Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5.
USA, 1937. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Screenplay by Leon Gordon, Samson Raphaelson, Monckton Hoffe, from the play by Frederick Lonsdale. Cinematography by George J. Folsey. Produced by Lawrence Weingarten. Music by William Axt. Production Design by Cedric Gibbons. Costume Design by Adrian. Film Editing by Frank Sullivan.
Joan Crawford plays a wealthy widow traveling on an ocean liner from America to England who gets into the company of a group of British aristocrats after accidentally falling asleep in the wrong cabin. Arriving in England, she joins their social set and is adored by them all, particularly older gentleman Frank Morgan and young, lovestruck Robert Montgomery, who pursues her for a love affair despite the fact that she summarily rejects him. They invite her with their other friends to the country estate of a Duchess (played by a magnificently warm Jessie Ralph), because they do not know what we find out half an hour into this bright comedy: she’s not really a wealthy widow, and her fine butler (William Powell) isn’t really her servant, they’re actually part of a gang of jewel thieves who have put up this expensive display in the name of stealing the Duchess’s very expensive string of pearls. Crawford has a moral dilemma about the job because she really has grown to like these people and to dislike stealing, but after the deed is done and Montgomery catches her, a whole new game is put in motion involving the fear of public scandal for the crime’s victim and an exploration of the meaning of true moral integrity: when it comes to corruption, a modern-day thief has nothing on old money. This film adaptation of Frederick Lonsdale’s 1925 play follows eight years after the more popular film version with Norma Shearer (and would be followed by The Lady and the Law with Greer Garson in 1951); it’s rather ambivalent about its source material, trying hard to jump off the stage and become more cinematic but held down by a number of lengthy scenes of admittedly strong dialogue. The entire cast sparkles and it’s for the most part a delight, though Crawford and Montgomery’s lack of chemistry gets in the way of it really shining as a classic. Her comedic chops, well shown off in Love On The Run a year earlier, are even better displayed by material that requires her to play someone more complex and dark, though the film’s best scenes are between her and the charismatic Ralph, whose taking to her like an old friend before finding out her real intentions is where the film really hits its effortless stride.