Friday, May 2, 2008

Chance at Heaven (RKO, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I had enough time to run the 1933 film Chance at Heaven as part of a tribute to its male star, Joel McCrea. Directed by Willam Seiter (he wasn’t yet billing himself with his middle initial, “A.”) from a script by Julian Josephson and Sarah Y. Mason based on a Liberty Magazine story by Viña Delmar, and photographed rather plainly by Nick Musuraca (no intimations of his later, marvelous work on RKO’s noir films here!), this is a pretty straightforward romantic-triangle story starring McCrea as Blackstone “Blacky” Gorman, a service-station owner in the beach town of Silver Beach, Massachusetts torn between long-time girlfriend Marjorie Harris (Ginger Rogers, top-billed) and spoiled rich girl Glory Franklyn (Marion Nixon), who meets him when she crashes her car into the bench outside his gas station and, of course, he’s immediately smitten.

Marjorie — who at various times in this movie is nicknamed “Marge” and even “Mugg” — for some reason only Viña Delmar could possibly understand remains friends with her old boyfriend and helps his new wife cook his favorite dish, chicken pie. Like the similarly class-mismatched couple in Frank Capra’s Platinum Blonde, Blacky and Glory become media darlings, and the attention and the rather uneasy ménage à trois between them and Marjorie continues until Glory gets pregnant and instantly thinks better of the whole situation and dashes off to New York to rejoin her pathologically class-conscious mother (Virginia Hammond). She decides to stay there and break up with Blacky, and when he goes to New York to confront her mother and try to coax her back, Glory refuses to return. When Blacky asks what’s going to happen to their child, Mom coldly announces that the doctor was wrong and Glory was never pregnant at all — which, since earlier dialogue established that the doctor was an OB-GYN specialist, seems highly unlikely and amounts to an unmistakable implication that Mom arranged for Glory to have an abortion (a sign of this film’s chronological position towards the tail end of the “pre-Code” Hollywood glasnost) — and after a period of drifting around the country, Blacky returns to Silver Beach and to Marjorie, and they end up together.

Despite an unusual glitch in the print we were watching — at two points in the action the visual track froze on one frame while the soundtrack continued, occasionally distorted but otherwise uninterrupted — Chance at Heaven emerged as an unpretentious entertainment, rather creakily plotted and with Marion Nixon’s juvenile attitude (sort of Gracie Allen without the one-liners) getting tiresome after a while — it’s not hard to figure out why Ginger Rogers became a major star and Marion Nixon didn’t — but decently acted enough (even though McCrea seemed miscast as a proletarian) and with a few flashes of creativity in Seiter’s mostly straightforward direction.