SPOTLIGHT: Lovely Pre-Code Loy (III)

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. So far we’ve covered Penthouse (1933) and Transatlantic (1931). Today, The Animal Kingdom (1932)…

 

The Animal Kingdom (1932)

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An intellectual publisher can’t choose between his society wife and his free thinking former love. Starring Ann Harding, Leslie Howard, and Myrna Loy. Screenplay by Horace Jackson. Based on the play by Philip Barry. Directed by Edward H. Griffith.

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This literate adaptation of one of Philip Barry’s maturest of plays stars Leslie Howard as a man whose deep bond with another woman (played by the Pre-Code era’s most honest sophisticate, Ann Harding) is contrasted with his lustful marriage to a manipulative social-climber, played by our current starlet, Myrna Loy. The film’s theatrical origins are entirely evident in the dialogue-heavy and character-centric plot that dares to examine the roles of both the wife and the mistress.

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“On the night of his engagement party, Tom Collier, a Connecticut publisher, receives an ocean liner radiogram from Daisy Sage, his former lover and best friend, announcing her imminent arrival in New York. After Tom reassures his fiancée, Cecelia Henry, that his interest in Daisy, a commercial artist, is purely friendly, he leaves his party to break the news of his engagement to Daisy. Before Tom can share his news, however, Daisy confesses that, since learning how to paint in Paris, she has decided to pursue serious painting as a career and wants him to go to Mexico with her. Daisy also confesses her desire to marry and have a baby with Tom. Although startled by Daisy’s sudden shift in attitude toward him, Tom tells her about his June wedding and insists that they continue their friendship. Devastated, Daisy refuses the friendship, and Tom returns to Connecticut to marry Cecelia. Months later, Tom sees a posted announcement about Daisy’s first gallery showing in New York. Although Cecelia agrees to go with Tom to the show’s opening, she feigns a headache just before their departure and, using an enticing dressing gown, subtly seduces Tom into staying home with her. Cecilia also persuades Tom to fire the rough-edged “Red” Regan, a washed-up boxer who now works as Tom’s butler. To Tom’s relief, Red, aware that Cecilia disapproves of him, announces that he has been offered another job and wants to quit.

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“Soon after, a lonely and bored Tom visits Daisy in New York to rekindle their friendship. Although grateful for Tom’s honest criticism of her paintings, a still enamored Daisy panics at the thought of being with him and leaves suddenly for Nova Scotia. Later, however, Cecilia telephones Daisy and invites her and two of Tom’s former New York friends, cellist Franc Schmidt and novelist Joe Fiske, to Tom’s overnight birthday party. Curious about Cecilia, Daisy buries her feelings and accepts the invitation. At the party, Daisy criticizes Tom for turning his distinguished publishing company into a pulp fiction factory, a change precipitated by the greedy Cecilia. Daisy then sees Cecilia embracing Owen, her would-be lover and Tom’s lawyer, whom Cecilia has persuaded to engineer a lucrative merger deal for Tom’s publishing house. Disgusted, Daisy abruptly leaves the party and tells Tom that she feels only pity for him. After shutting Tom out of her bedroom as punishment for refusing to accept his domineering father’s offer to move into the family house in New York, Cecilia then plans an intimate dinner for two. Over champagne, Cecilia continues her manipulations until Tom finally sees through her. At last fed up, Tom signs over to Cecilia a generous check that his father had given him as a birthday gift and announces to Red, who has since been rehired, that he is returning to his “wife” in New York.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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The film’s adult story, which never once feels gratuitously shocking, is a rather quiet affair — resting all of the heavy lifting on the shoulders of the characters, which means there’s quite a bit of dialogue. For this reason, the picture’s pace does seem to move with excessive leisure. But this isn’t a detriment to our enjoyment; rather, it’s the expected necessitation for a film whose characters are multi-dimensional (and maybe more realistic than we’d like). Barry was an expert at designing fully-realized characters with grown-up problems and real life foibles. This excitingly Pre-Code piece, which doesn’t flaunt its naughtiness with drugs and booze and death, examines human relationships. Leslie Howard’s character shares a deep emotional bond with former girlfriend (and roommate) Ann Harding, while his marriage to Myrna Loy is based on a carnal concupiscence. Who is the wife and who is the mistress? It takes Howard almost 80 minutes to discover the truth, but it’s worth each moment to see that unfold.

Not surprisingly for a piece with such well-designed characters, much of the film’s success comes as a result of the casting. Howard is ideally placed as the “bohemian” publisher who lives (in sin) with his former girlfriend before deciding to marry a sensual woman of whom his father approves. (The father-son conflict is more prevalent in the play, in which Howard also starred, than in the film.) Most know Howard from his iconic (and slightly miscast) portrayal of Ashley Wilkes, but he’s really in his element here — playing a romantic who “loses his soul” through the animalistic sensualities provided by Loy. She’s an ambitious siren, seducing Howard into selling out with regards to his career, severing ties with his old friends, and living the type of society life which she deems essential. Of course, she has a man on the side…

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The one who gets top billing, however, is Ann Harding, an undersung Pre-Code actress whose presence seems more tame than wild. But make no mistake — her type of honesty played best in the rawer and realer Pre-Code era than in the romantically artificial Post. Her out-of-placeness in films about adultery and crime is wonderfully appropriate; she’s our “foolish virgin — well, foolish anyway.” This line perhaps sums up her appeal best. She may not be the wise girl on the street corner like Joan Crawford, but she’s learned from experiences of her own. Not a raving beauty, her genuine radiance nevertheless manages to be quiet captivating — a formidable opponent to Loy’s lewdly high-class eroticism.

This picture is recommended to all classic film fans, with the proviso that you set yourself ready to watch 85 uninterrupted minutes. Don’t let yourself get distracted — each of the characters are slowly revealed with each scene. It’s an adult film, and one with fascinating truths.

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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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