Monday, August 29, 2011

Brief Moment (Columbia, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Brief Moment, a quite good romantic comedy from Columbia in 1933 based on a Broadway play by S. N. Behrman, co-starring Carole Lombard as nightclub singer Abby Fane and Gene Raymond as Rodney Deane, the banker’s son (who’s on a $4,000 per month allowance — that’s $4,000 in 1933 dollars, at a time when according to the film Central Park one could buy quite an ample dinner for two at a restaurant for $2! — to stay away from his banker father and the family’s bank) whom she marries. The film opens with Abby singing at the nightclub (a song called “Say What You Mean, Mean What You’re Saying to Me” in a rather croaking but still obviously dubbed voice) and Rod announcing to her that that’s the night she’s going to meet his parents. When they express doubts as to whether he should marry a “blues singer,” Rod fires back, “Whom should I marry — Schumann-Heink?” (The reference was to Ernestine Schumann-Heink, the famous operatic contralto who had retired the year before after a final appearance at the Met as Erda in Wagner’s Das Rheingold — and it’s ironic because when Gene Raymond actually did marry in 1937, it was to Jeanette MacDonald, an opera singer as well as a film star.)

Eventually Rod and Abby do get married, and they go off on a honeymoon and then on a six-month binge at home in which Rod spends so much time with his poorer but just as dissolute friend Sigrift (Monroe Owsley) that one begins to wonder if Behrman and his screen adapters, Edith Fitzgerald and Brian Marlow, mean to hint at a Bisexual love triangle à la North by Northwest. Certainly Abby couldn’t be more jealous of Sigrift if he and Rod were sleeping together! Finally, after months of enduring Rod going out at all hours and coming home after long nights of partying and carousing with his rather dubious friends, Abby gets him to agree to stay home with her one night — only Sigrift and a few of his cronies come over and remind Rod that that’s the opening night of the new Scandals revue (the American Film Institute Catalog synopsis calls Scandals “a new club,” but the reference to opening night and Rod’s protest that he’s never missed an opening night of Scandals clearly shows that what the writers meant was the annual George White-produced Broadway show — though since White was under contract to another studio, RKO, they couldn’t use his name), and the fiasco of Rod tearing off for yet another night on the town leads Abby to lay down the law: either Rod quits partying and gets a job or they’re through as a couple.

Accordingly, Rod goes to his dad’s bank and insists he’s ready to start at the bottom — so they stick him in a basement and his entire job is to go through two stacks of slips, check to make sure the dollar amounts on each match, and put them in one pile if they match and another pile if they don’t. (It’s made clear to him that if he does find a discrepancy, resolving it is a matter for another department.) He lasts two weeks until he finds out that his brother Franklin, who’s vice-president of the bank and whom Abby has been holding up to him as a role model, actually does nothing and spends most of his afternoon attending (and gambling on) horse races — so Rod goes out to the races with Franklin and does that for several weeks, telling Abby he’s still working. Only he’s “outed” when Steve Walsh (Arthur Hohl), owner of the nightclub where Abby worked before her marriage (and who was, of course, in unrequited love with her), spots him and reports him to Abby. Rod and Abby separate and Steve rehires her, and though she resumes using the name “Fane” the Deanes still think she’s singing just to exploit the notoriety of her marriage and separation — they offer her a settlement if she’ll give up her career to save the Deane family name, but Rod decides to win Abby back by taking a job under a false name. There’s a long montage during which he’s repeatedly turned down because he has no job experience, but finally he pleads for a position, gets one and is re-introduced to Abby by Steve. He shows her his paycheck, she asks, “Who is Preston?,” and he explains that’s the name he was using when he got the job — and the two get back together, presumably for the poor but happy existence beloved of filmmakers at the time.

Brief Moment is a typical story for Behrman, though its resolution is somewhat unusual for him — he’d won his reputation for The Second Man, in which a young man is living with a wealthy widow, essentially serving as her gigolo, until he meets a woman his own age — only at the end he stays with the rich widow because he’s more interested, long-term, in money than love. (It’s essentially Sunset Boulevard without the murder.) This time he switches the genders of the leads — it’s the guy who has money, and ultimately he gives it up for true love and an honest if impecunious career. It’s a well-made movie, with good performances by the leads and quite creative direction by David Burton — including a great montage of Rod and Abby partying like there’s no tomorrow before her disgust with the aimlessness of that sort of life gets to her (and given how much Rod is drinking, a viewer — a modern-day one, at least — is as fearful for the future of his liver as for more abstract issues like his honor and integrity). The film was well preserved technically except for one reel which was in considerably worse shape than the rest — with a lot of emulsion flecks and projector scratches — still, what we had did justice to Ted Tetzlaff’s cinematography.

Incidentally, Brief Moment was compared by early reviewers to the real-life relationship between tobacco heir Zachary Smith Reynolds and torch singer Libby Holman — though there’s almost no similarity between the real story and the film’s plot and the movie Sing, Sinner, Sing, made the previous year, is far closer to the real story and is much darker, more dramatic and qualifies as a proto-noir instead of a romantic comedy (though Lombard’s serious performances, especially in Victor Halperin’s Supernatural, suggest that she could have been a quite credible noir heroine if she’d survived long enough).