Thursday, March 12, 2015

Kay's Velvet

Kay Francis is again our star this week, co-starring with another of our favorites, George Brent in Living on Velvet (1935).  George is Terry Parker, a flyer who is en route, with his mother, father and sister, to Newport for a family event, when the plane is trapped in fog.  Try as he might to break into clear skies, Terry is thwarted, until his plane runs out of fuel.  The plane crashes - and Terry's entire family is killed.  Terry walks away from the plane with some scratches, a headache, and a great deal of survivor guilt.  From this point, Terry lives his life wildly - he is "living on velvet" - he should be dead, but is not, so he will live life to the fullest, and not worry about the consequences.  But then he meets Amy Prentiss (Kay Francis), the love of his friend Walter "Gibraltar" Pritcham (Warren William).  For Amy and Terry, it is love at first sight; but the problems that ensue as they try to live within each others lives is the focus of the film.

The film remarkably is able to stay true to its theme; it doesn't throw in artificial agents (like, say, a pregnancy) to force character growth.  It is the story of a marriage, full of love, but one in which the persons involved have very different views of life.  Amy understands that Terry's apparent immaturity is not that, but a grief so deep it is hidden from all but those who know the man intimately.  George Brent is able to make Terry understandable and relate-able.  Terry is not whiny or morose; regardless, you feel his pain.  Brent is able to throw a cast to his eyes that remind you of the deep pain the rules his life.

Richard Brody's video analysis of the film, from the New Yorker, is worth a few minutes of your time.  In it, he talks about the serious tone of the film, and the conflict between Amy, a woman from a well-to-do family who sacrifices a life of comfort for the man she loves, and Terry, who wants to spend his gift of life dipping into his ever growing bucket list.  Amy wants a family, a nice home, and no pending bills.  Terry wants to do what he wants, when he wants, and hang what comes after.  After all - life is short, and he wants to do it all.

Though the film has funny moments (we'll talk about one of them a little later), this is NOT a comedy.  Oddly, the advertising (as seen above), seems to imply that it is, showing Kay Francis in a lovely evening dress and a top hat.  And in the image below, a funny love triangle is implied.  While we do have a bit of a triangle, Gibraltar is a friend to the couple, once  he realizes that he is an afterthought to Kay.  There are no amusing fights.  One wonders if the public felt tricked when they realized the serious theme of Living on Velvet.  Certainly, Kay Francis had already appeared in comedies (like 1932's Trouble in Paradise), but she was best known for women's pictures, or "weepers" - and she is the name above the title - so it's hard to fathom. The New York Times review from 1935 makes no mention of the advertising, but it was not positive, They liked the beginning of the film, but felt that the ending was unconvincing.

We were very impressed with the way the film portrays the moment when Terry and Amy meet.  Certainly, it's highly romantic, but it is a lovely enactment of love a first sight.  Ms. Francis, especially, shows the intensity of her reaction (a clip is below).

An image that is particularly jarring is the newspaper headline which informs us of the death of Terry's family.  We get to meet them, if only for a few moments.  That the film used known character people of the caliber of Samuel S. Hinds and Maude Turner Gordon makes the headline even more surprising.  In much the same way that Janet Leigh's abrupt death in Psycho is a surprise because of who is playing the part, we had a similar reaction when we realized that the characters were indeed dead.

There is one very funny scene that has to be mentioned.  Terry and Amy are on a bus, in their first flush of love, and he asks her to just talk.  She complies: "Thirty days has September. Apwil, June...".  He stops her and asks her to repeat: "Thirty days has September. Apwil".  And he begins to tease her about her lisp, asking her to say "Around the rocks, the rugged rascal ran", which she gamely tries - and, of course, fails to say with the dreaded "W" sound.  Finally, she repeats her first line, and when she gets to it, carefully says APRIL, then, grins happily.  As fans of Ms. Francis and her delightful lisp, it was a hoot to see her not only acknowledging it, but laughing with us about it.

For those who would like more background information on one particularly scandalous aspect of the film, this very brief  TCM article is worth a look.  Our Kay, it seems, had a very busy vacation just before the filming started, resulting in an abortion, and a long recovery process.

Warren William as Gibraltar is absolutely terrific, as a man who loves, but who won't settle for less than the real thing.  Once Gibraltar realizes that Amy will never love him the way she does Terry, his every action is to facilitate their marriage.  Mr. William started his career on Broadway, appearing in 22 plays (primarily in supporting parts.  Once in Hollywood, he worked steadily - appearing mostly as lawyers and businessmen - throughout the 1930s and into the early 1940s, but by the end of the war, he was only in 3 films.  He was quietly married to the his great love, Helen Barbara Nelson from 1923 until his death at age 53 of multiple myeloma in 1947.  His beloved wife died a few months later.

We also enjoyed Helen Lowell as Amy's Aunt Martha, the nay-sayer in the marriage of Amy to Terry.  Aunt Martha doesn't like Terry one bit, and isn't adverse to saying it; Ms. Lowell makes her a force to be reckoned with!  She was 69 when she appeared in this film; she would die two years later, having appeared in 31 films.

Before we go, we want to mention again the costuming by Orry-Kelly.  There is a gorgeous dress with a cameo belt that we were lusting after (a couple members of the group are big fans of cameo jewelry).  As promised, we leave you with a portrayal of love at first sight: