Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! As previously teased, this month’s Pre-Code entry serves as the relaunch of our series on notable non-essentials, which will alternate randomly with the Essentials. These films, though not in possession of some of the qualities that might make them worthy of being called seminal representations of the genre, are nevertheless entertaining and worthy of our attention. Today we’re looking at…
The Guardsman (1931)
A jealous husband dons a disguise to test his wife’s fidelity. Starring Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Roland Young, ZaSu Pitts, Maude Eburne, and Herman Bing. From the play by Ferenc Molnar. Screen play by Ernest Vajda. Continuity by Claudine West. Directed by Sidney Franklin. Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
“Following their performance of Elizabeth the Queen, the Actor (Lunt) and the Actress (Fontanne), who have been married for six months, take their bows while exchanging mild insults under their breath. The Actor’s jabs soon give way to jealous accusations of unfaithfulness, however, when he senses that his wife has already grown tired of him, her seventh husband, and is looking for her eighth. The Actor tells his friend, the critic Bernhardt (Young), that he believes that she has been unfaithful to him. Knowing that his wife is fond of men in uniform, the Actor decides to disguise himself as a uniformed Russian guardsman and try to woo her in order to prove to himself that she can be easily seduced. After sending her flowers, the Actor waits for his wife’s reaction, and then tries to get her to admit that she is courting a secret lover. Apparently fooled by her husband’s disguise, the Actress tosses him a note accepting his request for a meeting. Later, in order to induce his wife’s secret rendezvous with the Russian prince, the Actor tells her that he has been called away to play in Hamlet and will return the following day. That evening, after the Actor bids her farewell, the Actress immediately begins dressing to meet her paramour. When the Actor returns, disguised as the Soviet prince, he engages in a conversation with the Actress about her husband.
“The Actress tells the Actor that her husband is intelligent and handsome, and after she informs him that he has left her alone until the next day, she asks him to stay. Upset, the Actor begins to act in a brutish manner, until she calls out for her maid (ZaSu Pitts). The Actor is overjoyed by her resistance and her assurance that she loves her husband, but before she sends him away, she tells him to meet her at the opera that night. Following the opera, the Actor escorts her home, where she kisses him but tells him that she does not wish to see him again. He rejoices over his apparent victory, but his elation is soon ended when she throws down the keys to her room. Though the Actor accepts her invitation, she spurns him once again and tells him that her jealous husband will soon be home. After leaving the apartment, the Actor removes his disguise, returns as her husband and, while reapplying his disguise in the next room, tells his wife of his supposed trip. When he re-emerges as the Russian guardsman, she laughs and tells him that she knew who he was from the first moment she saw him in his disguise. The Actress’ meaningful nod and smile to Bernhardt, however, betrays the truth.” (This is an adaptation of a summary that comes courtesy of TCM.)
The prime appeal of The Guardsman is that it’s the only opportunity to see (and hear) theatre legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne starring together on the big screen. (They made cameos in 1943’s Stage Door Canteen, but this is their only starring, talking, appearance.) For this reason alone, the film merited mention on this blog, although I’m happy to report that it’s also an entertaining watch in its own right. Produced by Irving Thalberg at M-G-M, the signing of Lunt and Fontanne was part of a concerted effort to add major theatrical talent to the studio’s growing roster of stars, especially as the industry’s introduction of sound necessitated performers with both dramatic presence and a trained vocal delivery. It was hoped The Guardsman would launch a successful screen career for this talented twosome, and both critical and commercial reception to their performances were indeed laudatory — earning both Academy Award nominations. However, the performers were less enthusiastic about the experience, disliking the heavy hand of Thalberg, who fancied himself an auteur, and the studio machine, which they believed mitigated the intended spontaneity of their work. After shooting wrapped, the pair went back to New York and the realm in which they felt freer.
However, any sense of unease or discomfort felt by these two stage veterans is not evident on the screen. For while they both certainly come across as creatures of the theatre — a sensibility reinforced by the constraints of both the script and the production — they’re so committed to the story they’re telling that it leaves the audience with no choice but to invest emotionally in their performances, forgetting the mechanics in favor of the results. At least, that’s how it would have been in 1931. Today, because we’re watching the film as a time capsule of sorts, not only of the Pre-Code era, but as a shining example of the work done by two renowned performers whose legacy otherwise exists in slowly fading individual memories that we’ll never know, we do tend to think more about the “smoke and mirrors” of their work. In other words, we watch The Guardsman because we want to see if these actors are as good as their reputations would lead us to believe. The answers is, generally, yes, but this affirmative answer only exists in tandem with our recognition of The Guardsman as that time capsule; a major part of the sustaining magic in their collective performance is that it represents something we’ll never be able to touch, with this film as the closest we can come to doing so.
