SPOTLIGHT: Lovely Pre-Code Loy (II)

Welcome to another Film Friday! Today, we’re continuing our series of posts on the Pre-Code work of Myrna Loy, one of M-G-M’s sharpest and glamorous stars of the ’30s and ’40s. Though her greatest successes would come during the Post-Code era, the films of Loy’s early career demonstrate her versatility and the slow appropriation of what would become her niche — the sophisticated dame who could make audiences both laugh and cry. The films we’ll be covering over these next few weeks — and we will NOT be going chronologically — are all very different: in some we’ll see Loy as merely a supporting player; in others, she’ll be our leading lady. As one of the busiest actresses of the Pre-Code era, these posts will examine the way in which a second-tier actress grappled with defining her image into something that, though strangely Pre-Code, would soon take off and make her a major star in the immediate Post-Code years to follow. Last week we covered Penthouse (1933). Today, Transatlantic (1931)…

 

Transatlantic (1931)

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A gambler finds shipboard romance while trying to recover valuable securities stolen from a philandering banker. Starring Edmund Lowe, Greta Nissen, John Halliday, Myrna Loy, Jean Hersholt, Lois Moran, and Earle Fox. Written by Guy Bolton and Lynn Starling. Directed by William K. Howard.

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Produced by the Fox Film Corporation, this ensemble film has often been compared to MGM’s Grand Hotel (1932) in its structure. So this is not a Myrna Loy picture; that is, one shouldn’t come in expecting to see a lot of her, because this vehicle isn’t tailored for Loy. She’s inserted into it almost nonchalantly, and therefore leaves little impression. However, we can be sure that little of this is her fault. The chief problem, clearly delineating why Grand Hotel has become a classic and Transatlantic has fallen into obscurity:  forgettable characters. Can the aesthetically breathtaking cinematography overcome these narrative shortcomings? (YES!)

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“As the luxury liner the S. S. Transatlantic is about to set sail, lens grinder Rudolph Kramer, a passenger aboard the ship, tells his daughter Judy how pleased he is to be able to take her on a trip for which he has been saving for all his life. Also traveling on the Transatlantic is the suave Monty Greer, a “baggage smasher” who specializes in absconding with bags belonging to wealthy passengers. Monty’s rival, crime leader Handsome, is also on board, as are banker Henry Graham and his wife Kay, his intended victims. The Grahams soon become embroiled in a quarrel when Kay accuses Henry of keeping the young Sigrid Carlene as his mistress. Later, when Monty enters Henry’s cabin on the pretext of searching for his misplaced bags, he is discovered by Henry. Monty apologizes for the intrusion and then scouts Kay’s room next door. Soon after meeting Judy, Monty and she become fast friends, and Judy tells him that all of her father’s assets lie in the Graham Investment Corporation of New York.

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“Once at sea, the Transatlantic receives a wired message that the Graham Investment Corp. has failed for the lack of twenty million dollars. Though Henry is saved from the bankruptcy because he is carrying personal securities, Rudolph is financially ruined by the failure. Rudolph becomes despondent, and when he pleads with Henry for financial help, Henry coldly refuses and has him removed from his room. While Handsome prepares to make his move on Henry’s securities, Judy tells Monty that she is concerned about the threats her father has made against Henry. Shorty thereafter, Monty hears a shot ring out in Henry’s room. Upon entering the room, Monty sees Rudolph holding a gun. To protect Rudolph, Monty orders him and Judy out of the room and then wipes Rudolph’s fingerprints from the gun. During a shipboard investigation into the murder, the robbery plot is discovered and Rudolph and Monty are confined to the brig by the captain. There, Rudolph confesses his intention to shoot Henry, but insists that the shot that killed Henry came from another gun. Convinced that Handsome fired the gun, Monty goes after him, and the two face off in a boiler room shootout. After Handsome is shot, he confesses to shooting Henry and robbing his cabin. All ends happily when Kay agrees to give the Kramers financial assistance and Monty kisses Judy.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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It’s almost shocking  to me that the plot, as outlined above, should produce two fairly extensive paragraphs, because sitting through the film, the story seems irrelevant. Or rather, the murder mystery plot so failed to captivate my imagination — due to disengaging characters — that the enjoyment I gleaned from the picture had nothing to do with the narrative. (Disappointing too, seeing as the script was co-penned by Guy Bolton, a name you’ll recognize if you’ve been following our Musical Theatre posts.)  I was more focused on the visuals, which, even in my poor quality print, were absolutely stunning. Marvelous sets, gorgeous lighting, and some pretty advanced shots — with a fluidity that’s uncommon for what we’ve come to expect of films produced in 1931, which are generally stiff and static. Additionally, the design of the picture is deliciously glamorous, giving off more of an MGM vibe than Fox Films. (This picture deservedly won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction.)

Of course, the casting lets us know right away that this is no MGM picture. The star of Transatlantic is Edmund Lowe, who, if you remember my post on MGM’s Dinner At Eight (1933), I found to be exceedingly boring. (Already — this is going to be an uphill battle!) The only other recognizable faces are Loy and Jean Hersholt, both of whom received better films and better parts later on in their careers. As for Loy… well, she’s dull. And this film makes it obvious why it would take her until 1934 to solidify a memorable onscreen persona — she’s saddled with lackluster roles that fail to properly display her talents. The performer who sticks out the most in Transatlantic, principally because her character is the most ostentatious, is Greta Nissen as Sigrid, Myrna’s hubbie’s mistress. But even then, her character (like the others) is so thinly drawn, that, naturally, the material presents a handicap that she too fails to overcome.

Actress Greta Nissen in

Unfortunately, gorgeous design and cinematography aside, without rich characters, Transatlantic has nothing on Grand Hotel. HOWEVER, Transatlantic is visually extraordinary, with several sequences that will leave you breathless, besting many films of the era in terms of style and cinematic aesthetics. (Truly does not seem like a 1931 picture!) So, I recommend Transatlantic to classic film fans — not for the story (or the stars), but for the shockingly advanced production. Though I personally am a “story man,” film is undeniably a visual medium, and in this arena, Transatlantic does not disappoint — it excites!

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Come back next Friday for another Myrna Loy film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment! 

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