Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Flirting Widow (Warners as “First National,” 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film Charles and I watched last night was The Flirting Widow, a weird movie made by Warner Bros. in “First National” drag in 1930 based on an oft-filmed story by The Four Feathers author A. E. W. Mason called “Green Stockings.” The film opens with a ghastly old painting and under it we see a caption explaining the legend of the green stockings: that if a woman’s younger sister gets married before she does, the unmarried older sister is supposed to wear green stockings as a sign of her and her family’s shame. Then we meet the principals of the piece: William Faraday (Claude Gillingwater, playing about a decade older than the 60 he really was at the time and using a lot of age makeup and a scratchy voice the sound-on-disc Vitaphone recording system, in the last year Warners/“First National” used it, only make scratchier) and his three daughters. His eldest daughter Evelyn (Leila Hyams) married first, on schedule, but his youngest daughter Phyllis (Flora Bramley) and her boyfriend Bobby Tarbor (Anthony Bushell) are climbing the walls with frustration because dad won’t let Phyllis marry until her middle sister Celia (Dorothy Mackaill) does. The girls’ mother appears to be dead — at least we don’t see or hear mention of her — but the maternal function in the Faraday household is being performed by Aunt Ida Chisholm Faraday (Emily Fitzroy) and by Celia herself, who seems to be the only one of the daughters who can cook a decent meal or play a good game of bridge (the favorite avocation of the Faradays). Celia arrives — dressed in a severe top which Charles said looked like nothing typically worn by women in films until the 1960’s, accessorized by a necktie, and with her hair in a style that matches the butchness of her wardrobe. Phyllis and Bobby have talked the family’s friend, the supremely Nellie James Raleigh Raleigh (William Austin), into proposing to Celia, but she thinks the whole idea is a joke — as do we: the hardest part of the suspension of disbelief required by this movie is to think that either “Rolly” (as he’s called during the movie) or Celia would ever get married … at least to someone of the opposite gender.

Partly to get her dad to allow Phyllis and Bobby to wed, and partly just to get her family off her case about not being married or even dating anyone, Celia invents an imaginary fiancé, Col. John “Wobbles” Smith, who supposedly is serving with the British occupation force in Mesopotamia (we know it as Iraq — plus ça change, plus ça meme chose), and with her sisters looking on she writes him a love letter and stuffs it into a magazine, intending to burn it when they’re not looking. Only, thinking they’re doing her a favor, the girls take the letter out of the magazine and mail it — and, wouldn’t you know, there actually is a Col. John Smith (Basil Rathbone) — actually his last name is the hyphenated “Vaughn-Smith” but he usually just goes by “Smith” — serving with the British occupation force in Baghdad. He gets the letter and quite naturally is amused that he’s received this bizarre love letter from someone he’s never even heard of, let alone met. Meanwhile, with Aunt Ida her confidant, Celia decides to put a notice in the London Times that her Col. Smith has been killed in battle, thereby making herself a widow without ever having had to bother with being a wife — only just as she’s “killed” Col. Smith, the real one shows up, calling himself “Col. Vaughn,” presenting her with the (presumably) late Col. Smith’s effects and saying she’s acting entirely too light-heartedly to be a proper widow, dressing in colors instead of black and going to concerts with her sister and brother-in-law. Col. Smith essentially parks himself in the Faraday home and, despite her efforts to get away (she secretly books passage on a midnight train and asks Rolly to drive her to the station), he essentially wears her down until she falls in love with him for real.

 The Flirting Widow is pretty much a one-joke movie but the one joke is surprisingly funny, and the script by John F. Goodrich has some nicely witty dialogue; William A. Seiter, not exactly one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, directed, but the people who really make this movie are Mackaill and Rathbone. Next to William Wellman’s proto-noir masterpiece Safe in Hell, this is the best work I’ve ever seen from the maddeningly inconsistent Mackaill (even though I must confess that early on I did wonder what this movie might have been like with Katharine Hepburn playing her role!), a no-nonsense woman with little patience for the games being played by her relatives and someone who doesn’t seen any particular reason why she should be pushed into marriage just to make her relatives happy — and though Rathbone’s voice has that annoyingly chipper quality it did in his earliest films (did sound quality improve, did his voice darken and deepen with age, or did he work on it, either alone or with a voice coach, to develop the great Rathbone ring we hear in his Sherlock Holmes movies and his great villainous performances in The Adventures of Robin Hood and Tower of London?), he proves a surprisingly accomplished farceur and romantic comedian. No one who knew Rathbone primarily from his later films (even movies like Rhythm on the River and Bathing Beauty, comedy-musicals in which Rathbone’s character was essentially “serious relief,” if there is such a thing) would have thought of him being as adept at comedy as he is here.