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The Lady in Question

Gasser

The Lady in Question (1940)

     The Lady in Question is certainly a unique story, although one that sings in large part because of its main character while all others play second fiddle. Brian Aherne –who with mustache and bushy eyebrows looks nothing like his visage in the poster for this movie– steals the show as the most purely kind, middle-aged man ever to put himself in the situation that encompasses the plot.

     Aherne plays Andre Morestan, a sporting goods shop owner in France who is one of the few people in the country eager to serve out a jury duty sentence. This married man with two teenage children sits through a case of a woman who shot her lover to death. This Natalie Roguin (Rita Hayworth) says she was defending herself against a man who had threatened her life after some time of paying for her living. The prosecutor says the woman blackmailed her lover into stealing from his father to pay for her lifestyle.

     In a scene that could have taken the movie in a 12 Angry Men direction, most of the jury wants to convict Natalie, but Andre stands in abject disagreement. With one man sneezing his germs throughout the room and another with a new wife waiting for him, Andre succeeds in standing his ground and drawing all others to his side.

     Upon the acquittal, the man leaves his contact information with Natalie’s attorney, saying he wants to help her in any way she might need. The woman does eventually call him and is need of both a job and a place to stay. No one will hire her despite the court’s erasing a murderess label, so Andre takes her into his shop and home, renaming her Jean and calling her the daughter of an old college friend who is spending some time in Africa.

     Andre’s wife Michele (Irene Rich) is instantly suspicious and might worry her husband has brought this pretty young thing in as a mistress, but even more stunned is their son Pierre –played by a young Glenn Ford— who secretly attended the trial and recognizes Natalie. Nevertheless, young Pierre starts to fall for the woman, who is clearly kind at heart. Meanwhile, the young woman’s identity becomes a problem every time a fellow juror, Mr. Lurette (Curt Bois), stops by to talk about how he thinks they got the verdict wrong.

     Andre is comically cruel in his dismissal of the man, but when it appears his son is about to run off with Natalie and take the contents of the store cash box with him, he concludes that perhaps the woman is guilty.

     Aherne, the Brit who often played handsome charmers, is a hoot as the middle-aged father who is too innocent to see how unsavory it looks to take into his home the acquitted murderer whom he helped to free. The man proves he is too kind to others for his own good through a running joke involving a stout man who repeatedly enters the shop to exchange a tandem bike for a single –and vice versa– because his fiancées keep leaving him. Michele insists a used bike can only be exchanged for an upcharge, but Andre feels sorry and happy for the man as his romantic circumstances change and gives the bikes away without the fee.

     The other characters all add to the story, Bois especially as the timid accountant who is on and off “at liberty” (aka unemployed) and analyzes the case with a mathematical mind. Rich does well as the responsible but suspicious wife, Ford as the uptight son whose bravado is chipped away by Natalie’s kindness, and Evelyn Keyes as the love-struck daughter who wants to marry the neighboring dance instructor and literally skips around the house in her twitterpated haze. Hayworth in this role is nothing to write home about. She speaks softly and affects a sad look most of the time. She is lovely but no seductress (as the poster would suggest) as she would later be with Ford in Gilda.

I Live My Life

Gasser

I Live My Life (1935)

     Over the past couple of years I have absorbed A LOT of Joan Crawford movies. I tend to DVR them any chance I get, which has led me through an array of great and mediocre flicks. What I have observed in many of her basic romance plots is that the woman often plays the dame who toys with men’s romantic devotion to her for most of the movie before finally succumbing to the love she never realized was there. That is true of I Live My Life, the title of which tells one nothing of the story.

     Crawford is part of a wealthy American business family as Kay Bentley. She meets Irish archeologist Terry O’Neill (Brian Aherne) while her yacht is docked in Naxos, Greece, and immediately makes a pest of herself. The man is working to dig up an ancient statue he has searched for over two years and the woman feigns an ankle injury to compel him to carry her down a mountain. She begs her boat captain to return them to the island the next day so she may see Terry again under the guise of an apology. The two spend the day together as Kay pretends to be the yacht owner’s secretary because Terry has made clear he has no interest in people who have too much money to be good for them. That night the rugged man declares he loves Kay and will meet up with her again in New York.

     When Terry arrives in American and tracks down this secretary, he finds he’s been misled. He happens to connect with Kay’s father, played by Frank Morgan, however, in presenting his artifact to the museum at which the older man is a trustee. When Terry is invited to his home, he re-meets Kay but both are cold over the lie. Kay’s deception in her identity is not the true conflict of the story, however. Nor is the clear class divide between the woman’s friends and her outdoorsy love interest. Kay is engaged to some other wealthy bloke strictly on business terms that will result in her wealthy grandmother paying out a marriage settlement to the newlyweds. Her father is under his mother-in-law’s thumb and is getting himself into financial trouble through private prospecting. His daughter’s dowry, however, could help him in settling the debt.

     Crawford’s Kay not only allows the male lead to declare his love for her without any reciprocation but waits until the movie is three-quarters complete before shouting her affection. In this vein we see a better performance by Aherne than Crawford because we can read the genuine fluctuation in his emotions as he is scorned and re-adored by this woman. Crawford is content to flit about uttering her lines and projecting the cheerful, fun young woman audiences surely loved but fails to bring any conviction to her part. She does what is required of her, nothing more.

