Friday, November 21, 2008

Street of Women (Warners, 1932)

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

I ran Charles Street of Women, a 59-minute Warners programmer from 1932 starring Kay Francis. The titular street of women isn’t one in a red-light district full of bordellos hosting down-on-their-luck “women of the night,” but refers to the sector of New York where the fashion business is centered. Francis is supposed to be playing a great dress designer and salon owner, but aside from us getting to see her in a lot of genuinely spectacular clothes (uncredited but probably by Orry-Kelly) all that’s made of that is a couple of scenes in which she’s shown dealing with the usual bitchy middle-aged couples who patronize this business and on whom it depends (or at least depended then) for its existence.

Mostly it’s a soap opera from the “pre-Code” Hollywood glasnost, in which Natalie “Nat” Upton (Francis) is having a long-term relationship with developer Lawrence “Larry” Baldwin (Alan Dinehart, who as good as he was as a slimy villain in A Study in Scarlet and Supernatural hardly seems like passion’s plaything), who’s currently building the tallest building ever and in the opening scene, on Natalie’s advice, off-handedly instructs his architect, Linkhorne “Link” Gibson, to make it 20 stories higher. (The idea that Baldwin went into construction on this building without having quite decided how tall it was going to be is one of this film’s most amusing conceits — as is the fact that Gibson blithely accepts that he’s going to have to figure out a safe and structurally sound way to lengthen a building that’s already half-built. One can readily imagine how a later Warners architect, Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, would have reacted!)

The plot thickens when Nat’s brother Clarke (Allen Vincent) returns — we’re never told from quite where — and falls for Baldwin’s daughter Doris (Gloria Stuart in her first film — which puts everyone else in this cast one degree of separation from Leonardo DiCaprio!), only to get disenchanted with the whole situation involving his sister and his beloved’s father. It goes on like that for several reels until it finally gets resolved when Gibson tricks Baldwin’s wife Lois (Marjorie Gateson) into going to Reno to divorce him, therefore paving the way for Baldwin and Nat to pair off, likewise Clarke and Doris. Indifferently directed by Archie Mayo, this is a soap opera pure and simple that doesn’t require anyone in the cast to do any hard-core acting; they suffer nobly, acceptably and uninterestingly — when Robert Osborne suggested this film was a prototype for TV soaps like All My Children or One Life to Live he wasn’t kidding! Written by Mary C. McCall, Jr. with “adaptation and dialogue” by Charles Kenyon and Brown Holmes from a novel by Polan Banks, it’s a routine potboiler that fits comfortable in 59 minutes but, even in that short a running time, still seems pretty dull; most of the people in it — Francis, Dinehart and Stuart — proved they could act in other films, but you’d never tell it from this one.