Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Love Affair (Columbia, 1932)

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

Our feature last night was Love Affairnot the 1939 classic directed by Leo McCarey and starring Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne in a picturesquely doomed romance, or its 1994 remake with Warren Beatty (as star and director), Annette Bening and (in her last role) Katharine Hepburn (of course the most famous version of the story is the intervening one from 1957, also directed by McCarey and starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, retitled An Affair to Remember), but a 1932 film from Columbia directed by Thornton Freeland (mostly known for his musicals, especially Flying Down to Rio) and starring Dorothy Mackaill and Humphrey Bogart.

Bogart had come out to Hollywood in 1930 with a contract at Fox, but they’d dumped him after a few undistinguished supporting roles (and one quite good performance in John Ford’s Up the River, Spencer Tracy’s first feature and Bogart’s second). Columbia picked him up and had him under contract for six months in late 1931, but this was the only film they gave him — even though it was his first lead in a movie — and he made two films as a free-lancer at Warners in early 1932, Big City Blues and Three on a Match, before going back to New York, pursuing a stage career and making only one movie in the next four years (the 1934 gangster film Midnight, shot in New York for Universal — Bogart’s only credit for that company).

Love Affair, based on a story by Ursula Parrott and adapted for the screen by generally talented writers, Dorothy Howell (continuity) and Jo Swerling (dialogue), was one of those legendary movies I wondered if I’d ever get a chance to see — but unlike some of the others on that list (like Mamoulian’s Applause, Lubitsch’s Monte Carlo and Whale’s Remember Last Night?), it was one that failed to live up to the anticipation. Carol Owen (Dorothy Mackaill) is a devil-may-care heiress who decides out of the blue that she wants to learn to fly, so she enrolls in a flying school run by Gilligan (Jack Kennedy — not the same one!) and insists on going up with the school’s youngest and hunkiest instructor, Jim Leonard (Humphrey Bogart). What she doesn’t realize is that Leonard is about to quit the flying school to form a start-up company to develop a revolutionary new airplane motor he’s invented. What she also doesn’t realize is that she’s broke; for the last year her bills, unbeknownst to her, have been paid by her stockbroker, Bruce Hardy (Hale Hamilton), in anticipation of her marrying him.

Meanwhile, Hardy is also keeping a mistress, Linda Lee (the marvelous Astrid Allwyn), who’s exploiting him for his money so her boyfriend, theatrical director Georgie Keeler (Bradley Page), can soak Hardy for enough to mount a show that will make them both stars. By a weird bit of authorial fiat, Linda Lee is also Jim Leonard’s sister — though neither Linda nor Jim knows about the other’s dealings with Bruce and Carol. Got all that? Predictably — especially given the title of the film — Jack and Carol fall for each other, and Carol takes him on a round of nightclubbing and teaches him to play golf so he can have a sense of fun and not be a workaholic all the time — while Gilligan breaks off his plans to invest in Jack’s company because he thinks Jack has become too wrapped up in his relationship with Carol to devote the attention he needs to perfecting and marketing his invention. Love Affair isn’t an especially interesting story, and it’s told with such a strangulation-poor budget that we don’t get the generally obligatory montage sequence showing Carol leading Jim around to nightclubs, golf courses, and whatever else she’s supposed to be doing with him that’s taking his attention away from his startup.

Columbia seems to have blown the budget on Jim’s glorious-looking Art Deco office — one wonders how a budding entrepreneur who’s supposed to be scrounging for investors can afford such high-class digs — and it all ends with Jim, disillusioned with his triple betrayal (not only is his girlfriend going to marry another guy for his money, but the other guy is cheating on her with Jim’s own sister, while the sister is just trying to extort money from him), abandoning the startup and asking for his old job back, Carol deciding to rent one of Gilligan’s planes and use it to commit suicide, and Jim finally realizing all this and making an heroic run down the runway, where he leaps onto the plane (the leap itself was clearly doubled but there are enough close shots of Bogart grabbing and holding onto the plane for dear life it was clear he was really clinging to a plane as it taxied down the airport location), saves Carol and gives her a big kiss in mid-air to signal their reconciliation. Love Affair isn’t much of a story, and it isn’t told with anywhere near the sense of style that would have been necessary for it to work (though it benefits by the general sexual honesty of the so-called “pre-Code” period; the relationships between the characters are depicted as what they are, even though the Code Adminstration tried and failed to get Columbia to tone down the hints of actual sex between Jim and Carol) — and Mackaill is her usual competent but uninspiring self (the more I’ve seen of her other movies, the more her excellent performance in Safe in Hell looks like a fluke, inspired by the superb direction of William A. Wellman).

As for Bogart, he looks almost unimaginably callow. Oddly, in Up the River two years before he’d had a role of real substance (an ex-con desperate to conceal that fact from his family) and had anticipated some of the world-weariness and soured (but ultimately regained) idealism of the great Bogart roles to follow a decade or so later — but in Love Affair he’s a plain old juvenile, playing a part any decent-looking young male actor could have played and offering nothing special, nothing that would have made Harry Cohn realize what a great box-office name he would be. (Cohn would get another crack at Bogart 15 years later in the film Dead Reckoning after Bogart, by then a Warners superstar, renegotiated his Warners contract to be non-exclusive; Cohn would then get four more Bogart films through signing a distribution deal with Bogart’s company, Santana, and a sixth, The Caine Mutiny, when producer Stanley Kramer signed him up for it.)