     It is in roles like this one and in The Bride Wore Red with Franchot Tone that we cannot help but fall in love with the genuine affection of the men while loathing Crawford’s parts in their plans for the most financially suitable match. In I Live My Life, Kay could easily have informed Terry of why she would marry her fiancée instead of him, but perhaps that dims the drama.

Sylvia Scarlett

Dullsville

Sylvia Scarlett (1936)

     There can be no denying that Katharine Hepburn has a unique face and rather tom-boyish mannerisms, but I would not necessarily have guessed she could play a boy so well. Kate Hepburn was three years into her film career when she made Sylvia Scarlett her eighth film. She was certainly young enough to pull off the look of a boy who has yet to grow whiskers, and thin enough to diminish any womanly curves. Despite how well Hepburn looked the part, the role itself and the surrounding story fail to live up to that standard.

     The film begins with an excessively hasty rush into the focus of the story: a girl who dresses as a boy. After some rather melodramatic lines from both Hepburn and Edmund Gwenn as her father, we learn that Sylvia’s mother has just died and her father, Henry, will likely be sent to jail because the lace company he works for is about to notice  he “borrowed” money lost to gambling. Taking some cash left to Sylvia by the mother and 50 quid-worth of lace, the two move to escape Paris for London. The trouble with the plan, however, is that police will be suspicious of a man travelling with his daughter. So without any puzzlement, Sylvia shears her hair and we next see her dressed as a man boarding a boat.

     I must pause in the midst of this synopsis to voice some initial disappointments. The script was written to very quickly get us to the point that Sylvia becomes a boy, but in doing so, it eliminated any natural, common-sense progression. The trouble Henry faces presents no real conflict as the characters very quickly decide a solution. Unless Sylvia has always secretly longed to dress as a boy, I can see no young woman jumping to her conclusion so quickly.

     Continuing with the story, the father-son duo meet Cary Grant‘s Jimmy Monkly on the boat. Sylvia, now Sylvester, thinks he’s a swine straight off, but after some drinking, Henry reveals to Jimmy the lace he has stashed in his waistcoat to avoid paying a duty when they reach customs. Once at customs, Jimmy turns Henry in to gain the good graces of the custom agents and avoid having his own bags searched. Reunited on a train, the Scarletts voice their anger to Jimmy, who pays them the fine, value of the lace and then some. The trio next become con artists together, but when the money fails to flow, they pick up a maid friend of Jimmy’s and the foursome set out as traveling entertainers. The maid, Lily (Natalie Paley), apparently has married the older Henry, but some pranks played by an artist and his Russian girlfriend lead Henry to believe his wife is cheating on him.

     The artist, Michael Fane (Brian Aherne), is intrigued by Sylvester, who finds her female side falling for the man. When Michael invites Sylvester to sit for him as a painting subject, the boy shows up the next day having stolen a dress from some beach beauties. Michael finds it hilarious that Sylvester is indeed Sylvia, yet professes she is wonderful and romances her a bit. Jimmy also spotted Sylvester’s new outfit and gives the girl some grief but is utterly unsurprised. Next, Michael breaks Sylvia’s heart by sticking with the Russian babe, while Jimmy seems to suggest he wouldn’t mind giving the girl a go. The film concludes queerly with the men swapping partners and Sylvia landing her artist sweetheart.

     I have mentioned before that if I am unable to sum up a film in a concise paragraph or two, it is far too complex. Sylvia Scarlett is not so much complicated as just swamped with random events that do not act to convey any connected message. One would assume at the film’s start that Hepburn and Grant will be the love interests and that Sylvia’s secret gender will hold the conflict and humor. Grant’s Jimmy never presents himself as a viable love interest, however. Even Aherne’s Michael is not the most appealing guy. He is quite the jerk when he passes over Sylvia for the Russian. Despite other positive performance aspects, Hepburn also fails to convey to the audience the romantic feelings she apparently has.

     I find it hard to determine whether Sylvia Scarlett is a comedy or drama. Although there are a few chuckles early on and the end of the film twists into an almost slapstick movie, the rest of the picture is laced with serious, rather dreary matters. Many gender-bending films have been made, and it seems two general approaches are usually taken: the comedic challenges of hiding one’s true identity, or the dramatic struggles one endures to live as another person. Sylvia Scarlett takes neither. Outside of occasional awkward undressing moments with Grant, Hepburn otherwise plays a boy naturally. Her wide saunter and rough-housing behavior make it easy to believe she is a boy, yet we have no indication that Sylvia was a tomboy during her Paris days.

     Perhaps the greatest hole in the story is why Sylvia continues to live as a boy once she reaches London. The motivation to begin the masquerade was for safe passage between France and England, but once there, it seems pointless. Conceivably, Jimmy’s involvement in the lives of the Scarletts could have been a motivating factor, but considering how easily Sylvia jumped into a dress later in the film (seemingly months or years later), I cannot buy that argument.

  • Sylvia Scarlett is set for 10:45 a.m. ET May 12 on TCM.
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