Monday, April 25, 2016

Kay Drives a Car

In the second year of her film career, Kay Francis appeared in 10 films.  For the Defense (1930) features her in the third of the 6 films in which she appeared with William Powell.  Powell plays attorney William B. Foster, a successful, albeit often unethical attorney who will do almost anything to get his client freed.  He loves actress Irene Manners (Ms. Francis), but is unwilling to marry her - he's not the marrying kind, and is perfectly satisfied with their current relationship.  She, however, is ready for marriage, and is being wooed by Jack Defoe (Scott Kolk), who is eager to wed her.  Irene is ambivalent - she loves Bill, but the relationship is going nowhere; Jack loves her, but she she has no strong feelings about him.  Sensing her indecision, Jack drinks too much; Irene insists on driving him home.  On their trip, Jack again tries to embrace her; as a result, she inadvertently swerves, hitting and killing a man in the road.  Jack insists that she leave the scene; he takes the blame for the accident, and ends up on trial for manslaughter - with Bill as his defense attorney.

This was Kay Francis' first real chance at a leading role; she seems at ease and quite natural in the part.  Though not given the wardrobe that would later enhance most of her films, her costumes are not shabby, thanks to the excellent (and uncredited) work of Travis Banton.   Even her hairdo is different here; she wears it extremely short, and slicked back (you can see it below).  It's very severe, but is also becoming.  As the only woman in the cast (even the jury members are all men), Ms. Francis stands out, and makes the most of what could have been a fairly small role.
The character of William Foster is based on a real life character - William J. Fallon, "The Great Mouthpiece", who defended, among other, Nicky Arnstein (Fanny Brice's husband) and Arnold Rothstein (the model for Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby).  Of the 120 defendants accused of murder that Fallon defended, none was convicted.  This article from The New York Press goes into detail on the life and times of the notorious Bill Fallon.  In 1932, Warren William would play another character, loosely based on Fallon in The Mouthpiece;  the character of Billy Flynn is certainly a direct descendant of the lawyers patterned after Fallon.

William Powell is quite good as Foster.  Just two years from silent films, Powell knows how to use the camera both with speech - and without it.  The sound cameras in 1930 were very limited and director John Cromwell does a lot to compensate for the problems, such as using rear screen projection to give the feeling of a busy city street (This TCM article goes into more detail on some of the techniques used to give the film movement).  Especially impressive is a scene of Powell, late in the film, walking down a long corridor.  There isn't a sound, but Powell and Cromwell make the walk seem like forever. (Check out this review of the film on for more on the film's impressive use of silence.)
Powell's career began on Vaudeville and Broadway.  He appeared in 4 Broadway plays (as William H. Powell - his name was William Horatio Powell) between 1918 and 1922, when he left New York for Hollywood.  He worked steadily during the silent period - his greatest success being in Emil Janning's The Last CommandWith his prior stage experience and wonderful speaking voice, he was ready for his first talkie in 1928, when he starred in Interference.  But it was The Canary Murder Case the following year that really solidified his position in films.  Originally conceived of as a silent, the film was reworked, and Powell cast (for the first of 5 appearances) as detective Philo Vance.  The year after his final appearance as Vance, Powell was cast in the part for which he is best remembered - Nick Charles in The Thin Man (1934).  He had just recently (in Manhattan Melodrama) appeared with co-star Myra Loy; their chemistry resulted in 14 films together.  Though his marriage to Carole Lombard only lasted two years, they remained friends and in fact appeared in My Man Godfrey (1936) three years after their divorce.  Shortly after the death of his fiance, Jean Harlow, Powell was diagnosed with cancer.  After a two-year battle, the disease went into remission and Powell resumed his career.  He worked steadily until his retirement in 1955, immediately after his appearance in Mr. Roberts.  Married to actress Diana Lewis for 44 years, he died 30 years after his retirement, at age 91.

We'll close with this scene of Bill and Irene at a night club.  We'll be leaving the pre-code period for a Barbara Stanwyck film from the 1960s.

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