Wednesday 2 June 2010

The Keyhole (1933)

Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: Kay Francis and George Brent

While I was drawn to 1935's Living on Velvet because of Warren William, I came away with the memory of an amazing partnership between George Brent and Kay Francis. They made six films together, three of them in 1935 alone, but this was the first, based on a story called Adventuress by Alice D G Miller, so I was eager to discover if the potent chemistry between them was there a couple of years earlier. I found that it wasn't quite what it was in Living on Velvet but it was still solid, Francis in particular shining on a number of occasions. She did have a luminosity to her that was often palpable and while she never shone as brightly as say, a Greta Garbo, she still shone. It may be that Brent brought out a light in her that isn't always apparent but if so, he seemed to do it by poking the bear. In Living on Velvet, he had fun playing up her notorious problems with R's. Here he doesn't go that far but he still goes further than most.

Just like the Loyd Grossman TV show, we go through the keyhole, to discover the dastardly Maurice Le Brun. I say 'dastardly' because that's how his character is set up, with a dastardly moustache, no less, but there are a few surprising hints of film noir in these early scenes with menacing shots of Monroe Owsley and Kay Francis and sharp dialogue between them. Le Brun even summons her to his rooms through cunning use of a suicide note, though she realises as soon as she gets through his door that it's all a con. 'You couldn't go through with this kind of trick,' she points out to him, even though he has a prominent bottle of poison on his desk, but he tells her, 'You don't answer telephone calls, just suicide notes.' She's Ann Brooks, wife of elderly millionaire Schuyler Brooks, but she was married to Le Brun first and apparently still is, though she didn't know it, giving him a rather powerful snippet of knowledge to blackmail her with.

Back in the day, when she was a mere seventeen he picked her up to be his dancing partner and promptly followed up by becoming her husband. When he asked for a divorce she trusted him to get one but he didn't. Ten thousand dollars made him go away, but now he's back for another fifty and he takes her necklace as a deposit. Ann can't confide in her unsurprisingly suspicious husband, so she confides in his sister instead, the gloriously sharp Portia Brooks. Helen Ware has fun with the role, though she doesn't have too much to do except come up with a plan. Get him out of the country, she suggests, given that he isn't an American citizen, and she'll ensure he can't get back in. So off goes Ann on a cruise liner to Cuba on a trip away from it all, hiding badly behind the name of Ann Vallee. Portia makes sure Le Brun joins her on board without ever realising it's a trap and sure enough he falls for it but he becomes quickly tiresome.

Fortunately Maurice Le Brun is just the setup and we don't have to suffer watching him for the rest of the movie, just at points to remind us that there's a background to this story. The real story happens when Ann fails to confide in her husband because that way lies romantic melodrama. He trusts her absolutely, you see, so much so that he hires a detective to follow her to Cuba and find out what's going on. And here's where George Brent comes in, because as Neil Davis he's a man who spends his time apparently seducing married women whose husbands want proof of their infidelity. What a great job that must be for a young man: to be tasked with all the fun and none of the consequence, and to get paid for it to boot. Naturally Brent enjoys it a little too much as we escalate towards the inevitable finale. Well, I should say that it isn't quite as inevitable as all that, given that this is a precode but it still won't surprise too much.
Brent and Francis are both solid, though they're also both better than the material. Sure, this has charm but it's a rather fluffy sort of charm which feels a little out of place. It doesn't dare enough and it isn't salacious enough to be a real precode, it's not played as a star vehicle and it feels too short for what little story there is to really engage. After that first scene Owsley is just annoying, but then perhaps he was supposed to be. Could that dastardly moustache have appealed to a naive seventeen year old? Maybe. It couldn't appeal to anyone with a brain much older than that, that's for sure, not without a lot more to back it up. Helen Ware is joyously haughty and so far more memorable as Portia Brooks than her screen brother Henry Kolker, who does what he can with a hardly defined character. Behind the leads, the focus for me was the utterly minor but still engaging subplot between the ever reliable Allen Jenkins and Glenda Farrell.

Jenkins plays Hank Wales, a brash detective who works with Davis and needs out of town on account of a girl so becomes his valet on the cruise to Cuba. He's as blatant as you expect a character played by Allen Jenkins to be and sure enough Brent quickly backs that judgement up. 'You're alright for climbing in windows and knocking down doors,' he tells him, but effectively ignores him for the entire trip. Farrell is Dot, a gold digger on board ship who partners with bar stewards and jewellery store owners to make a lot of money by bringing them suckers. She has great fun putting on airs. She plants herself down next to Wales, asks for a Blue Diamond Fizz, talks about the Duke of Wessex and wants to change a hundred dollar bill. She never gives up because she wants to land a millionaire but she's enough of a sucker herself to think that Hank is one, not realising he's just spending Davis's expense account. They're fun but inconsequential.

There are some decent scenes, but the best may well be just background to a mere establishing scene. With Schuyler Brooks in the detective office, Hank Wales is tasked with quickly tracking down Neil Davis to jump on board whatever case Brooks wants him on. He finds him at a hotel, by having all the Mr Smiths in the place paged that a raid is in progress. That has the reaction you might expect, with four of them heading down in the lift when Wales heads up. 'Up or down, Mr Smith?' asks the elevator boy. 'Down!' cry all four of them in unison. That's a very precode scene, but then it's there for us to see the reality of what Davis does for a living before he's set up as our romantic lead. 'Your world is built on chivalry and the fair name of woman,' he tells Brooks. 'Mine isn't... All I need is an unlimited expense account and time.' It's a strange way to tell a story, exposing the romantic lead as a fake before he even meets the girl, but there you have it.

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