Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Kay Wants to be a Mentor

Play Girl (1941) features Kay Francis as Grace Herbert.  Grace has spent most of her life living off men (her favorite gambit is the "breach of promise" lawsuit), and has been quite successful at it.  However, now that she is no longer in the bloom of youth, she is finding it harder to live in the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed.  She's in debt; forced to sell her most valuable piece of jewelry just to pay the rent, and finance a trip to new stomping grounds in Miami.  Enter pretty Ellen Daly (Mildred Coles), a stenographer who Grace sees as a potential mentee - Grace will teach Ellen how make her living by romancing - and dumping - wealthy men.

En route to Miami, the car breaks down, and Tom Dice (James Ellison) stops to held.  Ellen is immediately smitten, but Grace is not intrigued by the seemingly destitute young man, so she makes sure he and Ellen lose touch while she entices the vain Bill Vincent (Nigel Bruce) to become Ellen's sugar daddy.  

This is a well-paced and enjoyable film, primarily because of the excellent performances.  Kay Francis creates an especially an attractive person in Grace - she seems to regard Ellen as a daughter, and in her own way, Grace is honest. Even when Ellen is not available, Grace regards Ellen's earnings as sacrosanct.  We also have a good ingenue in Mildred Coles.  She does a nice job of being innocent without appearing stupid, and her hesitancy about what she is doing makes her more appealing.  Coles had a very short career - only 26 films between 1939 and 1948, most of which were bit parts.  She died in 1995; why she left films is not clear.

Two character actresses who just don't get enough press are also in this film.  First, and foremost is Margaret Hamilton as Grace's loyal companion and maid, Josie is both confidante and adviser to Grace; she has been there through the good times, and will stick during the bad.  And of course, she gets all the best lines!  Katharine Alexander (Mrs. Dice), plays James Ellison's mother.  There is a 12 years age difference between her and Ellison, but she doesn't look old enough to be his mother.  Nevertheless, she is quite good in the part, playing a warm and likeable person.  You don't see her for very long, but you remember her at the end.  Alexander's film career went from 1930 to 1951.  As movie roles became harder to come by, she went to the stage, ultimately playing Linda Loman in the 1949 London production of Death of a Salesman, got sterling reviews, then retired within two years.

The credit sequence, which features lovely shots of expensive jewelry, was fun, and really served as a taste of the film's theme.  As always in Kay Francis' films, the costuming and scenery are great; though now she is at RKO, her contract at Warner's at an end.  This article from TCM looks describes in some detail the problems that were facing Francis after she was included on the "Box Office Poison" list from 1938 (yes, that one).  Though the men here are mere ornaments to the female characters, we did enjoy the "sauna" scene in which Bill and Van (G.P. Huntley) scheme to bring Grace down. By 1941 standards, this film is rather racy, and while not great, it's a fun 77 minute visit with Kay Francis.


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