|Released by First National/Warner Bros.
Directed by Lloyd Bacon
Run time: 67 minutes
Proof That It’s a Pre-Code Film
- There is an affair. It is a notorious one. Or so we’re told– unfortunately, there’s not much sizzle here outside of Kay Francis sitting in front of a fireplace. Which sometimes is enough.
- Paul groans to his mistress, “I think I’m going home.”
She smirks, “Wouldn’t that be a novelty.”
- Kay Francis’ Olga will sleep with anyone or anything that strikes her fancy, from a jockey to the dog breeder. Then she gets bored and moves on.
A Notorious Affair: Bland-in-Bland
“I think I deserve a medal or something. Downtrodden wife sticks to poor violinist through thick and thin. You’ve made me feel very heroic!”
I love watching violinists. I played the violin myself for a few years, and watching Basil Rathbone’s imitation of playing one in A Notorious Affair certainly boosted my ego. Though he never plays anything more complicated than what I could have rattled off in high school, here he becomes a massive star with a buttress of fans and devotees. Good on you, buddy.
This is a movie that we in ‘the biz’* call “a bad one.” The central relationship is tedious and bland, with Rathbone’s Paul being such a misogynist and big whiny baby that no ending, short of him waving goodbye from a berth on the Hindenburg, would make anyone happy.
Rich girl Patricia (Dove) falls for the struggling violinist Paul (Rathbone). Her upstairs pals are aghast, save for Olga (Francis), who sees in Paul a lot of potential, especially during the secluded evening hours.
Paul hits the big time after years of toil with his supportive spouse, and he immediately runs into Olga’s welcoming boudoir. But he has one of those awful plot illnesses, that means he may never play again, needs a desperate surgery, things look bad, etc. Through it, he manages to make sure his wife knows 1) I had a bunch of affairs, 2) you can’t have any, and 3) I need to be waited on hand and foot. Constantly.
It’s really hard to encapsulate just how unlikable Rathbone is in this movie. First, his accent seems to make its way across the continent, barely decipherable in the first act before arriving at its normal British pitch around the 30 minute mark. Paul is never really shown to have a redeeming trait, whiny and pathetic to all women for what amounts to a rather middling talent catering to a massive ego.
Considering this film was meant as a Billie Dove vehicle– the other two stars were borrowed to appear in this First National production– she has the most thankless part possible. Even as she must wrestle with the moral quandary of standing by her awful husband or running away with a bland doctor, there’s no suspense, no drama. Her Patricia hardly shows emotion, shows no scars from her years of sacrifice, and her character is only as deep as the script. Dove gets no lavish treatment from the camera, no beautiful gowns or moments of wit or drive.
Those, apparently, were saved for someone special. Kay Francis easily waltzes away with the picture in a part that catered to her strengths. Her Olga is absolutely carnivorous, working her way up and down the social ladder while gazing magnificently at all her helpless conquests. It’s a delicious role that Francis eats up with glee, making her scenes about the only ones worth investigating.
What interested me is how much she was also like a child, casting men aside with a pout as soon as they bored her. The difference being that Olga had no one to care for her like Patricia. Or, to put it another way, at least Olga had the decency to discharge people she grew bored with. Paul, the film’s romantic lead, doesn’t let his cruelties know any such bounds.
It’s still a bit in the awkward talkie stage, with director Lloyd Bacon reserving what little there is of the film’s visual flair for highlighting the splendid reality of Kay Francis’ aesthetics.
The film’s ending, which I will only describe as deeply, deeply unlikely, is the last wet fart that the movie lets out before slinking away. This thing is just as limp and lifeless as the music that Paul plays to captivated audiences. Then again, there are never any crowd shots; maybe they were just asleep.
* ‘The biz’, as I refer to it here, may be defined as a bunch of dumb nerds writing endlessly on the internet for our own enjoyment.
Screen Capture Gallery
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Other Reviews, Trivia, and Links
- TCMDB, besides noting that the Times and Variety pretty much line up with my own opinions on the film, adds this juicy tidbit:
During the time that she was making the film Billie Dove was having A Notorious Affair of her own with Howard Hughes. Hughes was so in love with Dove that he offered her husband, director Irvin Willat, $35,000 ($450,000 in 2008 dollars) to divorce her. Although Dove later cut off the relationship she would later claim that Hughes was the only man she had ever really loved.
- KayFrancisFilms.com has a ton of stills and ephemera about the film, notes, “it was Kay, who provided “the most disturbing performance since Hell’s Angels” in one critic’s mind.”
- Screen Snapshots also doubles down on Kay:
To say that Kay Francis steals the film would be a vast Titanic sized understatement to say the least. She gets the best lines, the most striking close ups, the most shimmering lighting and the swankiest of fashions. Best of all, you can tell that she knows she has a choice role as she is absolutely, jaw-droppingly outrageous in the movie. As a vamp, she about the closest to a hungry eyed, drooling she-wolf you are ever likely to see. Despite not really being in much of the film, she completely eclipses our nominal star, the rather lovely Billie Dove. It’s not that Dove isn’t good, because she does very well but her saintly heroine just can’t compete against Francis’ vulpine sexual predator.
- When the normally generous Laura of Laura’s Misc. Musings notes, “on the plus side, the movie wraps up in just 69 minutes”, you know you should probably skip it.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film is available on Amazon due to Warner Archive. Thanks to Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this film.