Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Blond Cheat (RKO, 1938)

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

Fortunately I’d picked a short one from the backlog: Blond Cheat, a 61-minute 1938 “B” from RKO that starred a virtually all-British cast (so much so that at first Charles and I wondered if the film had actually been shot there, though it wasn’t) headed by pre-stardom Joan Fontaine and Derrick de Marney (the latter known to modern audiences mostly for his turn as the young and innocent murder suspect in Hitchcock’s marvelous 1937 Young and Innocent) in a film based on a story by Aladar Laszlo (spelled “Lazlo” on the credits here), the Hungarian playwright whose play The Honest Finder became the basis for Paramount’s marvelous 1932 release Trouble in Paradise, directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring Herbert Marshall, Kay Francis and Miriam Hopkins.

Blond Cheat isn’t as compelling a story as Trouble in Paradise, but it still shows Laszlo’s penchant for flipping our moral attitude towards the characters and showing people being manipulated behind the scenes in ways that aren’t readily apparent. The real secret protagonists are pawnbroker Rufus Trent (Cecil Kellaway, a first-rate character actor who got wasted playing dotty scientists in 1950’s sci-fi films) and his socially ambitious wife Genevieve (Cecil Cunningham). Genevieve has forced her husband to rename his pawnshop a “loan office” and, at least judging from what we see on screen, to remodel it as a deco extravaganza with such an enormous lobby we can’t help but wonder when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are going to show up to dance in its floor show. She also wants to marry off her daughter Roberta (Lilian Bond from James Whale’s 1932 classic The Old Dark House) to Michael Ashburn (Derrick de Marney), who comes from an old aristocratic family even though he’s currently broke and forced to work at Rufus’s pawn- — excuse me, loan office.

Those plans get derailed when Julie Evans (Joan Fontaine) and her supposed uncle (Olaf Hytten) burst into the loan company just as it’s closing and borrow 400 pounds, putting up Julie’s earrings as collateral and then telling Michael that since she’s been wearing them since childhood, they can’t be removed. So Michael has to treat her as “human collateral,” never letting her out of her sight even though that means breaking a dinner date with his fiancée and her parents at the posh “Piccadilly Club.” We eventually learn that Julie is actually an aspiring musical star (an odd casting for Fontaine after she did so dismally as Fred Astaire’s dancing partner in the otherwise enchanting A Damsel in Distress) and the “uncle” is Paul Douglas, a producer who wants to star her in a show — which Rufus Trent has agreed to back if Julie can break off Roberta’s engagement to Michael and leave her free to marry the man she really wants, clerk Gilbert Potts (Robert Coote).

After a few up-and-down complications that test the limits of the Production Code, two robbers steal the supposedly unremovable earrings and it turns out they are also actors, hired by Genevieve to break up the burgeoning romance between Michael and Julie and thereby steer Michael’s romantic attentions back towards Roberta. Though a committee of screenwriters (Charles Kaufman — not the current one — Paul Yawitz, Viola Brothers Shore and Harry Segall) do a serviceable job of turning Laszlo’s interesting if convoluted story into a script, they don’t have the flair that Samson Raphaelson brought to Trouble in Paradise, and to say that director Joseph Santley (who actually made a few rather interesting movies) is no Lubitsch is putting it quite politely, but Blond Cheat is actually a nicely done movie even though, despite only lasting an hour, it still feels a bit slow and padded for the material. Maybe it should have been a short … — 6/24/06


The night before Charles and I had watched a quite charming movie — and one which seemed vaguely familiar — called Blond Cheat, made at RKO in 1938 as part of their failed attempt to make a major star of Joan Fontaine. (Eventually they dropped her, and she landed the part of the lead in the 1940 Rebecca, produced by David O. Selznick and directed by Alfred Hitchcock — and that film made her a star at last.) It’s set in London and accordingly RKO recruited almost their whole cast from Hollywood’s British colony — including Derrick de Marney, fresh from his own Hitchcock connection (he’s the innocent suspect accused of murder in Young and Innocent), as the male lead. De Marney plays Michael Ashburn, general manager of the Trafalgar Loan Company — a sort of glorified pawnshop — who on the night he is to dine at the exclusive Piccadilly Club with his fiancée, stuck-up rich bitch Roberta Trent (Lilian Bond) is accosted by Paul Douglas (Olaf Hytten), who insists he must borrow 400 pounds immediately and puts up the earrings worn by his niece, Julie Evans (Joan Fontaine), for collateral.

Only when Michael asks Julie to remove the earrings so her uncle can pawn them, he’s told that she’s worn them so long that they’ve grown in and can’t be removed without a surgical operation — so she’s just going to have to spend the weekend with him (the film opens on a Friday afternoon) until her uncle comes back on Monday to redeem them — and her. The debt of the “original” story by Hungarian playwright Aladar Laszlo (spelled “Lazlo” in his credit) — whose works also furnished the bases for the much better-known films Trouble in Paradise and (sort of) Top Hat — to the tale filmed by MGM in 1931 as The Man in Possession and in 1937 as Personal Property is pretty obvious (one of Hollywood’s usual writing committees — Charles Kaufman, Paul Yawitz, Viola Brothers Shore and Harry Segall — turned Laszlo’s story into a script), but Blond Cheat has a discernible charm of its own.

Partly that’s due to the performance by Fontaine, who manages to go through the entire movie with something of the comic malevolence of Katharine Hepburn’s character in Bringing Up Baby — positively taking joy in screwing up the plans of the man she’s attached herself to — and add some grit to a tale that in lesser hands might have turned into a pretty dull comic soufflé. The plot resolution really doesn’t make much sense — it turns out that “Douglas” is actually a theatrical impresario who puts on the floor shows at the Piccadilly Club, and Julie is an aspiring actress and singer auditioning for a spot in one (and she does a production number at the end, singing in an obviously dubbed voice). The gimmick is that Julie is supposed to show her skill as an actress by posing as Douglas’ niece and getting Michael embroiled so deeply in their plot that it breaks up his engagement — though why Douglas wants to break up Michael’s engagement to Roberta is never made clear — and in the end Michael crashes the stage in the middle of Julie’s number (she got the job) and proposes to her, while Roberta is left with foofy glasses-wearing Gilbert Potts (Robert Coote), another member of the Trafalgar staff, as a consolation prize.

But despite the lapses in plot logic, Blond Crazy is a nice little film, directed by Joseph Santley (co-director of the Marx Brothers’ first film, The Cocoanuts, an experience which stood him in good stead here) with just the right touch of lightness and insouciance, and while it’s hardly laugh-out-loud funny it arouses a lot of smiling and chuckling and it’s a perfectly nice little light entertainment that, at only an hour in length, takes care not to overstay its welcome. — 10/25/09