Clarence Brown

A Free Soul (1931)

A Free Soul Norma Shearer Leslie HowardJan Ashe (Norma Shearer) and her father Stephen(Lionel Barrymore) have a very close relationship.  Even though a lot of their family judges Stephen for his alcoholism, Jan stands by him every step of the way. When she and Stephen are invited to a family dinner, Jan’s grandmother asks her to keep an eye on Stephen and make sure he doesn’t drink. But sure enough, he shows up to dinner drunk.  Not only does he come over drunk, he brings gangster Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable) along with him.  Stephen is an attorney and had just defended him in court earlier that day.

Even though she’s engaged to Dwight Wintrhop (Leslie Howard), Jan is very attracted to Ace, who she finds much more exciting than Dwight.  They start seeing each other and before long, Ace asks Stephen for permission to marry Jan.  Stephen does not approve of their relationship, but that doesn’t stop Jan from seeing him.  However, when Jan finally can’t take any more of Stephen’s boozing, she makes a deal with him that she’ll leave Ace if he quits drinking. Stephen and Jan take a trip out of town to get their minds off their vices and at first, all is going well for them.  But as soon as they get home again, they’re right back where they started.

When Jan goes to see Ace, he’s angry at her for leaving him and insists they get married right away.  She doesn’t want to marry him and wants to go back to Dwight, but Ace continues to force her into it.  Finally, Dwight is ready to put an end to this once and for all and shoots Ace.  Dwight owns up to it and is willing to take the fall for everything, just to keep Jan’s name out of the whole mess.  But Stephen isn’t willing to let him throw his life away and makes a very dramatic appearance in court to defend him.

A Free Soul isn’t one of my favorites, the story really drags at times.  But it does have some excellent performances and it’s worth seeing for that reason alone.  Norma Shearer, Lionel Barrymore, and Clark Gable all shine in it.  Barrymore won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance, Shearer earned a Best Actress nomination, and it was a big breakthrough for Gable, who was pretty new to the film world at the time.  Leslie Howard was also a movie newcomer then, and he’s fine in A Free Soul, but he wasn’t given a chance to do very much in it. Of course, it’s interesting to see Gable and Howard together in a movie as newcomers eight years before they co-starred in Gone With the Wind when they were both at the peaks of their careers.

Letty Lynton (1932)

Wealthy heiress Letty Lynton (Joan Crawford) has been busy living the high life in Uruguay.  She’s been carrying on a sordid affair with Emile Renaul (Nils Asther) for a while, but when she decides to give him up, she gets on the next boat home to New York. Letty’s tried leaving Emile before and has always come back, so he figures this is just another one of her whims.

But during the trip home, Letty meets Jerry Darrow (Robert Montgomery), and everything changes.  They fall madly in love with each other, but Letty absolutely does not want Jerry to know about her wild past.  She even considers getting off the boat when it makes a stop in Havana so he won’t find out. But before she can leave, Jerry proposes and naturally, Letty accepts.  They happily continue on to New York, but when the boat docks, Letty is horrified to see Emile waiting for her.  She sneaks away from Jerry and finds out the Emile wants to bring her back to Uruguay, but when Emile later finds out about Jerry and Letty’s engagement, he threatens to show Jerry the love letters she’s written to him.

Letty would rather die than let Jerry find out about Emile, so when she goes to Emile’s hotel room to get the letters, she brings a bottle of poison with her to commit suicide right then and there.  Of course, Emile isn’t about to give them up.  When he isn’t looking, she slips the poison into her drink, but then Emile takes the poisoned drink by mistake. Letty watches in horror as he dies, but ultimately can’t bring herself to be sorry.  She flees his hotel room and goes with Jerry to visit his parents.  But of course, the police come looking for Letty and she and Jerry have to be questioned.

