Friday, March 8, 2013

Passion Flower (MGM, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ended up watching a movie I’d recorded earlier in the day from a Charles Bickford tribute on TCM: Passion Flower, a 1930 film from MGM based on a similarly titled novel by Kathleen Norris ( lists three other films called Passion Flower, a 1921 silent (not based on Norris’s novel but a Norma Talmadge tear-jerker in which, according to the review, she has to deal with sexual harassment … from her grandfather!), a TV movie from 1986 and a theatrical film, also called Passion’s Flower (with the possessive), from 1991. This Passion Flower reunites Bickford and Kay Johnson from the cast of Cecil B. DeMille’s first talkie, Dynamite, in similar roles (and the director here is William DeMille, Cecil’s older brother): he’s a chauffeur and she’s a rich girl who falls in love with him and insists on marrying him — despite the threat from her father (Winter Hall) that if she does so, he’ll disinherit her and leave her to her own devices. The central relationship in the movie, though — at least in its first few reels — isn’t between Katherine, a.k.a. “Cassy” (Kay Johnson) and her chauffeur boyfriend Dan Wallace (Charles Bickford) but between Katherine and her cousin Dulce (pronounced “Dulcie”) Morado (Kay Francis, top-billed; Charles noted that both leading women had the same first name and called it a “Battle of the Kays!”). At first glance at the cast list I wondered if Francis was going to be playing a Latina vamp, but it turned out she only married that name, rejecting love in favor of security and hooking up with an older man, Antonio Morado (Lewis Stone, who doesn’t look very convincing as a Latino!), because he had money. (Francis’s infamous lisp and the limitations of 1930 sound recording make “Cassy” sound like the more common contraction “Cathy.”) Cassy insists on marrying Dan even though that means she’s going to be turned out of her home and lose all her dad’s money. Cousin Dulce decides to help out by giving Dan and Cassy the farm next door to her dad’s estate so they can make a decent, hard-working living running it, but Dan’s too proud to accept any charity from his wife’s family. Instead he and Cassy move to the big city, to an attic room in a boardinghouse owned by Mrs. Harney (ZaSu Pitts at her most world-weary; after the artistic triumph and financial disaster of Greed, in which she gave one of the finest performances ever put on film, she got relegated to ditzy comedies in which she cast an oddly sad mien at times, as if she were all too aware these sorry roles were a total waste of her talents), and Dan gets a job as a stevedore.

Then there’s a jump cut and we’re suddenly five years later: Dan and Cassy are still in that attic, and they have two children, Tommy (Dickie Moore) and a younger girl whose name I don’t recall hearing on the soundtrack and who isn’t billed either in the credits or on Then the Depression hits and Dan, who had worked up to assistant foreman, is laid off suddenly on his fifth anniversary (writers like Kathleen Norris and the people who adapted her, Martin Flavin, L. E. Johnson and Edith Fitzgerald, really knew how to lard it on) and he comes home shame-facedly to find Dulce in his apartment. He throws her out but later, unable to find another job, he decides to accept her offer of that farm after all, and they move there. The second act — this is one early talkie that really is structured like a play even though it wasn’t based on one — consists of the growing, and totally inexplicable, attraction between Dan and Dulce, who’s determined to seduce him away from his long-suffering wife even though not only is his wife her cousin but she already has a husband (albeit one who, it’s hinted, has tolerated and winked at her affairs before). She actually does get him to leave and travel with her to Europe, where their life together is a series of meaningless parties — during one of which, taking place in London, a guest played by an uncredited but easily recognizable Ray Milland gives him a letter from Cassy that’s been chasing him around Europe. He gets the letter at long last — it includes a photo of their two kids and dog and pleads with him to come back for the children’s sake, if not for hers — but he’s still determined to divorce Cassy and marry Dulce (why?). Cassy says she’ll give him his divorce but only if he meets her and asks for it in person — and of course once he’s back on the farm, in the family atmosphere and with the kids guilt-tripping the hell out of him, he comes back and leaves the now-widowed Dulce to reconcile with his wife and family.

It’s not much of a story, and frankly though Charles Bickford has a rough-hewn handsomeness it’s hard to believe in him as the man no woman (or at least no woman in that family) can resist. MGM’s later star, Clark Gable, could have pulled that off, but in essence Bickford was the beta version of Gable and MGM was still working out the kinks in the typology. It’s one of those MGM movies where they seem to be poaching on Warners’ territory — only at Warners James Cagney would have been the proletarian lead and there’d have been a proletarian girl for him to end up with at the end (probably played by Joan Blondell) — less so from the subject matter than the atmosphere. The director, William DeMille, and his cinematographer, Hal Rosson, shoot almost the entire movie in what would then have been called “German style” and would later be known as film noir — all vertiginous angles, stylized sets in forced perspective, and chiaroscuro contrasts of light and darkness. It’s a visual style we expect to adorn a much darker, more sordid sort of story than this, and it’s especially odd for Rosson given that his best-known credit is The Wizard of Oz and he wasn’t usually into this sort of high-contrast black-and-white (he was one of the few filmmakers of his generation who welcomed it when color became standard in the 1960’s; “Life is color,” he told Leonard Maltin). Aside from the visual distinction and the fact that there’s almost no music in the film (just under the opening and closing credits and a few pieces of source music during the party scenes at which Dan and Dulce are wasting their lives towards the end) — this was still early enough in the history of talkies that background music was considered a holdover from the silent era and it was thought audiences wouldn’t like hearing non-source music and people talking at the same time —Passion Flower is the sort of movie that seems like you’ve seen it before even if you haven’t, but it was still fun in a certain quirky way.