As Disney quietly disappears huge swathes of film history into its vaults, I'm going to spend 2020 celebrating Twentieth Century Fox and the Fox Film Corporation's films, what one might call their output if only someone were putting it out.
And now they've quietly disappeared William Fox's name from the company: guilty by association with Rupert Murdoch, even though he never associated with him.
Twentieth Century Fox is now to be called Twentieth Century, the name of a company that ceased to be back in 1935 when it swallowed the beleaguered Fox Picture Company. Zanuck's pre-merger studio is actually rather well-represented on home video, considering it existed for less than four years: Zanuck's story instinct, which had served him so well at Warners/First National, may not have fired so consistently, but it gave us punchy entertainments like The Bowery, Blood Money, and The Call of the Wild.
The studio's tastes were more eclectic than Warners, and so a filmmaker like Gregory La Cava, usually an RKO or Paramount man, could fit in with movies that weren't so he-man targeted. The Affairs of Cellini is downright weird (La Cava was nothing if not perverse) but Gallant Lady (1933) is a quirky women's picture built around Ann Harding's talent, which it showcases in unique ways.
The basic plot is one of those Madame X things, where a woman gives up a baby for adoption then wants to reunite, or to follow at a distance. Harding, who did a lot of photogenic suffering in thirties pictures, unleashes a whole new set of naturalistic behaviors, encouraged by La Cava's odd, improvisatory technique. Ginger Rogers, recalling her collaboration on Stage Door, described La Cava going to each actor in turn: "What would you say?" "And then what would you say if she said that?" I asked Chris Fujiwara, when he was putting on a retrospective of the director, if this account was accurate, and he replied, "I think Ginger can be believed."
So Harding loosens up out of all recognition, and so does her co-star, Clive "The Chin" Brook. Most people today know this glowering Brit from Shanghai Express, where he plays an insufferable prig. This is a shame, because he can evince a certain grumpy charm, and never more than here, where he's at times positively pixillated. Well, he's playing an alcoholic doctor, and maybe he picked up some of his dipsomaniacal director's wobbly appeal.
Harding is introduced already pregnant, and her aviator boyfriend promptly dies in a flaming crash (ruthless use of stock footage in which presumably somebody actually perishes horribly). She meets Brook in a park and he turns out to be exactly what she needs: a disgraced ex-doctor. But, incredibly, the subject of abortion, an obvious interior elephant, is never brought up. The movie makes damn sure we all think of it, though.
Instead, Brook arranges an adoption by Otto Kruger, and an introduction to Janet Beecher, dealer in antique furniture. Beecher is one of the great older women that classical Hollywood films are crowded with.
Now, La Cava's seat-of-the-pants approach was fraught with peril. Though some reckoned his movies were more scripted than he liked to let on, you would only believe that by looking at the total successes. In something like Stage Door or Bed of Roses, everything seems to flow beautifully, and you arrive at the end amazed at the smoothness of the journey. In other, some kind of tonal strangeness or unevenness or indeed unpleasantness mars the experience. And others disintegrate while you watch, perhaps from beautiful beginnings (She Married Her Boss has a terrific first hour, then kerflooey).
Gallant Lady is a bit like that. The good qualities remain good, and worth watching, but it doesn't seem to know where it's going with them. It introduces complications: an Italian nobleman falls in love with Harding and sings arias. Fine, as far as that goes. But he's neither a romcom schnook nor a plausible romantic interest. Can he be farmed out to Beecher? Apparently not.
But there's a nobility to the film's aimlessness. It would be very easy to give us what we usually want, a marital union between the two leads. But neither the film nor its characters seems interested in that. Meanwhile the Madame X plotline embarrasses La Cava, I think. Mitchell Leisen rebelled against it when handed To Each His Own, but accepted that the thing could be carried off thanks to an abrasive second act where the heroine "becomes a bitch." Olivia de Havilland got an Oscar for it, and it's the greatest and most shameless tear-jerker you'll ever see, made digestible by its hard edge and wit.
For whatever reason, that option hasn't occurred to anyone here or seemed practicable, so we get some nice business with little Dickie Moore, and then Harding has to woo his adoptive father in order to get her hands on him, which means edging out the current mistress (Betty Lawford, doing a good Gail Patrick Other Woman impersonation) and winning his heart. But then she falls in love with the jerk, and can't bring herself to go through with what feels to her like a vicious deceit. Marrying him to have access to his kid was alright when she didn't love him...
At this point, mercifully, Clive Brook reenters the frame to give Harding and the picture a good shake. "I'm sick of people not doing what they want," he snaps, announcing his intention to take a long sea voyage just because he feels like it. And Harding should marry Kruger and raise her son because she feels like it. If Kruger wasn't such an impossible, sexless and indefinably creepy romantic lead (Hitchcock used him better as a lightweight master-spy villain) it would all be satisfactory, though Brook's speech does come perilously close to pointing out that the movie's big finish is predicated on a dilemma that doesn't really exist.
And buried in this scene is Brook's hopeless, alcoholic love for Harding: that's why it's the last scene of the movie. We don't need to see Harding acting on his advice, we don't miss not seeing her embrace her offspring, and we certainly don't want to see her fade out in a clinch with Kruger.
So this is one of those La Cava films that doesn't altogether work but pulls itself together at the end and is worth seeing. Because of his voice. It's an oddly beautiful voice, even when it doesn't quite know how it's going to end the sentence it's started.