I wouldn’t say Letty Lynton is one of the best movies of Joan Crawford’s entire career, but it is one of my favorites from her pre-code era.  Story-wise, it feels a little different from the rest.  One type of role Joan was most well-known for was the working class girl trying to move up in the world.  In Letty Lynton, she’s already pretty high up on the social ladder.  I love the scene after Emile accidentally takes Letty’s poisoned drink and Letty starts yelling at him about how she’s not sorry.  That’s the kind of scene that made me understand why Bette Davis may have possibly envied Joan’s career at that time.  I’m sure Bette would have loved to have played that scene.  It was a total Bette Davis moment made two years before Bette even started playing those kinds of roles.

Even though I could totally picture Bette Davis in this movie, I love Joan in it.  She, Robert Montgomery, and Nils Asther made a very enjoyable cast and it’s a pretty entertaining movie.  As Joan Crawford fans know, Letty Lynton has been completely out of circulation since 1936 when a court ruled that it had plagiarized the play Dishonored Lady.  If you look around enough, you can find bootleg copies of it, but it hasn’t been played in a theater since then, let alone shown on TV or officially released on VHS or DVD.

Joan in Adrian’s legendary Letty Lynton gown.

Late last year, reports surfaced that Warner Brothers was trying to straighten out the legal issues out so it could be released on DVD through Warner Archives and for it to be shown at the 2012 TCM Film Festival.  They weren’t able to get it ready for the TCM Festival, but I’m holding out hope that it will eventually be put out on DVD because Letty Lynton deserves to be seen.  Not only would Joan Crawford fans be thrilled, but this is one fans of pre-codes in general would love.  And if you appreciate costume design, Letty Lynton is worth seeing if only for the spectacular Adrian gowns Joan Crawford gets to wear.  Adrian did some of the best work of his career on Letty Lynton and to only be able to see that work through bootlegs copies of the movie is just unfortunate.

In the past, Warner Archive has successfully gotten The Constant Nymph and Night Flight out of legal messes and I’d be ecstatic if Letty Lynton could be added to the list.  Of those three movies, I’d say Letty Lynton is the best of the bunch.

Night Flight (1933)

Delivering the mail by air through South America is a dangerous game and Riviére (John Barrymore) is determined to be the best at it.  He manages a mail-carrying airline and stops at nothing to uphold his its reputation for punctuality.  Even the owners of the airline think he’s too strict with the pilots.  He doesn’t even like airline employees to be friends with each other outside of work.  When he finds out that his inspector Robineau (Lionel Barrymore) had dinner with pilot Auguste Pellerin (Robert Montgomery), he forces Robineau to give Auguste a citation for something he didn’t do just to prove to Auguste that being friends with a higher-up won’t do him any favors.

Riviére also fines the pilots 200 Francs if they’re late, which means the pilots often find themselves flying through dangerous situations even though common sense would suggest they land.  When Auguste has to make a flight to Buenos Aires, he runs into some very treacherous conditions along the way.  He gets there ten minutes behind schedule, but luckily he does make it.

Meanwhile, pilot Jules Fabian (Clark Gable) is making his first night flight.  His wife Simone (Helen Hayes) is waiting for him at home with a nice dinner, eagerly awaiting his return.  He’s flown that route before so she has no reason to suspect there will be any problems.  Everything is going smoothly for Jules until he unexpectedly gets caught in a terrible storm.  Rather than land, Jules keeps on going through the storm, loses communication with ground control, and gets thrown off course.  The airline frantically tries to make contact with Jules and Simone starts to worry when she finds out he’s been delayed. When she tries to contact Riviére, he won’t tell her anything, which only upsets her more.  She knows that he would be running low on fuel by then.

Despite Jules being lost, Riviére pushes ahead with the schedule and calls a Brazilian pilot (William Gargan) to deliver some mail to Rio de Janeiro, which his wife (Myrna Loy) begs him not to do.  Despite her protests, he goes ahead with the flight and manages to make it safely.  However, Jules isn’t nearly as lucky.  Lost over the ocean with no fuel left, Jules and his wireless operator have no other choice but to jump from the plane into the dangerous waters.

