Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Kay Scams the Military

Allotment Wives (1945 aka Woman in the Case) opens with an announcement that the film is based on an actual wartime problem - women who would marry soldiers solely for the purposes of collecting their allotment checks.  Colonel Pete Martin (Paul Kelly) is assigned the task of finding the women who are perpetrating this fraud.  His investigation leads him to a service canteen, organized by Mrs. Sheila Seymour (Kay Francis), a wealthy society woman, who, unbeknownst to Pete, is the head of an organization that recruits young women to gull soldiers into marriage - often taking on three or four "husbands".  She is assisted by  Whitey Colton (Otto Kruger), her friend and confidant.  Sheila, a strong woman who has a firm control on her operation,, has a weakness - her daughter Connie Seymour (Teala Loring), who Sheila has carefully stashed away in a boarding school, primarily to keep her away from "the business".  Or so Sheila thinks.  In truth, Connie is out on the town, spending her days finding men and drinking.  Sheila also has another problem - Gladys Smith (Gertrude Michael), who knew Sheila when both were in reform school, and wants payment to keep quiet about it.

Let's start by saying, this is not a great movie.  Unlike my colleague at Kay Francis on Film, this is not a film we would consider essential Kay Francis viewing.  Were it not for the fact that it was her last appearance on the silver screen, we doubt it would be remembered at all.  It's not that Ms. Francis isn't good, she is.  But she doesn't have a whole lot to work with.  Made at the Poverty Row Monograph Studios and originally titled
Allotment Wives, Inc. (AFI catalog), filmed in 10 days, and with a script that required Ms. Francis (who was also a producer) to do some major editing, the inferior production values tend to diminish the viewer experience.  The New York Times wasn't impressed either - their short review was not laudatory.

The benefit, however, at working in Poverty Row was that the censors didn't seem to care as much about what got through (see this TCM article).  There's quite a bit of risque plot - not the least of which is the idea of one woman being married to several men.  There's  the relationship between Whitey and Sheila - it seems very apparent that they are lovers.  And finally, the fact that a woman could unquestioningly lead this group of men.  Even when Sheila is compromised, there is no question that she is still in charge. 

Pete Martin, as played by Paul Kelly, really comes across as a passive character.  It's only by chance that he discovers that Sheila is the ringleader (and he knows about the marriage ring because he's told where to go.  There's no great detecting on his part).  He never even finds the secret back room in the beauty parlor (we all loved that hidden room).  Mr. Kelly is overpowered by the strong performances of Ms. Francis and Mr. Kruger.  You end up rooting for them, not for him.

Paul Kelly had a fairly lengthy career, despite the fact that it was interrupted by his death in 1956, at the age of 57, and a 25 month stint in San Quentin for manslaughter.  Kelly had an extensive career in silent films when a fight with Ray Raymond (both men were drunk) in 1927  over Kelly's affair with Raymond's wife (Dorothy Mackaye) resulted in Raymond's death from a brain hemorrhage.  (See our review of Ladies They Talk About for more on the story).  When he was released from prison, Kelly resumed his career, now appearing in talkies - often as a heavy.  He also returned to a career on Broadway (he had appeared in 13 plays before his incarceration), appearing in 9 productions from 1930 through 1950.  He was nominated for a Tony for his appearance in Command Decision  (in the role Clark Gable would assume in the film version), and appeared in the role that would earn Bing Crosby a best actor nomination for the film version of The Country Girl.  After Mackaye's death in 1940 (in an automobile accident), Kelly remarried.  He worked in film, stage, and television until his death of a heart attack.
Otto Kruger is very good in the film, and plays the character of Whitey as a gentleman, not a thug.  With a name like Whitey, one expects a low-life, but Kruger gives us a man of sophistication and class, which makes the character more appealing than perhaps he should be.  At the very least, it helps us to understand the relationship between Whitey and Sheila.

Mr. Kruger began his career on the Broadway stage; from 1915 to 1949, he appeared in 32 plays, including the part of Waldo Lydecker in Laura.  Beginning in 1915, he appeared in a few silents, but his career on film bloomed with talkies, which is not hard to understand, given his lovely speaking voice.  He primarily played heavies (as in Saboteur (1942).  But on occasion, he got to play a secondary role as a nice guy - Chained (1934), in which he is Joan Crawford's kindly - but older - husband and Cover Girl (1944) where he plays Rita Hayworth's enamored - but older - suitor.  By 1949, he had started to appear on television (he also had a fairly substantive career on radio) and would continue working between film and TV until his retirement in 1964.  Married in 1919 to Susan MacManamy (they had one daugher, Ottilie), they were together until his death at age 89 in 1974.  

So, while not a totally awful film, its not great.  And while Ms. Francis tries her best to give a performance worthy of her talent, she's really not got enough to work with.  If you want to cover her oeuvre, by all means, give it a try.  Otherwise, stick to Confession (to see her suffer) or In Name Only (if you want to see her sink her teeth into a really great villain role).  We'll have more Kay in the future, but next time, join us for a Barbara Stanwyck film.



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