SPOTLIGHT: Flaming Pre-Code Francis (I)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the start of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the unjustly under-praised Kay Francis (1905-1968), one of the most popular Warner Brothers stars of the 1930s. Known today as “Kay Fwancis” for her distinguished speech impediment, I am of the opinion that Kay Francis is nevertheless one of the decade’s most natural and captivating leading ladies. We covered one of her little known Post-Code films, The Goose And The Gander (1935), in our series on 1935, but the only Pre-Code picture of hers that we’ve featured is the divine Trouble In Paradise (1932), which is among my favorite films. There are 11 more Pre-Code Francis pictures that I want to cover here. We start with…

 

Guilty Hands (1931)

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A district attorney tries to frame an innocent girl for the murder he committed. Starring Lionel Barrymore, Kay Francis, Madge Evans, William Bakewell, C. Aubrey Smith, and Polly Moran. Screenplay and story by Bayard Veiller. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke. Lionel Barrymore plays a district attorney who attempts to literally show us how to get away with murder (when his daughter intends to marry a cad) in this fast-paced film that turns the ‘whodunit?’ genre on its ear; this is a clear ‘will he get away with it?’ Blessed with a solid cast, a great premise, and a terribly clever script, this is a uniquely engaging picture, despite some conspicuous flaws.

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“Richard Grant, a lawyer who served as District Attorney of New York for ten years, believes that murder is justifiable under certain circumstances. Richard’s daughter Barbara, who adores her father, takes him to an island off the Atlantic coast, where they will be the guests of the wealthy playboy Gordon Rich. Upon their arrival, Gordon, an old friend and former client of Richard’s, tells the lawyer that he wants to change his will because he is about to be married. When Richard learns that Gordon plans to wed his daughter, he objects to it and reminds the roué that he knows all about the “accident” many years ago in which a former bride of his fell to her death from a high-rise balcony. Because he fears for his daughter’s safety, Richard warns Gordon that he will kill him before he sees him marry Barbara. Later, Gordon forces Barbara to reject the affections of Tommy, a young man who is in love with her. Richard’s attempt to convince his daughter of Gordon’s unsuitability proves useless.

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“At Gordon’s dinner party, his engagement to Barbara is announced, and Marjorie West, Gordon’s secret lover, shows her displeasure at the news. Later that night, the suspicious Gordon orders two of his servants to follow Richard, and instructs them to report to him if he leaves his room. Gordon then writes a note to the police in which he names Richard as his murderer in the event that he is found dead. Richard manages leave his room undetected and then sneaks into Gordon’s study, shoots him, and makes it appear as if the host committed suicide. Marjorie screams when she discovers the body and immediately insists that Gordon was murdered. After Richard tells Barbara that Gordon may have killed himself because he couldn’t live with the shame of having wronged so many women, he is shocked when she tells him that she decided not to marry him prior to his death. Richard tries to pin the murder on Marjorie, but she discovers the imprint of Gordon’s note to the police on his desk blotter, as well as the props Richard used to make it appear as if he were still in his room during the murder…” (This shortened summary — in an effort to maintain suspense — is brought to you by TCM.)

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Modern viewers may find the film shockingly contemporary for its decision to structure the story around an interesting protagonist who, despite earning our sympathy and support (we want him to get away with the murder), grows more detestable as the picture progresses. This notion of the complicated antihero, and the ways in which an audience’s favor can be alternativly manipulated, is something that is so over-explored right now that it, at least in my mind, has become passé. But it’s different to watch an 80+ year old film negotiate the premise; it’s almost as if we’re seeing it for the first time. (Although, I should like to point out for newcomers to the Pre-Code genre, these complicated narrative phenomenons are entirely more common than you would expect. Part of what makes the films produced from 1930-1934 so engrossing is their mature renderings of character and story. This is but one example.) Thus, the film most succeeds in its depiction of the Barrymore character, who, because of his portrayer, is inherently likable, and because of the shading of his target, is given a completely understandable motive. In fact, when Barrymore declares that he can commit the perfect murder, we want him to do it.

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But then enters Kay Francis as the victim’s secret mistress. Given her complicit duplicity, the expectation is that she’d be an unlikable character. In fact, it’s just the opposite: she’s just as sympathetic a figure as Barrymore — and with an equally hard edge that works for the film’s enticing visual darkness. (And note that this is a very well framed and lit picture. Consistently nice to watch.) It is Francis’ character that works to manipulate our perceptions of Barrymore’s, as he slowly becomes the film’s villain. We are shocked when he decides to frame her for the murder, and then delight when she figures out Barrymore’s technique for making it appear like he has a sound alibi. By now, we’ve come to dislike Barrymore — partly because we learn that Madge Evans’ character no longer intended to marry the victim, thus negating the necessity of the murder. When we come to the part of the film in which Barrymore blackmails Francis, we’re desperately hoping that he gets his just desserts. Does he? Well, I won’t spoil it for those who have yet to see the film.

As mentioned in the introduction, the picture is not without its weaknesses. The most notable flaw is the theatricality of the performances. Now, you all know that I love a good piece of theatre, and since this film plays a lot like a black box murder mystery, I’m not opposed to performances of an accompanying style. At the same time, I am unable to support acting choices that I feel are inorganic, and several of the big performers in Guilty Hands (Barrymore, Francis, and Evans, in particular) all have moments that do not ring true. As you might expect, this undermines the complexities of their characters, making them all a little bit less multi-dimensional than they would otherwise appear. As it stands, Barrymore’s character is the most developed, and the performance, to his credit, works much more often than anticipated. But the sexual undercurrent that runs under Evans’ character is never fully realized, and even our spotlighted star is not above overplaying in an unnecessary attempt to amp up the drama. Yet while there are a handful of individual moments that don’t land, the performances are collectively effective.

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On the whole, this is a strong picture featuring a unique premise that takes its audience on a non-predictable ride. (Wait till you see that ending!) The performers are top-notch, and despite a few contrivances, the cast does an electric job of making the story even more engrossing than it would appear on paper. Kay Francis is imperative to our evolving perceptions of Barrymore as the protagonist, and as evidenced by this film, the more Francis, the better. It’s Barrymore’s picture, but he couldn’t have done it without her. So, in short, this film is recommended.

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Come back next Friday for another Francis Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment! 

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