Monday 27 June 2011

A Feather in Her Hat (1935)

Director: Alfred Santell
Stars: Pauline Lord, Basil Rathbone, Louis Hayward, Billie Burke and Wendy Barrie

One of those thirties movies so eager to advertise that it was sourced from literature that its title card is the book, A Feather in Her Hat ended up as little more than a curiosity and a filmography filler. The lead is Pauline Lord, a stage actress I'd never heard of who only appeared in two films: this and Mrs Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, released a year earlier, suggesting that while she may have picked her roles well on stage, she didn't manage it with film. I was more interested in the rest of the cast though, especially her immediate support. This is the only one of the seven movies Basil Rathbone made in 1935 that I haven't yet seen, a great year for him with a Garbo picture, two Dickens adaptations and a gloriously villainous turn in Captain Blood, among others. Louis Hayward, Billie Burke and Wendy Barrie round out the major names in major roles, and much further down the credits is a young David Niven, earning only his second credit in six films.

In Hyde Park, London, in 1925, a man complains to a crowd about how nobody has any money in the Depression. Capt Randolph Courtney is talked into addressing them too, but as well spoken as he is, he only gets through a few rambling insults before the drink in him knocks him out flat. He's Rathbone, of course, and he's a little fond of the bottle. He's rescued by Clarissa Phelps of Clarissa's Corner Shop, to which she takes him after the crowd disperses, mostly because of his speech about how any child can move up in the world just through the powers of dedication and education. Sure enough, after ten years of his help, her son Richard does just that. Unlike the 11 year old Richard, this version is well spoken and well dressed. He's even a playwright. And here, as he turns 21, he and we are both shocked by a number of surprises that come completely out of nowhere in a very capable way. The writing here is massively inconsistent, but often great.

Apparently his name is really Richard Orland, or something like that. She isn't his mother; that was an actress she won't name. She gives him a bank book with a thousand pounds of balance. And she asks him to leave. In fact he must leave, because she's done her part and that was the agreement. I really wasn't expecting this turn of events and neither was Capt Courtney. While Clarissa stays mum, the captain helps young Richard to track down his real family, discovering through her old correspondence that she used to work as a maid for an actress called Julia Trent, whose husband was an explorer who was lost in the Arctic. Now she's Julia Trent Anders and it's her house in which Richard rents a room and we meet the rest of the key members of the cast. Julia is as dizzy as you would expect for any character played by Billie Burke; and Pauline Anders, her stepdaughter, is a live wire, energetically portrayed by an excellent Wendy Barrie.

For his part, Louis Hayward exhibits plenty of sophistication, three years before he would play the Saint. It's a curiosity that two of the three well spoken Englishmen in this film were South African, both Rathbone and Hayward born in Johannesburg. Only David Niven was English. To extend that notion, none of these Englishwomen were English either, whether well spoken or not. Wendy Barrie was born in Hong Kong, though of English heritage. Burke was American, but belonged to a high enough circle to hide her accent. Pauline Lord was American too, as was the admirable Cockney slip of a girl who competes with Barrie for Richard's attentions. She's Nydia Westman, and with Lord she was my discovery here, though I have seen her before in Bulldog Drummond movies. Remarkably given this international array of talent, the English setting is thoroughly believable, as is the central conflict between landed and working classes.
I found the film to be very awkward as a whole, though I was fascinated throughout. Mostly I was enthralled by the excellent acting, not only by those I watched to see but those I hadn't heard of. Pauline Lord does excellent work as Clarissa Phelps, with a H in front of every word she can find, making me wonder what could have been if she'd have decided to stay on the screen. Originally the part was aimed at Ruth Chatterton, who would not have been as good. Wendy Barrie shines. Her costumes should have swamped her role entirely but they don't. Nydia Westman refuses to leave our attention, even though she's by definition a drab and inconsequential character when compared to the rest. Billie Burke sparkles and warbles, but not in any way we don't expect. On the male side of the cast, Hayward does a solid job as Richard, capably embracing the mystery at the centre of his existence, namely who he really is.

Unfortunately the writing is truly schizophrenic, perhaps highlighted best by the fact that the mystery we wonder most about is the background of Rathbone's character. He doesn't get the time to develop Capt Courtney fully, but we're fascinated nonetheless. He plays older than his 43 years, obviously of the upper classes and just as obviously fallen, but not so far that he isn't an admirable fish out of water. He walks with a cane and a stagger and he's rarely without a glass or a bottle in his hand, but he never appears as drunk as his first scene. Yet while we discover who Richard really is, we don't get the same revelation for the captain. Strangely, for a film that revolves around a character who writes for a living, it's full of promise that the writing can't quite keep a focus on. It keeps our interest and on occasion keeps us engrossed, but it's hard to grasp quite where it's going at any point.

There's the mystery of who Richard really is and who his mother really is. There are two vaguely romantic subplots: Clarissa and Capt Courtney, then Richard and either Pauline Anders or Emily Judson, two lovely girls from completely different classes. There are plot changes that come out of the blue, beyond the revelations of Richard's 21st birthday. At one point he's involved in a cab accident in the fog, prompting the clash of his two lives. Clarissa's health is an undercurrent throughout the film that we mostly ignore until it's too big to do so. There's also the return to the stage of Julia Trent, in a play that Richard writes for her. The film only runs 72 minutes but these myriad plots make us wonder which we should focus on. The script wonders too, as the finalé apparently aims to but forgetfully fails to tidy up all loose ends. Whether that's the fault of I A R Wylie's source novel or Lawrence Hazard's adaptation, it's still a serious but fascinating failure.

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