Proof That It’s Pre-Code:
- We start at a table with one woman telling this rhyme she’d just heard: “There was an old man from Nantucket…”
- Booze is back and better than ever! There’s scenes in a speakeasy and an film long infatuation with champagne.
- Another movie with tons of can can dancing, with underwear and all. The film lingers on a lady’s behind: “A little bit of Paris!” This time we even go to the Moulin Rouge for it!
- Backstage at Broadway the clothes just seem to fall right off.
- Although everyone is too polite to say anything, a couple of characters have pretty severe gambling addictions.
- Someone gets away with murder. Again.
Hey, it’s Kay Francis! Again!
This is the seventh Kay Francis movie I’ve watched for this project, which is impressive when you realize that I’m only nearing my 50th review, not so impressive when I reveal that Francis did about 40 movies between 1929 and 1935 and I’ll probably end up reviewing each one of those to boot.
It’s strange that less than a year ago I only knew her for Trouble in Paradise; now I’m kind of amazed at her skill and poise. She can play young and naive, she can play old and experienced, she can play in the middle and witty.
And whaddya know? She gets to do all three in The House on 56th Street.
It’s a melodrama with a capital ‘M’, and has Kay go through the ringer. She manages to lose in the course of the film, not one, but three lovers. One of those deaths results in a lengthy prison sentence for Kay, and it’s up to her to rebuild her life afterward.
To pile it on, we also get a heaping spoonful of the Frisco Jenny plot where the child grew up separate from the mother and doesn’t recognize them later in life. When the mother reenters their lives, the mothers are duty bound to keep their maternal toil a secret, and instead, after already having sacrificed the child once, they must do so again.
I have no idea why this particular plot line was so popular in the 30’s besides the easy tragedy. This plot line has was strangely gender swapped in Whirlpool, where the man comes back after faking his own death, but here he actually reveals his identity after some prodding; why the women never seem to get such a payoff is puzzling.
I suppose I could launch more into the plot here, but it’s honestly dizzying. It’s enjoyable in that way, but also scatterbrain: Kay’s character, Peggy, starts off as a chorus girl on stage in the Follies of 1905. In case you wonder how 1933 views 1905, it seems to be a rather stolid affair, mostly centered on endless repititions of the song, “Strolling Through The Park One Day.”
Peggy is caught in a love triangle with an older man she deeply respects (John Halliday) and a young, dashing Proto-Van Johnson (Gene Raymond). She ends up going with young and dashing, and gets accepted by his mother despite the fact that she’s an actor and all. She has a kid, and then, tragedy! The older man returns to her life and threatens to kill himself. During the battle for the gun, it goes off, he’s dead, and she’s convicted of murder.
That’s the first half of the movie. The next part involves her stay in women’s prison, which looks a lot like an old folk’s home, and her exit from the institution. She gets into gambling, meets a guy, falls in love, and gets reinvolved with her daughter’s life. Of course, her daughter thinks she’s dead, so things complicate themselves naturally.
In the film’s favor, it does have an absolutely wicked sense of irony, though its continued punishment of Peggy for nothing more than her inability to withhold love is a bit mystifying. Francis’s acting is surprisingly sublime by 1933, as she goes from coquette to sexy grandma with grace and believability.
As for the filmmaking, there are some invigorating shots as Kay reenters society in the ’20’s, and it’s always cool to see Times Square putter along so many decades ago. The affair gets some sumptuous photography, but nothing flashy or determinedly interesting.
And that might just be the whole curse of The House on 56th Street. As good as Ms. Francis is, the movie never pushes any other buttons. It’s a good drama for this time, but it’s nothing worth getting worked up about.