Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Secrets of an Actress (Warners, 1939)

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

The film was Secrets of an Actress, which I’d actually recorded that very night as part of TCM’s Kay Francis marathon. I have a certain affection for this film if only because of its lurid title(according to the American Film Institute Catalog, among the working titles were Lovely Lady and The Woman Habit), even though the director is William Keighley (pronounced “KEE-lee,” by the way), the script is the usual committee product (three writers — Milton Krims, Roland Lee and Julius J, Epstein — are credited and two others, Charles Kenyon and Mary C. McCall, Jr. — also contributed) and her co-stars are Ian Hunter (misnamed “Ian Holm” in the AFI Catalog) and the almost terminally boring George Brent.

Basically, this one is I Found Stella Parish lite, lacking the earlier Francis vehicle’s melodramatic contortions but also much of its giddily insane spirit. Fay Carter (Francis) is the daughter of a now-deceased Broadway star who ran through all his money and was forced to make his living doing road companies, including one production of Othello in which he played the title role and his daughter played Desdemona (now that would have been kinky enough to be worth seeing!). She’s 30 years old and all too conscious of the biological clock ticking; she’s been working on the road since her dad’s death but this time around turns down another road-company offer because she’s determined either to be a star in New York or quit acting altogether — which leads her maid, Marian Plantagenet (a nice comic turn by British actress Isabel Jeans), to ask her what else she could possibly do, to which she replies, “Be a wardrobe mistress.” (That’ll get her out of the theatre, all right!)

She actually lands a starring role in a New York production, only to lose it again when the producer, Mr. Harrison (former silent-film star Hebert Rawlinson), decides he needs an established “name” in the role (“Even if I have to send to Hollywood for one!”) and lets Our Fay go. Just then she and Marian go out drinking (at 10 a.m.!) and meet up with architect Peter Snowden (Ian Hunter), who’d seen Fay in a play many years back and who has enough money — as well as a previously unsatisfied yen to be a theatrical producer — that he’s willing to back her in a play called Springboard that she happens to have sitting in her closet (the implication is she wrote it herself), which we find out very little about except that it has one act set in an astronomical observatory. Snowden’s partner, Richard Orr (George Brent), tries to talk him out of investing in Fay’s play, but he goes ahead anyway — though Orr does agree to design the scenery for it and both of them fall in love with Fay. Orr is clearly the front-runner — though neither of these people are among Hollywood’s most scintillating actors (I couldn’t help but imagine what this film could have been with, say, Herbert Marshall and Cary Grant in the male leads!), at least Brent is closer to Francis’s on-screen age — but he’s handicapped by having a gold-digging wife, Carla (Gloria Dickson), who won’t divorce him because she sees him as a future meal ticket even though she won’t live with him, either.

The plot goes through the usual soapy misunderstandings — Snowden lets slip to Fay that Orr is married (something Orr hadn’t, of course, bothered to tell her),which turns her against him for a couple of reels and leads her to accept Snowden’s proposal even though she doesn’t really love him; Snowden, in turn, tells Mrs. Orr he’s going to fire Mr. Orr and blacklist him from the industry, and convinced that there’s no material interest for her in staying married, she agrees to the divorce and there’s a finale in which Orr is about to board a ship for Norway and Fay frantically tries to signal him that she’s willing to marry him and can do so because his existing wife is going to divorce him after all. Fay does this by writing the words “Carla” and “Divorce” on two suitcases being loaded onto the ship, and at the very last possible minute Orr leaps off the gangplank just before the ship sails (I was expecting him to land in the water, but he doesn’t) and he and Fay end up together.

This isn’t exactly a world-beating movie, and its plot and situations virtually define the term “predictable,” but it’s saved by some nicely wisecracking Julius Epstein lines and a coolly professional performance from Kay Francis. At the time Jack Warner was seemingly going out of his way to ruin her professionally, mainly because she was the last embarrassment left from one of his costliest mistakes: in 1932 he’d staged a major talent raid on Paramount and lured Francis, Ruth Chatterton and William Powell to his studio. Powell stayed a year at Warners making movies with titles like Jewel Robbery and The Keyhole — though he and Francis did make one truly great film together at Warners, One-Way Passage — and then got dropped, fished around for a new contract, got a nibble at Columbia and used Columbia’s nibble to get MGM interested, where he did The Thin Man and had a major comeback.

Chatterton also lasted only a year or two at Warners, making marvelous “pre-Code” melodramas like The Rich Are Always With Us and Female (and, incidentally, marrying George Brent!) before moving on and making her big comeback at Goldwyn, as Walter Huston’s wife in Dodsworth. Francis doggedly stayed on, insisting that Warner fulfill her contract to the letter and pay her everything they owed her on it; she wouldn’t accept a release, she wouldn’t renegotiate and she kept doing script after awful script and collecting those fat paychecks until the contract finally expired in 1939 and left her career a wreck. (She made it back through the efforts of her friend Carole Lombard, who was about to make a major soap opera of her own called In Name Only at RKO — in which she played a woman in love with unhappily married Cary Grant — and demanded that RKO cast Francis as Grant’s bitchy wife, an interesting reversal of her casting in Secrets of an Actress.)

TCM host Robert Osborne, who usually shows the big studios the deference they demanded from reporters and announcers back then, turned unexpectedly bitchy himself when talking about what Warners did to Francis (who after all was dispensable once Bette Davis supplanted her as their biggest “women’s picture” star!), though at least this time they gave her a halfway decent script and Keighley’s almost nonexistent direction at least allowed Francis the chance to play her role with some dignity and suggest the proud, assertive “born in a trunk” theatre woman she was supposed to be playing — even though a lot of other Francis vehicles from her Warners years, including I Found Stella Parish (also with Ian Hunter) and Living on Velvet (also with George Brent), are more fun.