Wednesday, September 14, 2016

State of Grace

She returns us to an age when Americans could look up to screen visions and ghosts with awe, wonder and appreciation. Unlike our own dreary marketeer non-cinema where almost all releases seem calculated to squash anything that might stir envy in the iron hearts of the narcissistic and the mediocre. After all, anyone can be Jennifers Aniston or Garner.

Who can be Kay Francis?

As a comedienne she was almost as great as Lombard. And sexy as hell. Her liquid voice is as languorous, warm, and dark -- dark as dark blood -- as are her movements. Her eyes are clear pools of light, reflecting how much love is coming toward her. Yet she was boxed in, mostly playing two types: a woman dying young; or an uptight Professional -- doctor, reporter, fashion editor, pilot(!) -- before her time. Or both. So her wit is mostly wasted. Within these types she is often the normal partner left for someone more exciting. Who would ever leave Kay Francis? (All nods to Lubitsch, but certainly not for Miriam Hopkins.) Besides Trouble in Paradise (1932), her only great film, she was rarely lucky with directors.  A (bad) Vidor, two with Borzage, several with Michael Curtiz. Otherwise, hacks.

Perhaps because she is echt Deco, she cannot be placed outside the 30s. She is too still and melancholy for screwball. And even her late 30s works -- such as Confession (1937), King of the Underworld (1939) and In Name Only (1939) -- how in the world can a movie with Grant, Lombard, and Francis be so dull? -- stiffen her up. Yet even there (most everywhere), when betrayed or spurned, she lapses into a sort of somber exclusion, away from the world, away from the movie, a curious communion with forces only she feels, a sort of mystic, dark state of grace. She is a miracle. There is no one else like her in movies.

* * *

We all know Trouble in Paradise, so let's look elsewhere. Tay Garnett's One Way Passage (1932) is a sort of pre-code, early talkie version of Tristan and Isolde, almost ruined by the non-comic antics of Frank McHugh. Almost. William Powell is a death row inmate recently escaped from San Quentin, at last caught up with in a Hong Kong bar, and incarcerated aboard a ship heading back to San Francisco. Kay Francis is on the ship, with her doctor; she is dying. Via some nice story turns -- and a moving subplot causing Powell's SF detective jailer (Warren Hymer) to also fall in love -- we are given Francis at her most ardent and beautiful. Strange and amorphous, she yearns through the trouble like a warm, glowing cloud blown in the middle of a storm. And Powell is worthy of her.