|The Marriage Playground (1929)
Running Time: 70 Minutes
Dir. Lothar Mendes
Cast: Mary Brian, Fredric March, Lilyan Tashman, Kay Francis
Genre: Drama Romance
Screening Time: Sunday, May 14, 2017 at 3:40 p.m.
A very interesting pre-Code romantic comedy-drama. Mix three couples, several divorces, seven children, and more than a splash of gin, and stir.
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Here are the quickest 75 minutes of your life. A delightful pre-code cocktail recipe. Take three couples (add gin and tonic), their several divorces and the seven children/stepchildren of their intermarriages and blend thoroughly, and you have a mixture a too-young-to-believe Frederic March will try to straighten out.
Whew! That said, let me straighten out a possibly intentional preconception. These sophisticated couples, with an early flirting reference, seem to be playing to the naughty implication of the title. You'll comprehend the title once you've met the kids, because they are the heart of this film. Now a cast including Frederic March, Lilyan Tashman, Kay Francis and Seena Owens giving great performances can't be upstaged, right? Well this batch is the best I've seen. They steal every scene and are given lines which mirror just what you're thinking. And they deliver them like bullets. It's timed like some successful stage play where the comedy has been closely honed in front of an audience. March is doing his job just keeping a straight face!
It all works thanks to a wide open Mary Brian as the oldest (17) of the kids. Her full throttle approach to the role locks all the elements together. She has to work vigorously to keep stability in the kids custodial situation. Indeed, spying on her charges, she discovers them playing Divorce Court.
Director Lothar Mendes loaded the film with brilliant touches. Mary Brian as Judy has a full, puffy coiffure while the other females have close, short hairstyles. The eternally effeminate William Austin's on hand to be Kay Francis' "big, strong (rich) man". Mitzi Green teaches him what its like to be a father, making him her pony. The children interface with adults on adult terms, playing them like violins. I won't disclose some delicious scenes as they should be yours to discover. Have fun!
I have read many of Edith Wharton's novels and I have found "The Children" to be the one I liked least. It told the story of a group of children, products of the marriages of a group of wealthy jet setters who party their way across Europe. The children, under the guidance of the eldest, Judith Wheater, are being raised, trying to keep them all together. The narrator, Martin Boyne, finds himself falling in love with Judith, and I thought it a bit too much – Boyne was in his 40s and Judith, at the start of the novel was 14!! I just wondered how a film would work but with Kay Francis, Mary Brian, Lilyan Tashman and Mitzi Green I was intrigued and I have to say it worked very well.
After a run-in with a group of unruly children Martin Boyne (Frederic March) makes the acquaintance of the eldest, Judy (Mary Brian) and finds her father, Cliff Wheater, was an old school friend. He also finds out that all the children are the offspring of his friend's different marriages – boy is he "reeling"!!! Judy is determined to keep all the children together, she even gives them lessons, she wants to give them a real home. The children are boisterous and gorgeous there's Blanca (Anita Louise) who is in such a hurry to grow up, precocious Zinny (Mitzi Green) and sickly Terry (Phillipe De Lacy) among them.
"Are you forgetting I'm the mother of your children" says saucy Lilyan Tashman, when she is accused of flirting. "No" replies Wheeler "but I guess they have"!!! Martin promises Judy he will stay longer than planned and help her parents patch things up for the sake of the children – so they will not have the constant fear of being separated. A disruption is caused by the arrival of Zinnia DeCross (Kay Francis) mother of Zinnie, who wants to take her away. By the time Zinnie gets through "befriending" her new stepfather (William Austin) he will be happy if he never sees her again!!
This movie is such a lot of fun, helped along by Mary Brian, who outshines everyone with her portrayal of Judy, going up so fast yet still enough of a kid to be put out when Zinnia gives her present to Blanca instead. Brian proved she had more in her than her title of "the sweetest girl in movies" seemed to indicate. This was the first film of Mitzi Green who became very popular as one of the first "movie brats" of the thirties, she often co-starred with Jackie Searl. Anita Louise was an exquisite child star who portrayed Greta Garbo as a child in "A Woman of Affairs". She never really went through an "awkward" age and was popular right through the 30s in films like "Marie Antoinette" and "The Sisters". Phillipe De Lacy was popular in the 20s, he played in 2 Garbo films – "Flesh and the Devil" and "Love".
Seena Owen was obviously typical of the silent stars who with a huge career behind them found they just couldn't handle dialogue. As Martin's mercenary fiancée Rose, she sounded stilted and recited her part with no feeling.
I am eager to see all of Fredric March's pre-1940 films. Some of them are brilliant. Others are just OK, but his performance is always top-notch, regardless of the material. Or so I thought. If this were the first time someone was seeing March, they would never know he was a professional actor.
Mary Brian plays March's college friend's daughter. A series of marriages and divorces has left a large collection of children in her primary care. She is only seventeen. After a whacky meeting on the beach, the young girl and the kids are all smitten with March. However, March's character is engaged to a widow he has allegedly loved for a long time. You see where this is going. The age difference is supposed to seem acceptable, though March initially protests, and viewers are left to see which woman he finally chooses to marry.
If you want to see young Mitzi Green, with her loud mouth, or young Anita Louise, you might enjoy this film. Lilyan Tashman always turned in a good performance when playing a villain. The delightful Kay Francis is less than enjoyable here though. Mary Brian is probably the best performer in the cast, but I didn't like her character. March's devotion to the children seems unnatural, and I couldn't see him as a believable husband to either woman. I came in wanting to like this film, but after viewing it, I don't understand the good reviews it got at the time.
The other three reviews thus far seem to be addressing a different film altogether. The pacing here is funereal, the actors don't act their lines, they speak them, slowly and haltingly, as if we were at a first rehearsal of a high school drama performance. There is no talent to speak of, even Kay Francis is subdued. Fredric March is embarrassingly bad. Some of the facial expressions are truly laughable.
I have not yet read the novel, THE CHILDREN, from which this is derived, but I doubt it was a comedy. Irresponsible playboy/girl rich adults behaving like children and leaving a wake of seven stepchildren in their entourage, constantly being torn apart, as the adults switch marriage partners, yearning to remain together as siblings – hardly stuff of comedy – perhaps it was a further indication of the distorted times during which the film was made that it was adapted in this fashion.
This was remade in France in 1990 under its original title, but the film is not available on DVD for comparison.
A real chore to sit through and a colossal bore to boot.