SPOTLIGHT: Flaming Pre-Code Francis (II)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation 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 started last week with Guilty Hands (1931). Today…

 

24 Hours (1931)

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A nightclub singer is carrying on an affair with a married man. When she is found murdered, her lover is suspected of the crime. Starring Clive Brook, Kay Francis, Miriam Hopkins, and Regis Toomey. Screenplay by Louis Weitzenkorn. From the play by Will D. Lengle and Lew Levenson. Based on the novel by Louis Bromfield. Directed by Marion Gering. My sentiments regarding this film are very mixed. A dark tale of unhappy characters played by great performers (including the wicked Lucille LaVerne), 24 Hours is a real treat to watch for its sheer depravity. On the other hand, the script sort of lets down the audience in the way the story is focused. (But I’ve read neither the play nor the novel on which the film is based, so perhaps my dislike extends to the source material itself.) Nevertheless, it boasts great stuff for fans of both our spotlighted heroine Kay Francis and our former spotlighted diva Miriam Hopkins.

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At a party at eleven o’clock on a snowy night in New York, millionaire James Morton Towner and his wife Fanny discuss their failing marriage, which is due, in part, to his drinking. Jim leaves early, and just before he reaches Jake’s speakeasy, he sees a man shot and carried into the bar. Meanwhile, Fanny is escorted home by David Melbourn, with whom she has been having an affair. Fanny breaks off her relationship with David, although she believes that she can no longer stay with her husband. From the speakeasy, Jim goes to a nightclub, where he sits at a private table with Rosie Dugan, a beautiful singer. Rosie appreciates Jim because he always behaves like a gentleman, even when he is drunk, unlike her ex-convict husband, Tony “Sicily” Bruzzi. That night at the club, Tony asks Rosie to take him back. Aware that he is responsible for the murder that took place in front of Jake’s, she takes Tony’s gun and has the bouncer throw him out. Jim goes home with Rosie and falls asleep on her chaise lounge, while she prepares for sleep in her bedroom. When she hears footsteps arriving at the apartment, she locks the door to Jim’s room and hides the key in her cold cream.

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“Tony enters, enraged, intending to kill Jim, but Rosie refuses to give him the key to the room. In an ensuing struggle, Tony strangles Rosie to death and then runs away. In the morning, Jim wakes up from a deep drunken slumber, and when Rosie does not respond to his knocks, breaks down the door to her bedroom, where he finds her dead. Jim regrets his drunkenness, realizing that he otherwise may have heard her screams, and leaves the apartment. Later, Tony is murdered by gangster Dave the Slapper for killing one of Dave’s gang members. Jim is arrested for Rosie’s murder after police find his cufflinks in her apartment. Fanny reads of his arrest in the paper and goes to him at the police station, where she promises to stay by him, even though she suspects he may have committed the crime while he was drunk. Although Jim is released when police find Tony’s fingerprints on a liquor bottle from Rosie’s apartment, he decides to go away and allow Fanny to find happiness with someone else. He is surprised when Fanny joins him on the cruise ship and asks him to return to her. She says that if Rosie Dugan loved him drunk, she will also, although she knows their relationship will be uphill all the way. At eleven that night, they toast to his last drink.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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The film is very Pre-Code. From the wonderful opening credits (and though they’re often quite generic, a good title sequence can do a lot for establishing a film’s tone, such is the case here) to the high contrast way in which every frame seems lit, we know we’re watching a tale of deliciously seedy characters; it’s a modern story with adult figures, and their unhappiness, though perhaps magnified, is relatable. Essentially, it’s dark, it’s gritty, it’s fabulous: everything we want from a 1931 film. As usual, the premise is ripe with stuff you wouldn’t see five years later. Both Brook and Francis (the married couple) are having affairs because their marriage is falling apart, largely due to his alcoholism. He is sleeping around with a nightclub singer (singers always make for great mistresses in Pre-Code films) who ends up being murdered by her jealous estranged husband. And, as the title indicates, all of this takes place in a 24 hour period.

What I personally found lacking in the story was the way Francis’ character was treated — not by the characters, but by the script: one would anticipate more coverage than what 24 Hours actually gives us of her. She’s very nuanced and effective in her scenes (mostly in the beginning of the picture), but an exploration of her richly multi-dimensional character is not a priority. Perhaps, it doesn’t need to be (for the story the film wants to tell), but with such a fine set-up, the fact that we don’t see more of her is a definite disappointment. Meanwhile, her lack of coverage is endemic to the picture as a whole. While undoubtedly Pre-Code, it’s almost surprising to see this film, which boasts two dynamic and strong ladies, centered around the males. As most of the films produced (and covered here) from the era were concerned with rendering what Mick LaSalle called “complicated women,” this picture is all about the “dangerous men.” And that’s certainly not a detriment, but with Francis and Hopkins, it’s impossible not to want them to get the most to do.

Miriam Hopkins in

However, I’m not complaining about Hopkins’ coverage. In fact, she gets better material than Kay Francis — and with a flashier role to boot. Hopkins is the philandering singer, who gets two men, two songs, and a death scene! And she’s fantastic — surprisingly so, given how early this was in her career. Then again, this should come as no surprise, since all of the films we’d covered in our Hopkins series featured indelible performances from its leading lady. As for 24 Hours, it’s blessed with two female dynamos, both of whom are quite good in their roles. But there’s not enough Francis, and the story would have benefited if we got a little bit deeper into her character’s psyche.

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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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2 thoughts on “SPOTLIGHT: Flaming Pre-Code Francis (II)

    • Hi, Robert. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      June 2013 was when I began blogging. All posts are available and can be accessed from the right column on the home page.

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