Monday, August 17, 2015

Ronald Acts as Auctioneer

As promised, we return with a forgotten pre-code gem, starring Ronald Colman.  The Devil to Pay (1930) has Colman playing Willie Hale, the ne'er-do-well (but much beloved son) of Lord Leland (Frederick Kerr).  Lord Leland is an indulgent father, who has spent the last few years supporting Willie's "ventures", the latest of which ended with Willie auctioning off the contents of his Kenyan home in order to get passage money home.  Willie is an engaging young man, but too much enjoys life, especially when they including cards and horses.  And while Lord Leland is initially determined to disown Willie, his love for his son - who doesn't have a mean bone in his body - convinces him to welcome Willie back to the family's good graces, and even give him more money.  Willie determines to spend the money with his sister, Susan (Florence Britton), and her friend Dorothy Hope (Loretta Young).  Not surprisingly, this day of adventure results in Dorothy and Willie falling head over heels in love, despite the fact that she has a fiance (Paul Cavanagh as Grand Duke Paul), and he is intimately involved with an actress of some reputation (Myrna Loy as Mary Crayle).  Add to the mix, Dorothy's father (David Torrence) despises Willie, and you have a formula for conflict.

According to this TCM article, Ronald Colman was eager to play Willie.  He was intrigued with the comic aspects of the character.  Much of his silent career had involved heavy dramas like Stella Dallas (1925) and Beau Geste (1926), and he wanted to do lighter fare.  He is excellent in the role; though in many senses he is far to old to play Willie (he was 39 at the time), he is irresistible as this scalawag with a heart of gold.  Watch him in the scene where he resists spending £15 of the only £20 he's gotten from his father on a dog that he has already named George.  (In his New York Times review, Mordaunt Hall was quite taken with George as well). Colman is adorable.  He has a lovely, breezy relationship with both Loretta Young and Florence Britton in their scenes together.  You never doubt that he is a young man in his mid-20s. And the auction scene that opens the film is very funny - Colman immediately sets the tone for his character for the rest of the film; you will love Willie from that moment on.
We are given another treat:  Myra Loy as Mary Crayle.  She's excellent - she always is, but here, while she is playing "the other woman" she gives us a woman who is a genuinely nice person.  Her relationship with Willie is casual, and she sympathetic and supportive of his love for Dorothy. She is, in fact, a much nicer person than Dorothy.  Ms. Loy is a blonde in this film, perhaps to contrast her to the brunette Young.  We also get an almost nude scene, as Mary steps from a steam chamber.  Her work in this film did not go unnoticed - Louella Parsons praised Ms. Loy's naturalness in her review of the film (Myrna Loy: The Only Good Girl in Hollywood)
Florence Britton is memorable as sister Susan.  It's a small part, but she brings a lot to it.  We get a real picture of the Hale family from her (and her father).  Susan serves as a contrast to her carefree brother, but without being stiff or forbidding; there is a warmth to her affection for Willie that doesn't necessarily condone his actions, but still loves him without question.  Ms. Britton had a  brief career - she made 14 films between 1929 and 1933 (we've already seen two of her films: Merrily, We Go to Hell and Brief Moment).  She would appear uncredited in Colman's Arrowsmith the following year.  She died, age 77, in 1987, having retired from the screen in 1933. 

Loretta Young replaced Constance Cummings in the lead, according to this article in the AFI catalog. Also replaced was the director, Irving Cummings (the name similarity is just a coincidence; they were not related.  Irving was born in New York City, nee Caminsky; Constance, in Seattle Washington, nee Constance Halverstadt).  With the replacements, many scenes had to be refilmed, as producer Samuel Goldwyn was unsatisfied with the performance.  

All in all, this is a film worth your time.  Next week, we'll be back with another pre-code film.

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