Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA, 1930. Paramount Pictures. Screenplay by Martin Brown, scenario by Louise Long, based on the play by Lajos Zilahy. Cinematography by David Abel. Costume Design by Travis Banton. Film Editing by Otho Lovering.
The plot of this melodramatic soap opera is not one that will seem unfamiliar to viewers, but the way that its romantic entanglements play out are very specifically the hallmarks of films made before the enforcement of the 1934 Production Code. Kay Francis is excellent as a woman who is happily married to promising scientist Kenneth MacKenna, who is then conscripted by the Russian army to fight in the Great War. Her first attempt to get him exempted fails when she barely has the chance to appeal to the hard-hearted General under whom he will be serving (played by a fiery Walter Huston).
Military life is difficult for the good doctor and MacKenna has an emotional breakdown that results in his sounding off his feelings to the General, after which he is court-martialed and placed in prison to await execution by firing squad. Francis finds out and immediately sets out to save her husband, traveling to where his unit is stationed and insinuating herself into the nightclub where the general’s officers spend their time carousing with women of easy virtue.
Enlisting the help of the club’s blowsy owner (Jobyna Howland, whose performance is quite notable), Francis eventually catches Huston’s eye, becoming his mistress with the hopes of turning his ear towards her concern that her husband not be executed after all. Things get tricky, however, when after melting the heart of old “Iron face”, she falls in love with her mark.
It’s hopelessly dated in some ways, particularly a number of overripe performances (MacKenna is hilariously theatrical), but Francis brings grounded, intelligent class to what could easily be overplayed as tearjerking moral protestations. What’s truly modern about this film is how it ends; after 1934 any film that involved a sexual indiscretion would be obsessed with guilt, but here the emphasis is placed on people finding their happiness despite their disappointments in love. It’s almost as if the movies were interested in real life before the church got involved and ruined everything.