Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Desirable (Warners, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually squeezed in a 68-minute Warners programmer from 1934 called Desirable, shown on TCM on March 15 as part of an extended birthday tribute to George Brent — though in the event he was billed second to the virtually forgotten Jean Muir. This was a rare example of the Warners “women’s picture” — the studio was never as comfortable making these sorts of movies as they were the gangster films and other macho melodramas that are better known today — and one might think that without one of their strong female stars (Barbara Stanwyck, Ruth Chatterton, Kay Francis and — later — Bette Davis) this wouldn’t be worth watching. In fact it’s an appealing little melodrama even though its plot is awfully predictable (and its central premise — a youngish man falls in love with a middle-aged stage star, then falls in love with the stage star’s daughter and ultimately jilts mom for the daughter — was done even more provocatively the next year in the Fox musical Music Is Magic) and Brent is as inert as usual.

The plot deals with the great actress Helen Walbridge (Verree Teasdale), who in the opening sequence is shown having built up her latest tear-jerker to a smash hit of such proportions that only standing room is available for the next two months. Director Archie L. Mayo then tracks his cameras into the theatre where Helen is giving her performance — though we don’t see her or the stage; the cameras stay focused on the audience as they slyly take out handkerchiefs and daub their eyes with them while Verree Teasdale recites a string of some of the ghastliest lines ever recorded on a film soundtrack to represent her character’s decision to commit suicide just after the curtain falls. (Screenwriter Mary McCall, Jr. must have had her tongue firmly in her cheek the afternoon she sat in her office in the Warners’ writing department and typed out these deliberately God-awful lines.) Helen has attracted the usual complement of wanna-be sugar daddies, including one considerably younger and hunkier than the rest: advertising agency owner Stuart “Mac” McAllister (George Brent) — though between her performance schedule and whatever else she’s doing with her time, she puts off his dinner invitations for weeks and finally books a date with him two weeks in advance. He takes time away from his ad business to mount a barrage of phone calls to the restaurant to ensure the most satisfactory menu he can imagine — only she bolts from the date at 8 p.m. because she has only an hour to make it to the theatre by curtain time.

Nonetheless, she gives him a subsequent invitation and bids him wait for her in her apartment — where he’s surprised, to say the least, to run into Helen’s daughter, 19-year-old Lois Johnson (Jean Muir), who’s returned home unexpectedly because her boarding school was closed due to a quarantine. We get the gimmick immediately — Helen, whose stock in trade is young ingénue roles, is hiding the girl away in boarding school because of the potential adverse effect on her career if it becomes known that she’s old enough to have a 19-year-old daughter. Mac takes Lois on a series of sightseeing trips around New York and proximity does its usual work (at least in the movies) and the two start falling in love. Unable to get rid of Lois — she refuses either to return to boarding school or stay with the out-of-town aunt Helen has asked to take her — Helen decides to book Lois on a round of social engagements that will keep her so busy she’ll have no time to date Mac, and eventually Lois attracts another boyfriend, society boy Russell Gray (Charles Starrett, who took a run at mainstream stardom in the 1930’s, missed the brass ring but had a long and relatively successful career as a leading man in “B” Westerns for Columbia in the 1940’s) — only she’s appalled by the pretensions of Russell’s relatives and friends, who reject her because her father was a proletarian, and she and Mac unsurprisingly end up together at the end.

It’s not exactly the freshest premise for a movie, but it’s well done here and has some surprisingly effective scenes, including one in which Mac and Helen are seen together getting out of a cab from a point of view inside the lobby of the hotel they’re about to enter — and director Mayo keeps their voices off the soundtrack and shoots the sequence like a silent film. It also benefits from the striking resemblance between Verree Teasdale and Jean Muir — for once actors cast as parent and child actually look enough like each other that you can believe it — though, according to, Teasdale was actually only eight years older than Muir. It’s not as good a movie as it could have been — like a lot of other “women’s pictures” of the period, it tends to sag as it progresses and McCall trots out the usual clichés to bring it to a resolution — and one could readily imagine a stronger set of actors in the leads (how about Kay Francis as the mother, Barbara Stanwyck as the daughter and … well, Warners wasn’t exactly awash in debonair leading men at the time, which may be how Brent got cast in so many films for which he was adequate but other people, including Cary Grant, would have been far better), but Desirable is a nice little movie with a certain charm and appeal.