Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ann Carver’s Profession (Columbia, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Ann Carter’s Profession, an odd 1933 “B”-plus from Columbia with a couple of genuine stars, though not superstars, from other studios — Fay Wray and Gene Raymond — in a 71-minute vest-pocket movie, directed speedily and surprisingly artistically by Edward Buzzell from a script by Robert Riskin. For the first two-thirds this is actually quite a good movie, until the clichés kick in with a vengeance — Schreiber theorists who want to attribute the quality of all Frank Capra’s classic films to Riskin (even the ones Riskin didn’t write, like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life) are going to have a problem with this one.

When we meet our leads, Ann Carver (Wray) and “Lightning” Bill Graham (Raymond), they’re seniors in college and about to graduate, he with a degree in architecture and she with a degree in law. He’s also the campus football star and has just won a poll conducted by the student paper for the “Most Popular Man on Campus” — a designation he resents so much that when the film opens he’s burning a clipping of his photo for that article over an open flame. The only girl on campus he has his eye on is Ann — there’s an astonishing tracking shot by Buzzell and cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff that discovers them through the round window of the door from the dining area of the café where she works into the kitchen, and the camera appears to pass through the window as it dollies towards them and a close-up of their clinch (and people thought Gregg Toland’s shot through the skylight of Susan Alexander Kane’s nightclub in Citizen Kane eight years later was so innovative!) — and eventually they graduate, marry (shown by inserts of, in sequence, his architecture degree, her law degree and their marriage certificate) and settle in a small cottage on the outskirts of New York City while he gets a job doing hack work for a large architectural firm.

Just in case The Fountainhead has conditioned your expectation of what a movie about an architect will be like, this one will jar it — Bill resents the continued spillover of his one-time popularity on the gridiron and resents it even more when his wife drags him to a party hosted by Judge Bingham (a surprisingly serious Claude Gillingwater), who’s actually a retired judge who’s resumed work as an attorney. Ann went to the party hoping that Bill would meet some rich people who might be interested in backing his ideas as an architect (not that he appears actually to have any!); instead she started critiquing Judge Bingham’s plans for his latest case — representing a young man from a rich family who’s being sued for breach of promise by a light-skinned Black woman — and when Bingham looks at Bill and says, “Your wife sounds like a lawyer,” Bill replies, “She is a lawyer.”

Immediately she’s offered a job at Bingham’s firm, gets assigned to the case and wins it through a stratagem Charles recognized from a real case a few years before the movie was made: in 1924, New York socialite Leonard “Kip” Rhinelander sought an annulment of his marriage to a former servant girl, Alice Jones, on the ground that she was part-Black and had concealed that fact from him. Like his counterpart in the movie, he hired a retired judge, Isaac Mills, as his counsel — and Alice in turn hired a former protégé of Mills, Lee Parson Davis, as her lawyer — and in the middle of the trial, the judge ordered her to strip in his chambers so the jury could examine the color of her skin, and in particular that of her nipples, to see for themselves whether she was Black or white. In real life, Rhinelander lost his case (which also became famous because Bernarr MacFadden published in his notorious tabloid, the New York Evening Graphic, one of his famous “composographs,” a faked photo of the unveiling since the judge hadn’t allowed reporters or real photographers in his chambers); in the movie, however, Ann Carver’s sensational courtroom stunt (even though, this being Hollywood — even so-called “pre-Code” Hollywood — all the woman in the movie had to do was pull down the sleeve of her dress to show off her shoulder) wins the case for her wealthy client and launches her on a spectacular career.

Meanwhile, hubby gets more and more alienated as they move into more and more elaborate apartments and acquire a service staff — and the last straw for him is when the first of the month rolls around and she’s out of town on the case, the head butler demands their pay and he tells them he doesn’t have the money and they’re just going to have to wait until his wife gets back. Embarrassed, he quits his job at the architecture firm and accepts the offer of his former college friend Jim Thompson (Frank Albertson) — a thoroughly obnoxious person with the repulsive habit of dropping the terminal syllable of every word at the end of a sentence (“Everything’s perf!,” he says, meaning “perfect,” whenever anyone asks how he is) — who’s now the bandleader at the Club Mirador, to sing with the band. All Thompson really wants is to exploit Bill’s former fame as a football star — and in the scenes we get of Raymond actually singing ( lists two songs from this film, “There’s Life in Music” and “Why Can’t We Love Forever?”), his voice sounds considerably more ragged than it does in his other musicals, indicating that director Buzzell was deliberately having him sing at less than his best to depict the character as having at best a mediocre voice.

He also takes up with his fellow club vocalist, Carole Rogers (Claire Dodd) — she made a specialty of playing the “other woman,” and both she and Raymond appeared in films with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (he in Flying Down to Rio and she in Roberta) — and the two sink into a despond of drink and dissipation after he moves out of his wife’s palatial apartment (not that she’s there very much, since she’s almost always working late or out of town on a case). Just in case you think Ann Carver has suffered enough for the “sins” of being a successful professional woman and making much more money than her husband, Riskin really kicks out the melodramatic jams; he has Carole Rogers fall over drunk in the apartment she more or less shares with Bill and has her strangled accidentally by the strap of her purse getting caught on the arm of their couch (which is carved with a gargoyle-like face whose expression seems to be commenting on the action). Later Bill comes home after a night of nightclubbing and drinking, too drunk to notice that his girlfriend is dead or to do anything else but make it as far as his bed and then pass out himself — and naturally, when the police find him passed out and her dead they arrest him for her murder and Our Heroine offers to defend him.

Riskin isn’t through twisting the knife into the side of his heroine; he has the prosecutor relentlessly attack Bill’s character — and Ann has to defend him by blaming the death on herself, saying in an intensely emotional speech (the quality of Riskin’s writing and Wray’s delivery only makes the sexist sentiments that much more loathsome) that it was all her fault that she sought success instead of being content with love and subordinating herself to her man. Bill’s acquitted, they’re reconciled and there’s an unbelievable tag scene that reveals he’s become a successful architect after all and they’re contemplating having a baby as the film fades out. (Charles noted the irony that roles like these were being played by the most highly paid women in the country at the time — and to add to the irony of this one in particular, nine years after it was made Fay Wray married Robert Riskin for real.)

Ann Carver’s Profession is a frustrating movie because so much of it is good, but the parts that aren't are so obnoxiously sexist they tend to cast a pall over the whole movie — and for some reason this one is even more bothersome in that regard than Scarlet Pages and some of the other career-girl-gets-her-comeuppance movies Hollywood was cranking out just then. It’s a real pity because Edward Buzzell’s sensitive and surprisingly visually inventive direction proves he was good for more than just pointing his cameras at the Marx Brothers, and likewise Fay Wray’s intense, sincere performance, in particular her strength at playing the scenes in which she’s a successful attorney, indicate she had far more acting talent than one would think if all you knew her as was the damsel in distress from Lionel Atwill or King Kong.