SPOTLIGHT: Cunning Pre-Code Bennett (V)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the conclusion of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the unjustly neglected Constance Bennett (1904-1965), whose work we’d never covered before here on Film Friday! So far in our Bennett series, we’ve featured The Easiest Way (1931), What Price Hollywood? (1932), Our Betters (1933), and Bed Of Roses (1933). Today…


Moulin Rouge (1934)


A woman poses as a French singing sensation to convince her husband of her talent. Starring Constance Bennett, Franchot Tone, and Tullio Carminati. By Nunnally Johnson and Henry Lehrman. Based on a play by Lyon de Bri. Directed by Sidney Lanfield.
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“Douglas Hall, a Broadway writer, and his wife Helen love each other, but their argument over Helen’s desire to resume her stage career, which ended five years earlier, threatens to end their marriage. When the scandalous, sensational French star Raquel is hired for Douglas’ new show, Helen recognizes her from her photograph as Jill Williams, with whom she used to have a sister act in vaudeville. When Helen visits Jill, now a blonde with a phony French accent, Jill suggests that Helen impersonate her during rehearsals so that producers and agents will see her talent and Douglas will be able to recognize her abilities. While Jill goes to Atlantic City with her lover Rameau, Helen as “Raquel,” flirts with the show’s producer, Victor “Vicky” La Maire, who falls in love with her despite Douglas’ warning about falling for an entertainer. When Douglas, who is annoyed that Helen has disappeared, congratulates “Raquel” on her performance, his uncontrollable attraction to her leads to a passionate kiss, and they make a date for that night. Greatly upset, but excited nevertheless, Helen faces the prospect of testing her husband’s faithfulness: if he tries to make love to her, she will know that he is unfaithful; yet if he does not, she will think she has lost her appeal to him.


“That night, under the pretext of talking up Vicky to Helen, Douglas falls into a passionate embrace with her on the terrace, while Vicky plays a romantic song from inside. On opening night, Douglas suggests to Helen that they go away together the next night. Helen decides to leave that night, but Jill is delayed in returning. While Helen goes on as Raquel, Douglas, who confesses his misgivings to Vicky, writes her a note. After Jill returns, her husband, a French senator, interrupts her conversation with Helen and drags Jill into a taxi. Douglas and Vicky see them and follow, while unknown to them, Helen continues the show. When they return and Helen reveals her real identity to Douglas, he apologizes for doubting her performing ability. Helen calls this the “wrong” apology, and she is perturbed until she sees his note to “Raquel,” which says that he still loves his wife. While still acting coy to each other, they play together on the piano the song that Helen sang in the show, and after Douglas says that he knew she was “Raquel,” she calls him a liar.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)


First, this picture has absolutely no connection to any of the other films titled Moulin Rouge. In fact, the film isn’t even set in France; rather, it’s just an excuse for Constance Bennett to play a dual role — an American wife and a Parisian star. When the wife poses as her sister, “Racquel”, to convince husband Franchot Tone of her talent, Tone becomes attracted to the French chanteuse. It’s a rather run-of-the-mill sex comedy, made livelier by the performance of our spotlighted starlet, who once again proves her versatility in both comedy and tragedy, and deserves great credit for creating two separate characters — three rather, since Helen’s Raquel is a character all on her own. Meanwhile, she and Tone, playing the same role that he always plays, are a believable couple — uppercrust, elite, and always impeccably groomed. But while this has been described as a sex comedy, there’s not a whole lot of sex. It’s all pretty tame — almost everything is played comedically, and again, it’s simply a showcase for Bennett. Thus, if you’re a fan of her work (and if you’re reading today’s post, the chances are likely) you’ll enjoy the film.


Mention must also be made of the two outstanding numbers by Harry Warren and Al Dubin (best known for the score from 1933’s 42nd Street and all the other songs that would go in the original 1980 Broadway production). The first is the more well known “The Boulevard Of Broken Dreams,” sung twice by “Raquel.” The second is a number I’d never had the pleasure of hearing before this film, “Coffee In The Morning” (a clip of this number is included below). Bennett gets to sing both of them — and she’s divine, actually. (We’d heard her sing before in What Price Hollywood?) The musical sequences, which could feel unnecessary, are the picture’s highest point; it’s a thin story, and a few good numbers allows the action to extend itself. And, for trivia buffs, look for a young Lucille Ball in the dancing ensemble.

This a harmless and admittedly enjoyable way to spend 70-minutes. And for Bennett fans, again, Moulin Rouge is a must.

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