All this blather might lead you to believe that the film’s charms are totally dependent on novelty, with questionable quality in support. Now, I noted above that the film’s prime appeal is said novelty, but fortunately, it doesn’t exist in the absence of substance. In fact, the performances of the two leads do indeed help contribute to why this film is worth your time. I suppose impressions about the nature of Lunt and Fontanne’s talents (as suggested here) will vary based on the individual, but as for my thoughts… I believe their mutually theatrical timbres, while not uncommonly witnessed during this era of filmmaking, inevitably reveal that their performances are not enhanced by an omniscient presence who dictates what images tell the story — you know, in the way that Joan Crawford or Greta Garbo, for instance, benefited from having their work contextualized by key visuals. (Essentially, Lunt and Fontanne don’t use the camera as a performative tool, the way the best screen stars either naturally, or eventually learn, to do.) These folks come from the stage, and although they don’t seem terribly out-of-place in this time, their origins plainly show, and we can’t pretend otherwise. However, any sense of theatrical stylization only comes to aid the story itself, which finds them both playing legends of the stage. (And it should be noted that the film opens with the duo in a scene from Maxwell Anderson’s Elizabeth the Queen, which the actors also played on Broadway shortly before making this picture.) In this regard, The Guardsman was the perfect vehicle to use as their debut, for they could maintain their personal aesthetics while adapting to the new medium.
As for Lunt, he shares traits with other stage giants like John Barrymore and Laurence Olivier. In addition to a melodic vocalization, he uses his physicality as the primary means of establishing character — essentially building a performance from the outside-in. With a story of this nature, perhaps this is to be anticipated, but even in this 80-minute sample, one sees that there are tools on which Lunt most relies — his hands and his eyes, both of which he uses intently and intensely. To our modern eyes, we might consider it animated or hammy (and I certain feel that way about a lot of Barrymore’s performances, actually), but it has an important effect on his work, because his vigor translates as virility, crafting a more masculine presence than is often seen from the other two gents. His divine masculinity is balanced deliciously by the feminine qualities established by Fontanne, who, incidentally, comes across as the more natural of the two. In contrast to her husband, she tends to let things play out on her face, and with not as much energy registering impulsively throughout her body. This seems to imbue in her a sense of sophistication and refinement, which in turn makes her surprisingly sexy. I say “surprisingly” because she’s neither slinky nor seductive, in the way that most screen queens of the era could be described (or at least tried to be), but her glamour is of the solid “old world” variety — she’s all woman. And because he’s all man, their chemistry becomes electric.
If this sounds pretty hot, then I’m painting the right picture. However, you might be wondering why The Guardsman, this risqué flick with a pair of chemistry-laden leads, isn’t considered one of my Pre-Code Essentials. I’ll explain. As an adaptation of a 1911 Hungarian play that the duo played on the Broadway stage in 1924, The Guardsman is a classic early 20th century farce about a jealous husband donning a disguise to test his wife’s fidelity. Sex is at the heart of the premise, making it appropriate Pre-Code fare, but it no more represents the genre than any other play from the 1910s would. In other words, one doesn’t get the sense in watching this picture that it is a unique embodiment of Pre-Code ideals or an image of how people at the time viewed American morality. Rather, it seems just like an adaptation of a predictable (and European) early 20th century play starring famous early 20th century actors. That’s the thrust, that’s the appeal — it’s more highfalutin prestige (the Russian royalty is Exhibit A) than common man Pre-Code, and to pretend that I enjoy The Guardsman as a Pre-Code would be untrue. I enjoy it because of its stars — both the novelty and their work. The Pre-Codeness is incidental.
That noted, there are definitely Pre-Code elements to be found here. First, sex motivates the entire premise. Additionally, questions of morality remain nebulous and unanswered, for although one could write Lunt’s character off as being jealously controlling (a trait fueled by his aforementioned masculinity), the picture is careful to ensure that he has justification from his new wife for being suspicious of her actions. Also, the nature of the wife’s knowledge regarding the Russian prince’s identity is kept purposely ambiguous, although we could most likely agree that her final look indicates that she really thought she was being seduced by a stranger, and therefore was perfectly content riding the figurative road to infidelity. These naughty themes are all reinforced within the films of this era, and even though this picture doesn’t espouse them as its primary concern, they exist here nobly. And even if they didn’t, this film would still be recommendable due to the leading players, which, as noted above, is the reason this film is worth seeking. It’s not on DVD, but it is on VHS and still pops up on TCM. If you have the chance, see it. It’s a fascinating exhibit of theatrical titans on celluloid.
Come back next week for another Wildcard Wednesday! And tune in on Tuesday for my thoughts on the best from the final season of Married… With Children!