Monday, August 11, 2014

True Confession (Paramount, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Turner Classic Movies showed True Confession last night as part of their all-day “Summer Under the Stars” tribute to Carole Lombard — one of her lesser-known films and, it turned out, one of her best. Made for Paramount in 1937 — the last film she owed them under contract (afterwards she’d become a free-lancer and work all over Hollywood until her death in 1942) — it was released December 24, 1937, less than a month after Lombard’s just previous film, Nothing Sacred. This perturbed Nothing Sacred’s producer, David O. Selznick, who was worried that True Confession might harm Nothing Sacred at the box office because both films cast Lombard as a woman at the center of a highly publicized hoax. Despite less-than-legendary talent behind the cameras (the director was Wesley Ruggles and the screenwriter was Claude Binyon, adapting a 1934 French play called Mon Crime — “My crime” — by Louis Verneuil and Georges Berr) True Confession emerged as a comic masterpiece, casting Lombard as wanna-be writer Helen Bartlett. She’s married to compulsively honest attorney Kenneth Bartlett (Fred MacMurray, oddly outfitted with one of those thin “roo” moustaches that in 1930’s movies generally signaled that the wearer was a man up to no good), who refuses to represent clients that aren’t genuinely innocent. There’s a nice opening scene establishing that about him: he gets a visit from an underworld type who’s accused of stealing hams, but who swears he didn’t do it until it comes time to negotiate Kenneth’s fee, whereupon the would-be client says, “I can’t pay you right away — I have to sell the hams first.” Thanks to Kenneth’s compulsive honesty, Helen’s typewriter is about to be repossessed — and she concocts a preposterous series of excuses to keep that from happening, first summoning her best friend Daisy McClure (Una Merkel) from work by (falsely) telling her she’s accidentally taken poison, then telling the repo man that Kenneth is crazy and thinks the typewriter is their baby, and when Kenneth arrives in the middle of all this she tells her husband that the repo man is Daisy’s boyfriend.

That’s a pretty good indication of how Helen works throughout the entire movie, whose main intrigue emerges when, to make more money for the family but without her husband finding out (like a typical 1930’s movie married man, he hates the idea of his wife working because that means he can’t support her on his own), she takes a job as “private secretary” for a family friend, Otto Krayler (John T. Murray), who wants her to work three hours a day, five days a week — though he also wants her available for weekends out of town. Since Helen types with two fingers and can’t take shorthand at all (though she says she’s willing to learn), it’s pretty obvious to us in the audience what Otto really wants her for — and when that becomes obvious to Helen as well she flees the scene, leaving her hat, coat and purse behind. Later she enlists Daisy to return with her to Otto’s to retrieve her stuff, but instead she discovers the place is crawling with cops (one of whom is Edgar Kennedy, in a marvelous “turn” that proves he could be funny in his own right and wasn’t just a comic foil for Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers) and Otto is dead, shot with a gun registered to Kenneth Bartlett — one Helen had taken with her to work intending to pawn for more spending money. Kenneth naturally agrees to take his wife’s case, but when he laments that it would be easier to win her acquittal if he argued that she shot Otto to fend off his lecherous attacks than it would be to say she didn’t kill him at all, Helen takes that and runs with it big-time. Over the objections of a manic prosecutor (Porter Hall), Kenneth and Helen re-enact the alleged self-defense shooting in court and win her acquittal — and the notoriety of the case earns her a contract to write her life story for a major newspaper and has clients beating down his door for his legal services. They buy a resort home in the mountains — where they’re confronted by alcoholic ex-criminologist Charlie Jasper (John Barrymore, who got third billing even though he doesn’t appear until midway through the film), who tries to blackmail them by offering to sell them Otto Krayler’s wallet. Jasper claims that he shot Krayler and threatens to expose Helen as a fraud and get her prosecuted for perjury — and the revelation that his wife lied and claimed responsibility for a killing she didn’t commit sends Kenneth into a hissy-fit and makes him determined to leave her — until she wins him back by yet another lie, claiming to be pregnant.

In a running time of just 84 minutes (for a story that in a modern movie would probably run at least an hour longer than that!), True Confession zips along at warp speed, offering laughs mainly from the relentlessness of Lombard’s character (Robert Osborne in his intro suggested that Lombard’s screwball characters influenced Lucille Ball — which they did and they didn’t; Lombard and Ball were friends but Lombard generally played ditzes with a crackbrained sort of intelligence while Ball’s “Lucy” character was more naïve and silly) and the sheer preposterousness of the situation. Early on Charles joked, “It’s like Preston Sturges directing The Public Enemy” — and though Binyon is the only screenwriter it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Sturges had had a hand in the script. True Confession is also a fascinating movie in that it really pushes the envelope of the Production Code; at times — especially when Helen’s predecessor as Otto’s “secretary,” blonde bimbo Suzanne Baggart (Toby Wing, ex-Berkeley chorine), testifies in court and makes a surprisingly lascivious comment about the services Otto wanted from both of them — it seems more like a movie from the so-called “pre-Code” era than one from 1937. It also produced a title song, composed by Frederick Hollander (Marlene Dietrich’s favorite composer) with words by Sam Coslow, which is listed in the opening credits even though no one actually sings it in the film and its melody is heard only as part of Hollander’s background score.