I really wanted to love Night Flight, and I did enjoy it, but I wasn’t completely satisfied with it and I’m having a hard time pinpointing exactly why.  I loved the cinematography and I really liked Helen Hayes, especially in the scene where Simone has dinner by herself and pretends Jules is there with her.  And, of course, it does have some pretty exciting flight scenes.

If you’re curious about Night Flight because of its cast, don’t go into it expecting to see a lot of interaction between all these great stars because you will be let down.  For example, Clark Gable and Myrna Loy have no scenes together.  In fact, Myrna Loy doesn’t even have a very big role and most of Clark Gable’s scenes are him by himself.  But that isn’t what disappointed me about the movie.  Like I said, I really wanted to love Night Flight, but something about it just didn’t resonate with me the way I hoped it would.  If I had my choice, I’d definitely pick Only Angels Have Wings over Night Flight, but I’m really glad Night Flight is finally becoming available after being out of circulation since 1941.  If you like movies about aviation or you’re a big fan of anyone in the cast, it’s worth seeing, but there are better movies about pilots and all of the cast has been in better movies.

Kiki (1926)

Like so many other girls, Kiki (Norma Talmadge) longs to be a famous performer, but instead she’s out on the streets selling newspapers.  But Kiki is a pretty smart gal, and when she overhears a chorus girl getting fired, she seizes the opportunity to see the show’s producer Victor Renal (Ronald Colman), whom she’s long admired, to land a spot in the show.  When she can’t immediately see him, she waits around, and eventually another wannabe chorus girl walks in with a letter of introduction.  Kiki poses as Victor’s secretary, takes her letter, and passes it off as her own when she does see Victor.  It’s clear that Kiki isn’t really an experienced performer, but she can sing and Victor likes her spirit.

Getting into the show quickly proves to only be half the battle.  The real challenge is staying out of the warpath of Paulette (Gertrude Astor), the show’s star and Victor’s fiancée.  Kiki’s stage debut is disastrous and ends with her falling into the orchestra pit and getting tangled in a harp.  Even though the audience finds it hilarious, Paulette isn’t as amused and has Victor fire her.  Kiki breaks down in tears because now she has nowhere to go since she spent all her rent money on a new outfit to impress Victor.  Victor takes pity on poor Kiki and takes her out to dinner, much to the dismay of Paulette.  So Paulette asks Victor’s friend Baron Rapp (Marc McDermott) out to the same restaurant and Paulette makes sure Kiki gets good and drunk.  Instead of being put off by her, Victor feels sorry for her once again and lets her stay at his place for the night.

But one night turns into several.  Victor doesn’t have the heart to throw her out with no place to go and besides, he’s starting to like her.  Kiki makes herself right at home at Victor’s place and does everything she can to make him think that Paulette doesn’t love him anymore.  One day, the Baron comes over and tries to take Kiki off his hands by tying to convince her that if she comes to live with him, he can turn her into a star.  Victor overhears this and becomes just a bit jealous.  Meanwhile, Paulette is in the other room trying to convince Victor that she loves him.  Kiki almost falls for it, but she soon comes to her senses.  Paulette and Kiki end up getting into a big fight and Kiki is knocked unconscious.  Or so everyone thinks.  She fakes unconsciousness so well that a doctor claims she’s in a coma and could stay that way for two years.  When Victor decides he can’t leave her alone in that condition, Kiki is miraculously “cured!”  The two finally kiss and presumably go on to live happily ever after.

For as much as I love silent movies, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie starring any of the Talmadge sisters before now.  I know Norma was better known for her dramatic roles, but I really liked her in this comedy.  She had great movement, expressions, charisma, and charm.  The scenes where she’s supposed to be unconscious are just classic.  She played off of Ronald Colman and especially Gertrude Astor very well.  The movie is very fun and charming with some pretty hilarious intertitles.  “And may all your children be radio announcers!” has got to be one of my favorite silent movie insults.  If you only know Norma Talmadge for her serious roles, then Kiki is sure to be a refreshing change of pace.

