking. It's as if all the vast range of possibilities suddenly converged and became clear for a moment.

The scene apparently worked for Brent and Francis too, as while they'd made The Keyhole together a couple of years earlier, this appears to have been the trigger for a whole slew more. They made six films together all told, three in 1935 alone, but for some reason, while I've seen almost all Brent's films from the era, these constitute most of my gaps. The chemistry between the pair is excellent, so much so that he even gets away with openly mocking her well known problem with Rs, a problem that led to her nickname of Wavishing Kay Fwancis. After leaving the party they catch a bus somewhere and he picks up on her pronunciation of April. 'Apwil?' he asks. As we sit back surpwised that anyone in her film caweer called her on this on screen, he promptly has her wecite 'awound the wocks the wagged wascal wan.' And yet she plays along, apparently not unwillingly either, and credit is always won when someone makes fun of themselves. Katharine Hepburn even managed to turn her career around by doing precisely that in The Philadelphia Story.
It's only in the wee hours of the morning that Terry thinks to ask for her name and realises who she is. Of course she's Gibraltar's Amy, because life is like that; at least it is for Terry Parker. And so he leaves because, whatever else he is, he's a good egg. Breaking up a military formation is just good fun for an afternoon but stealing your best friend's girl just isn't cricket. The catch is that Amy doesn't see herself as Gibraltar's Amy, she's just Amy and she can make up her own mind about such things. So now she can't eat and she has to rely on Gibraltar finding Parker, not that he can, at least until he walks into a bar with the announcement that he'll fight anyone in the place and so ends up in front of a cop who knows who to call. I should add here that Brent demonstrates a fine talent in obscure insults, calling the cop 'a faucet-nosed round-faced baboon' and, of all things, 'an overstuffed pelvis.' The fine art of insult was not dead in 1935.

You can see where the story is going without much trouble. Terry continues to attempt to dissuade Amy from dedicating her life to him, albeit not very well, and she continues to ignore him. 'Walter Pritcham is thoroughly responsible,' he tells her, 'a wealthy pillar of the community, safe, sane, sound, a veritable Gibraltar.' Of course she should go back to him. Amy's Aunt Martha calls Terry 'a scoundrel without a single saving grace' and he agrees with her, vocally. He admits to being 'thoroughly irresponsible, a pauper, a social outcast and a lunatic.' He suggests that 'Gibraltar can give her everything,' can 'ensure her happiness,' while he'll just make her miserable. So naturally they get married immediately. The chief success of this film is that Kay Francis makes that decision believable. She loves him and wants to help him to get over the past, but she's well aware that it won't be easy. She's willing to do her best and she does.

What's most surprising is the part Warren William gets, Gibraltar being every bit of the rock his nickname suggests. Even though he's just lost the woman he planned to marry, to his best friend, he serves as the best man, tips everyone who took part in the service and promptly rents them a six bedroom house and a car for a steal. I wouldn't mind five bucks a month rent, though these newlyweds knock him down to four and a half. He's always there when he can be of assistance and he finds a way to help out even when pride would get in the way of a straight offer. He doesn't expect anything in return and when Terry decides to stop shaving halfway across his face, he even helps out there, leaning over him with a straight razor but not taking advantage of the opportunity. He does a great job with the role, though it isn't much of a role for Warren William. 1935 was the beginning of the end for him because he was born for the precodes.

Brent and Francis are both good, but beyond the chemistry there isn't a lot except melodrama. Writers Jerry Wald and Julius J Epstein do set up more R gags, which begin with giving her a man named Tewwy to deal with and include giving Francis lines like, 'We're pwutocwats!' There are also telling scenes like when a plane flies over the house and Terry finds himself drawn to it somewhat like a hypnotised man. Mostly though it just deteriorates as time goes by. The setup is good, the follow through not bad but the denouement is pretty dismal. As always with 1935 Hollywood movies I can't resist imagining what they would have been only a single year earlier and this is a prime example. If this was a precode the latter part of the film would have been much better. Warren William's character would have financed Terry's flying to get him back into the skies, only to sabotage his plane so he could die in the air and leave him the girl. What a difference a year made...

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