|Released by Columbia | Directed by David Burton
Run time: 69 minutes
Proof That It’s a Pre-Code Film
- A rich young man is marrying a showgirl. His brother darkly hints, “Do you have to marry her to adore her?”
- “I think I’m entitled to a little grasping on a honeymoon, don’t you?”
- “Drinking, morning, noon and night!”
- The film’s lead couple gets divorced and reconciles.
Brief Moment: Hard Work
“She’s entitled to a real high class guy. Get me?”
“Yeah, Steve, I think I understand.”
“So before you go any further– just be sure you’re high class.”
For anyone who spends much of any time online nowadays, the phrase “check your privilege” is probably as familiar as “call your Senator and beg them not to kill you”. The idea is that you have to consider yourself– everything you’ve had in life– and judge that against both what is given to you and what you’ve really earned. Then, when you pass judgement others, take into consideration their struggles and how your own life has been colored by wealth and bigotry.
Brief Moment is very much a movie about learning to examine your own existence. Even though it’s Carole Lombard with top billing– and the best wardrobe– the plot is very much focused on Rod (Raymond), a rich gadabout who meets a showgirl and falls in love. They’re both thrilled until she realizes he really is sincere about being a rich gadabout and lacks anything in terms of ambition beyond finishing the next pint of gin. (Ladies, seriously, never marry Gene Raymond in one of these things.)
Lombard’s Abby pushes Rod towards stepping back and getting a real job, but he finds it extraordinarily difficult to crawl from the bottle to a book keeping job. His friends, like the pithy Harold (Owsley) and his brother Franklin (Wood), both don’t see the sense of stepping outside of their comfortable lives. They drink, the chat, they go to the racetrack, and tomorrow is the same. In the world of The Depression, a world so full of pain, why deny the opportunity for unending pleasure?
That Brief Moment actually makes the case for hard work is astounding in itself, maybe because it takes the idea of constant pleasure and explains, rightfully, that without any friction, life lacks much meaning. Don’t get me wrong here– there is a difference between excess and comfort, and Rod’s family typifies excess is so many ways. But the movie puts Rod through his paces and sobers him up to the fact that while he has all the marks of success, he never earned them. Without his family name, not even his college degree can land him a job. In the real world, it’s your hunger that makes you more than your skin and bones.
Carole Lombard, who is, of course, primarily remembered as a comedienne, did a number of solid dramatic parts in the early 30s, such as here and in Virtue and No More Orchids. She has a great face for tragedy– her head, titled up and against the light, pulls right to the core of you even when the film’s script doesn’t give her much latitude. I rarely yearn for movies of any stripe to be much longer than they are, but some time spent with Abby outside of the nightclub, showing how much work she’d done in her life to make it where she was, may have helped ground her motivation a bit. Then again, audiences of the 30s had their own experience of the grind to fall back on and probably didn’t need the reminder.
Brief Moment features a fine, low wattage performance from Arthur Hohl playing Steve, a gangster who really loves Abby but has the misfortune to look like Arthur Hohl. Even though it’s highly unlikely, Hohl’s character and performance really seem to emulate Humphrey Bogart, a gruff but gentle man who has an ugly face and a romantic heart. There’s also Donald Cook in the piece, someone who presents himself as a working man but is suddenly called away to important meetings at the race track. And Monroe Owsley, who was often cast as lovers worse than even Gene Raymond could dream of being, has so much fun here, playing a snake who slithers between the upper and lower classes, but who shakes with sleazy contempt for anyone who should question his life’s calling as professional partier and high functioning alcoholic.
The movie looks gorgeous, and moves at a good pace. It starts with a premise that’s hard to swallow– that a life of complete ease is somehow undesirable– and slowly turns the tables to show how unnatural it is. Money and power give you freedom, all right, the freedom to put your head in the sand and chuckle at the rest of the rabble. Brief Moment reminds that rabble that the parasites above are worth only as much as the amount of reverence we attach to their name.
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Other Reviews, Trivia, and Links
- Raymond gets chided at one point, “Come come, fugitive, back to your chain gang!”, a nod to, of course, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.
- Jeremy Arnold for TCM relates how the movie came to be:
Lombard at this time was having some difficulties with the brass at Paramount, her home studio. They had just placed her in a small role in The Eagle and the Hawk (1933), after which they tried to loan her to Fox for the minor film Jimmy and Sally (1933). Lombard was so mad she staged a walkout. Paramount then offered her a picture called Girl Without a Room (1933), a troubled production that was already on its second director. As Ed Sikov wrote in his book Screwball: “Carole wanted no part of Girl Without a Room but she also did not want to tangle with the Paramount front office, which had a way of penalizing her uncooperativeness… So Carole got dolled up in a smart new sports suit with a matching hat that left most of the blond locks exposed, and paid an impromptu call on Harry Cohn.”
It worked. The Columbia boss was charmed by the beautiful blonde (she had done films for him before) and showed her a list of literary properties that he owned. Lombard scanned the list, recognized S.N. Behrman’s Brief Moment as a recent, quality play, and asked about it. Cohn had purchased the play as a possible vehicle for the British actress Gertrude Lawrence, but it was not high-priority so he agreed to produce it for Lombard immediately. It’s possible that Brief Moment might never have seen the light of day if not for Lombard’s actions.
Ben Frey · September 23, 2017 at 6:11 am
Ralph Bellamy played the romantic sap in only a few movies, but that’s the overriding image we have of his early roles. The same with Gene Raymond. He naturally played many different ‘types’, but the character I see him playing most often is the guy, rich or poor, who swoons into marriage with the best intentions. But he can’t hold up his end of the bargain and the woman is inevitably left holding the bag. Sometimes he repents, sometimes he doesn’t.
Raquel Stecher (@QuelleLove) · September 25, 2017 at 12:20 pm
I’d probably fall for Gene Raymond in one of these things. Great post Danny!
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