Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Solitaire Man (MGM, 1933)

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

Last night Charles and I watched the movie The Solitaire Man — a 1933 MGM production based on a 1927 play by Sam and Bella Spewack (the husband-and-wife playwriting team best known for the book to Cole Porter’s 1948 musical Kiss Me, Kate), adapted for film by James Kevin McGuinness and directed by Jack Conway (and shown by TCM as part of their birthday tribute to Conway last July 17 that also included Untamed, They Learned About Women — though on that one Conway and Sam Wood were co-credited as directors — The Easiest Way and But the Flesh Is Weak). It’s a fun movie without being a world-beater, and in casting Herbert Marshall as a debonair jewel thief MGM seemed to be trying to duplicate the success of the 1932 comedy masterpiece Trouble in Paradise, made at Paramount with Ernst Lubitsch directing and a much more stellar supporting cast than this one (Miriam Hopkins and Kay Francis as the women vs. Mary Boland and Elizabeth Allan here — though Allan’s performance is quite good and she’s one of those people you see in a role like this and think she should have risen to major stardom, but she didn’t). The film begins with a long sequence in which Mrs. Peabody (Lucile Gleason) is living in a hotel she can’t afford and gambling away what’s left of her money, and she and her daughter Helen (Elizabeth Allan) — at least we’re led to think Helen is her daughter — are about to be put out unless they can sell some of Mrs. Hopkins’ jewelry, left to her by her late husband before he’d burned his way through the family fortune and then died. Her prize piece is the Nell Gwyn necklace, supposedly given by King Charles II of England to his famous mistress (who was also one of the pioneering actresses of England: before Oliver Cromwell banned theatre altogether women’s parts in English plays had been played by teenage boys, though possibly sometimes by grown men, but in his years in exile in France Charles II had seen women on stage and dated quite a few of them, and when he returned to restore the Stuart dynasty he allowed actresses on British stages for the first time and resumed his hobby of being the prototype of the stage-door sugar-daddy), which she reluctantly agrees to part with for 5,000 pounds to American tourist Mrs. Zelma Hopkins (Mary Boland), much to the disgust of her husband Elmer (Harry Holman), who’s the one who has to come up with the money.

Then, about 11 minutes into the film, we get the first big reversal: Mrs. Peabody and Helen Heming, who isn’t biologically related to her after all, are part of a ring of jewel thieves led by Oliver Lane (Herbert Marshall), known to law enforcement as the “Solitaire Man” as a pun on the term “solitaire diamond” and the belief that he works alone. The gimmick is Oliver steals the jewels, then creates a convincing backstory for them which the two women can use to unload them on unsuspecting marks, so they can convert the jewels into cash without the embarrassment and high cost of dealing with fences. Only Oliver has tired of this life and has bought a farm in Devonshire to which he hopes to retire with Helen, with whom he’s in love, as his wife. But his plans are derailed when another member of his gang, Robert Bascom (Ralph Forbes) — playing a drug addict, which presumably explains the relentless overacting the usually restrained Forbes does in the role and definitely marking this as a product of the “pre-Code” glasnost even though it’s not a particularly racy movie sexually — goes out on his own and steals a valuable necklace from the safe of the British Embassy in Paris. Oliver is determined to break into the embassy himself and return the necklace to the safe from which Robert, who’s also in love with Helen and naïvely expected to realize enough money on the necklace to pull Helen away from Oliver and get her for himself, had taken it before anyone notices it missing. Only when he tries that he’s surprised by Inspector Kenyon of Scotland Yard, who’s in Europe on the trail of the “Solitaire Man.” Inspector Kenyon is shot and killed by a mystery assailant and Oliver knows that he’s going to be suspect number one.

The whole gang flees to London aboard a plane — at a time when commercial air travel was still an exotic novelty — and the film reveals its stage origins by remaining inside the plane’s interior until nearly the end. Also on the plane is Mrs. Hopkins, who frantically tries to stop it from taking off when her husband Elmer shows up at the airport too late to board it. Oliver also wants to stop the plane because he still has the stolen necklace on him, as well as a piece of watch chain he grabbed from Inspector Kenyon’s killer — who turns out (this is a bit of a spoiler but not much of one) to be Wallace (Lionel Atwill), who’s posing as a Scotland Yard inspector on the trail of the Solitaire Man but is really a police informant as well as a free-lance crook — and the fact that he’s up to no good (he wants to frame Oliver for Kenyon’s murder and keep the necklace for himself) is no surprise given that Atwill is playing him with the same heavy-duty malevolence he would bring to his role as Professor Moriarty against Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon nine years later. The plane is forced to fly to London in heavy fog and is being chased by two other planes, one of which is bearing Inspector Kenyon’s partner, on the trail of his killer; while the other, it turns out, was privately chartered by Elmer Hopkins so he could arrive in London at the same time as his wife. Eventually the plane lands and Wallace is unmasked as the killer, only in a device recycled for the ending of Rebel Without a Cause 22 years later he threatens the cops trying to arrest him with a gun and one of them shoots him despite Oliver trying to signal to them that Wallace is harmless because he had previously taken the bullets out of Wallace’s gun. Oliver gets off scot-free (another plot device that marks this as “pre-Code”) and gets to retire to Devonshire as planned. The Solitaire Man was originally planned for an even less illustrious cast — Philip Merivale, an actor virtually forgotten today, was first announced for the male lead, and an actress named Irene Brown got on a boat to New York before the studio could intercept her and get her to be in the film (which bears an odd resemblance to parts of the movie’s plot!) — and Marshall is good in it even though his part here is so close to the role he played in the far superior Trouble in Paradise that this film suffers even more by comparison.