Tuesday 17 May 2011

The Rich Are Always with Us (1932)

Director: Alfred E Green
Star: Ruth Chatterton

This short melodrama couldn't advertise its intended audience more vehemently than it does at the outset. We're introduced to the lead character of Caroline Grannard through brief scenes of gossip, beginning as she's born Caroline Van Dyke, the richest baby in the world. Twenty years later she gets engaged to Greg Gannard but ten more finds their marriage so on the rocks that nobody could possibly believe it, even though she's dining with the leading man, George Brent, as novelist and war correspondent Julian Tierney. This unashamed melodrama introduces Ruth Chatterton, our star, in soft focus and we're surprised she doesn't stay that way. Chatterton was a capable actress but it didn't take long for me here to start missing my favourite foil for George Brent, Kay Francis. These are scenes that Francis would play with sly humour but Chatterton flounders in overacted melodrama. Fortunately she's much better when the lines improve.

There's also fortunately a third name in play here. As the characters make eyes at each other and we start falling asleep with boredom, Bette Davis walks in to save the day, as she so often did as a supporting actress for Warner Brothers in the early thirties. Her character, bizarrely named Malbro as if in homage to her forthcoming decades as a chain smoker, has the only life to show thus far, as a pouty little piece who wants Tierney but can't get him. Davis hated many of her early roles, and many of them were indeed pretty dire, but she often shone far brighter than such characters were worth, especially in precodes like this. In case you're not paying attention, the Production Code didn't tend to look kindly on plots that saw the other woman trying to steal the other man from the married heroine, while the heroine's husband is misbehaving on the side with a younger lady, Allison Adair. Not much of this film could have survived to 1935.
Chatterton shows her talent in the dignified scenes, which are surprisingly commonplace in such an outrageous melodrama as this. Adair doesn't just manoeuvre Caroline's husband into getting caught with her, she does so at a fundraiser the obstacle to her designs is hosting. She's kept her own virtue intact thus far, politely refusing each and every one of Tierney's advances, but her husband isn't following suit. She's the richest woman in the world, who we would expect today to launch into drama and histrionics to be broadcast to one and all from the front page of the tabloids, but not here. Here in 1932 she shows how much of a lady she is by putting her uncomfortable reality on hold for a while until she's done entertaining her guests. She doesn't hold back from the necessary action but she obviously cares about her servants and she treats her philandering husband well as he leaves. What a girl!

Unfortunately the melodrama continues and gets more and more ridiculous as time goes by. When Caroline shows up at Tierney's apartment, I couldn't tell if Brent was laughing because his character was supposed to or just because he'd read the script. At least his butler is played by Hattie McDaniel's brother Sam, who isn't credited but is worthy nonetheless. He gets a telling scene when Caroline rings from Paris, France, to let Tierney know she's divorced, as he's utterly stunned that something like that could happen. We've gone from that to cheap video calls from mobile phones in less than eighty years. I find movies often rook me between the eyes with their unsubtle reminders of how quickly technology progresses. Of course that's not the point here but it's what I got out of it. I'm well aware that watching thirties melodrama like this without finding more important things to focus on can cause the brain to rot.

Based on a novel of the same name by Ethel Pettit, released a year earlier, this really has little to recommend it. Nowadays it would be a soap opera rather than a movie, that's how outrageous it gets. I won't reveal the film's ending, not just because I don't like spoilers but because somehow I doubt you'd believe me. On the whole I do much prefer the endings of precodes to the code era pictures that followed them because they didn't tend to cop out. Precodes often end brutally, in murder or suicide or catastrophe, and one of those applies here, but they were usually deserved. This one feels wrong because it's as convoluted a setup for another happier ending as anything that classic Hollywood churned out in the latter part of the decade. Needless to say, I'm not a fan of the script, but that's not surprising. This was emphatically a movie for women, who could lust after George Brent, admire Ruth Chatterton and enjoy the rising star of Bette Davis.
There are some ironies in play. This was Chatterton's first picture for Warner Brothers, who had pinched her from Paramount, and she married her co-star less than six months after this movie's release, a mere day after divorcing Ralph Forbes. The couple would make four pictures all told in only a year, the others being The Crash, Lilly Turner and Female, her next three films. Yet her star quickly waned and only six further movies later she retired from the screen, never to return. Meanwhile, Bette Davis was on the opposite career path, winning her first Oscar in 1936 and a second in 1939, only a year after Chatterton's retirement. She made no less than eleven films with Brent, this being the second after the previous month's So Big! She would later describe him as her favourite leading man. He served in that role for the first two of her five consecutive Oscar nominations from 1939 to 1943, including her win for Jezebel.

The writing was really on the wall here. However dignified Chatterton appears in Caroline's finer moments, she proves unable to act her way out of the melodramatic material. Davis manages that with aplomb as she steals the show as Malbro, the pest of Park Avenue, even though she's really a thoroughly supporting character whose only real value is in a single redemption scene. Brent is hardly stretched as Tierney and while he doesn't quite phone in his performance, he could certainly do this sort of thing in his sleep and may well have done this time out. John Miljan could be a delicious screen villain but he's a non-entity as Greg Grannard, Caroline's waste of space of a husband. Adrienne Dore gets a few moments of bitchy vindictiveness as Allison Adair, the woman who steals him away, but again, she's such a pathetic character that we really don't care. Even if you're a fan of one of the cast members, this one is going to be an ordeal.

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