Monday, May 23, 2016

Kay Tempts Basil

In A Notorious Affair (1930), Patricia Hanley (Billie Dove) defies her father, Sir Thomas Hanley (Montagu Love), and jilts her fiance  Dr. Alan Pomeroy (Kenneth Thompson), when she elopes with struggling violinist Paul Gherardi (Basil Rathbone).  Patricia happily gives up her privileged life to share Paul's poverty, and ultimately his success.  But with that success comes temptation, and Paul becomes involved with the sexually predatory Countess Olga Balakireff (Kay Francis), creating a scandal that involves both Paul and his betrayed wife.

Adapted from the play Fame (written by Audrey and Waverly Carter), the original play may have starred Gerald de Maurier (father of author Daphne.  This AFI Catalog talks briefly of the play's history).  Like many films of the early sound era, this movie suffers from the stagnation of the static camera and microphone.  Scenes that, a year or two later, would be full of movement and energy just sit there because the sound equipment forces the actors to stay stock still.  As a result, the film and the actors seem stiff and un-engaged.

All three of the leads, Francis, Rathbone, and Dove, had theatrical backgrounds.  Basil Rathbone was a veteran of both the London and Broadway stage, but was relatively new to film (he'd done 7 silent films and 3 talking films prior to A Notorious Affair).  Kay Francis had appeared in 4 Broadway plays, as well as 6 films.  Billie Dove, however, had made her career as a Ziegfeld Girl (billed as The American Beauty), not as an actress, though she had already appeared in many silent films and several talkies. (A TCM article about the film discusses the actors' backgrounds).
In spite of Basil Rathbone prior appearances in talkies, he seems rather uncomfortable in this film.  As we are used seeing him in roles in which he dominates the screen (a particular favorite is his turn as the rou√© in Confession, with his co-star here, Kay Francis), this Basil was a bit off-putting.  We talked about him in some detail in our discussion of his fantastic performance in The Mark of Zorro

But if anyone owns this movie it is Kay Francis.  Olga is quite the seductress, and with a sexual appetite that knows no bounds.  Ms. Francis' ability to telegraph her thoughts with only her eyes serve her in good stead here.  Watch her when she sees a stableboy entering a barn; we know exactly what is about to happen as she quietly enters the barn and shuts the door behind her.    Likewise, the look on her face when she first sees Paul - it's as though she is looking at a steak after a 30 day fast.  But Olga bores just as quickly as she hungers, and her relationship with Paul mirrors her tet-a-tet with the kennel man - once fed, she's done.  The New York Times review had it right when they say that "Kay Francis...as the scheming countess, puts Miss Dove somewhat in the shade."

While we can't wholeheartedly recommend A Notorious Affair as a film, for anyone who is a fan of Kay Francis, this is essential viewing.   Not only are you able to see her before she becomes the Warner Brothers cornerstone, you get to see her playing the kind character that wouldn't come her way for a number of years.