Wife Vs. Secretary (1936)

Van Stanhope (Clark Gable) seems to have it all: he’s a very successful magazine publisher, he’s been very happily married to Linda (Myrna Loy) for three years, and he’s got Whitey (Jean Harlow), the best secretary he could ever want.  Most wives would be worried about their husbands having secretaries who look like Whitey, but Linda trusts Van completely and she has every reason to.  At least she trusts him until all the suggestions from friends and family that Whitey must be one of those secretaries finally start to get to her.  But Linda isn’t the only one jealous of Van and Whitey’s working relationship.  Whitey’s boyfriend Dave (James Stewart) wants to marry her, but she loves her job and doesn’t want to quit to stay at home.

When Van decides to take on a new business venture, he has to keep it top secret from everyone, including Linda.  Whitey is the only person who knows what’s going on.  So when he says he’s been at a club all afternoon one day, Linda does a little investigating and finds out he wasn’t at the club all day, he was with Whitey.  Linda begins to fear that all those insinuations were right after all, she has no idea that he and Whitey were working together on the new business deal.  Things get even worse when at a company skating party, Linda thinks Van and Whitey look like a little too friendly and she asks Van to transfer Whitey to a new job.  Van refuses and Linda eventually decides she’s being ridiculous and Van promises to take her on vacation soon to make it up to her.

But just when Linda thinks they’re going to leave for vacation, Van has to go to Havana on business and can’t bring Linda along.  This was upsetting enough, but she is pushed to the breaking point when she calls him in Havana at two in the morning and Whitey answers his phone.  Whitey had to join Van in Havana at the last minute to take care of important business.  Even though there are hints of a mutual attraction between the two of them after they have a few drinks together, nothing happens.  But, of course, Linda assumes the worst and when Van returns, she asks for a divorce.  Van is devastated and begins to get a little too friendly with Whitey.  Even though Whitey likes the attention, she knows her boss well enough to know what he really needs and makes a last ditch attempt to get Linda to stay with Van.

Wife Vs. Secretary is a very smart movie.  Even though the title may conjure up images of Myrna Loy comically sneaking around, following Clark Gable and Jean Harlow around by peering in through office windows and hiding behind menus at restaurants in an attempt to spy on them, it’s far more subtle than that.  Clark Gable was often downright hilarious and both Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow gave very thoughtful performances.  Myrna’s character went through a whole gamut of emotions during the movie and she played each one very naturally.  It didn’t matter if her character was happy and engaging in witty banter or absolutely heartbroken, she handled it all like the pro she was.

At the time, Jean was working to try to soften her image a little bit so she really wanted to play something different from some of her past roles.  This wasn’t the first time she played a secretary, but Whitey is the polar opposite of Lil in Red Headed Woman.  Whitey’s not the type to keep her boss’ picture in her garter, she has no intention of breaking up anyone’s marriage, and she’s no gold digger.  She’s just a good-natured gal who loves her job and cares about her boss, but not indecently.  She really did seem like the kind of girl who would go for a Jimmy Stewart type.  Red Headed Woman is one of my favorite Jean Harlow movies, but I think she played Whitey just as well as she played Lil. Speaking of Jimmy Stewart, this was one of his first movies, but he already showed a lot of promise as that very down-to-earth type of guy that he’d become best known for playing.

I loved pretty much everything about Wife Vs. Secretary.  They couldn’t have asked for a better cast, I loved Clarence Brown’s direction, and I loved the writing.  With a story like this, it could have easily gone down a more over-the-top route and turned into an all-out screwball comedy.  But the subtlety of the writing gave the actors the perfect opportunity to take over and really make it great.  With a lesser cast, this movie would have been completely forgettable.  Instead, it’s a real gem.

Fun Fact: Wife Vs. Secretary was first released on February 28, 1936 so this review was published on the 75th anniversary of the movie’s release.

To read more of the Jean Harlow Blogathon contributions, head over to The Kitty Packard Pictorial!