|Run Time: 98 min. | b/w
Director: Richard Boleslawski
Stars: Joan Crawford, Robert Montgomery, William Powell, Frank Morgan
Genres: Comedy | Drama
A highly entertaining mix of high society and jewel thieves, from Frederick Lonsdale’s hit play. One of Crawford’s most popular vehicles, and the hit of a Raiding the Vaults at Eastman House weekend in Rochester, NY, some years ago.
Budget: $741,000 (estimated)
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There is a lot of criticism, mostly negative, on this board about this film, which I can't understand. I have never seen the original film version with Norma Shearer, but it appears not to be bowdlerized like this one. But bowdlerized or not, this is a very good film.
It has a first rate cast led by Crawford (who was capable of comedy but opted for dramatic intense roles like Mildred Pierce). As the role calls for her to be compromised by her actions (she has masqueraded as a socialite to be accepted by the jaded aristocrats in order to pull off a jewel robbery) the role is not a slap happy funny part like say Rosalind Russell's Hildy Johnson, but a tonier style of sophisticated comedy. As such it is perfectly fitted to Crawford's screen persona.
As for the jaded aristocrats: Frank Morgan may not do a British accent at all, but his fumbling is pretty good here – he is the richest man in England, and could give an intelligent talk on industrial output or tariffs, but cannot open up his heart to Crawford; Nigel Bruce is another nobleman, who has a randy set of eyes for pretty ladies, and cannot see his wife (Benita Hume) is far too close to her "cousin" (Ralph Forbes). The splendid Jessie Ralph is an aging dowager who befriends Crawford (it is her pearl necklace that Crawford is seeking to steal). She is a lively and likable old lady, and one with a scandalous past (as we eventually learn). But if none of the aristocrats are spotless in character (except possibly the boring Morgan), the other members of the gang are not wonderful. Melville Cooper (pretending to be Crawford's chauffeur) is constantly ready to whip out his handy knife and cut the throat of anyone he thinks is double crossing them.
But the most interesting thing about the casting were the two leading men: Robert Montgomery and William Powell. The two most sophisticated and suave leading men of the golden age of movies only appeared in this one film together. They share only four scenes, but it is remarkable about how smooth the scenes are – like a perfect set of volleyball games with no shots and counter shots missed by either party (and when Crawford joins them she is equally smooth in responding to both her leading men). She had made other films with Montgomery but there were no others after this one. As for Powell, this was there only film together. As such it should be seen for the bright chemistry between the three leads alone, but it is a good comedy on its own.
Many earlier reviewers have said the Crawford was "mis-cast" as Mrs. Cheyney. I have to disagree. It is not her best performance (for her best acting, see her small but scene-stealing role in The Women and for a Crawford feast, see her Oscar-winning turn in Mildred Pierce), but it is far from her worst. The blame cannot be entirely placed on Crawford either. Nor can it be placed on the director. It must be placed on the production code administrators who sheared Hollywood scripts after 1934, cutting out anything considered "risqué." The original play by Fredric Lonsdale is a surprisingly hilarious and fresh send-up of the class sytem in England. Butler and footmen who are actually thieves in disguise get to act veddy propper and then (when the guests leave) get to drop their phony apparel. Its really quite funny. In the play, when Crawford’s would-be suitor catches her at robbery, he forces her to spend a night in the closet with him. This was wonderfully handled in the 1929 Norma Shearer original of this picture. But the production code said that thieves had to always be punished, and sexual actions could not be forced or blackmailed. Thus, this is an extremely bowdlerized version of the play. It is interesting to watch the stars interplay, and I’m a bit surprised that it flopped so largely in 1937. Seeing some of the junk that goes over big nowadays, one would think that with a cast like this and high production values, it would have at least made its mark. See the Norma Shearer version, if you can find it. Unfortunately, its very rare (there is a laser disc version of it on The Dawn of Sound Volume III), but totally worth it. It is risqué and hilarious. Or see Trouble In Paradise, another early pre-Code comedy about jewel thieves, who in that film, don’t have to face punishment for their actions.
Joan Crawford, desperate to get out of her shop girl roles, tries to re-do this Norma Shearer vehicle with somewhat staid results. Not for lack of trying — when she really applied herself and if the part was written and directed well, she shone as clearly seen in GRAND HOTEL or THE WOMEN. The problem lies that the story, that of a jewel thief passing as high society with her partner-in-tow William Powell (who was used to farce and works well here), would have seemed better if Myrna Loy, who had better chemistry with Powell, had taken this part. Somehow something fails here. The comedy is really not all that there, and while Dorothy Arzner was ultimately credited as the director of this film, there were two others, and that makes for some eventual problems which will mar a film.
SPOILERS BELOW ===================== So many criticisms here on the board, but most of them seem to focus on things like bad "ahhccents" and Production Code compliance. To me, such elements are just part of watching a movie from the 1930s — (sort of like heavy-handed social welfare themes and hyper-realism in films from the 1950s.) If you know such stuff bothers you, you shouldn’t be wasting your time on a 1930’s pic (just as I tend to avoid those black & white issues pictures from the ’50s.)
But, if you can see your way past those endemic elements, this is not at all a bad film. The plot’s sort of interesting (I was completely taken in before the big twist about 1/3 of the way into the movie), it has a nice amount of 1930’s "isn’t it just lovely to be rich?" fantasy, the acting is first rate and it’s nice to see Crawford playing a (sort of) nice girl and Powell playing a (sort of) bad guy. In the trivia section it’s said that Myrna Loy was originally supposed to play Crawford’s part. Now, I ADORE Myrna Loy, but I actually think it was more effective to see Crawford here. With Loy and Powell in the movie, you would have known throughout that everything was going to end up light and cheery and romantic because that’s the universe those two inhabit. But with Crawford, you just never know exactly where you’re going — is she going to be a good girl? Will romance overcome greed. Is she suddenly going to shoot someone? Will she go insane? I think she actually added some heft to the storyline.