Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Kay Helps Out

We are at a train station in San Francisco. Amid the hustle and bustle of people traveling, we meet Lynn Palmer (Kay Francis), a Travelers' Aid employee who has dedicated her life to assisting those in need, from a little girl en route to meet her father to an old man who is down to his last penny.  Thus begins Stranded (1935), a wonderful little film that pairs Francis with George Brent as Mack Hale, a gruff engineer who has arrived to supervise the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge.

There's quite a bit of plot in this little film, which is a romance, a gangster film, and a social injustice film all rolled into one.  Though not a pre-code film, it takes a feminist perspective on the working woman, and portrays a tough, intelligent woman who likes and values her work life, and wants to combine it with home and family.  While Lynn dedicates herself to assisting those in need as they arrive in San Francisco, Mack deals with a protection racketeer, Sharkey, and with bridge construction workers who arrive on the job drunk - encouraged to do so by Sharkey (played with his usual relish by Barton MacLane).  We also have a couple of sub-plots: there's society girl Velma Tuthill (Patricia Ellis), who has volunteered to work at Travelers' Aid to get away from her mother, and meet up with her boyfriend du jour.  And then there is Jimmy Rivers (Frankie Darrow), a poor boy who is hired by Mack to work on the bridge (with the help of Lynn). 

If there is one problem with the film, it is the fact that there are SO many plots that some just get left in the wayside.  The character of Velma virtually disappears after she makes a pass at Mack.  She is there more as a foil to Lynn; where Lynn is caring and dedicated to her job, Velma is uninterested and callous;  Lynn's love for Mack is counter-posed to Velma's obvious lust.  The scene in which Mack finally responds to Velma's blatant attentions is very funny; it is worth having her there just for the brief moment of comeuppance.  


The other character who doesn't really get enough time is Jimmy.  When one sees Frankie Darrow in a film, one expects him to be a major part of the plot.   However, Jimmy has only a few brief scenes, and while Darrow makes the most of them (and Jimmy's presence is important to the finale), one wishes for a little more development of the character.  At one point in the action, Mack fires Jimmy. Though not directly stated, we wondered if this was Mack's way of protecting Jimmy from Sharkey and his minions.

What makes this film special, however, is the truly progressive attitude towards women.  This article at the TCM website discusses the strength of Lynn's devotion at some length. This is not just a woman who likes to work.  This is someone who feels the power of what she can do for a small strata of humanity, and who knows it is important work.  She is also not afraid of or intimidated by men.  Though Mack is a brusk, opinionated individual, who sometimes lives life at the top of his lungs, Lynn is not afraid to go toe-to-toe with him.  There relationship is one not only of love, but finally of mutual regard.  She will never let him bully her.  Their relationship is one of equals.

We are all admirers of George Brent, and this film did not let us down.  While he portrays Mack as rigid and dogmatic, one realizes that his job requires him to BE rigid - one inch of error and his workers or the people who use his bridges could die.  The problem is that it carries over to his everyday life - he has a very jaded view of people, and he wants Lynn to adhere to that view.  Francis, always a powerful actress, holds her own against him, and gives us a loving, and equally partisan individual - but one who believes in the essential good and value in the ordinary person.

Several scenes in the film really popped out.  First, is a scene where Mack is forced to wait for the ever-busy Lynn - and wait he does.  Another is the scene (previously mentioned) where Mack lets Velma know whom he really prefers.  And finally, there is a really funny bit where Lynn has to get a group of foreign brides to their new homes in San Francisco.  Mack shares the ride with the women.  It's a hoot.


The film also makes nice use of stock footage of the Golden Gate Bridge while under construction (as well as providing some interesting detail about the work).  Clothes-horse Francis mostly has practical, business clothing here (though she gets a gown or two, courtesy of Orry-Kelly).  Her wardrobe (and her lovely apartment) are not totally out of place, as the film establishes that Kay is not without economic resources. She works because she wants to, not because she has to.

Finally, we wondered if Kay Francis in these kinds of roles, was an inspiration for women? We've see her in many roles in which her character is a strong professional woman.  What impact did those roles have on the viewer? Was there a woman who was convinced to become a social worker or physician based on a Kay Francis film?

We close with Lynn and Mack's first date (and Lynn in a lovely evening gown):