Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Living on Velvet (1935)

I'm not sure if others are as interested in Kay Francis, this month's Star of the Month at TCM as I am, but if you'd like to post about any of the rare films being shown this month on TCM, here's a spot for it. I'd love to know your take on the movies.

Living on Velvet (1935) with Kay Francis, George Brent and Warren William was one of the films shown last week on TCM that I hadn't seen in its entirety before.

Did anyone else see this one?

There were several striking moments in the Frank Borzage movie, some touching, some funny, and some much more somber than expected. The story centers around the sense of disconnection and self-destructive behavior of the Brent character after his small plane crashes at the beginning of the movie, killing his parents and sister. In an unusually good, emotional performance for Brent, who seems, for all his good looks and devil-may-care air to be ensnared by an innate shyness as well as a superficial blitheness, he wanders around the world, waiting, it seems for the other shoe to drop while feeling a survivor's guilt and a sense of alienation from the life around him. The only earthly pursuit that appears to consistently intrigue him is flying, (often recklessly). His arrival in NY and the efforts of his wealthy friend Warren William to distract him from his sense of doom leads to a party, peopled with a frieze of high society fossils--except for one woman, who, as a besotted Warren William explains, is surpassingly beautiful and lovable. Of course, once Brent and Kay ("Amy") spot each other, Borzage stages a scene that makes me wonder if Rogers and Hammerstein were thinking of this film a decade later when they wrote:
"Some enchanted evening
You may see a stranger,
you may see a stranger
Across a crowded room
And somehow you know,
You know even then
That somewhere you'll see her
Again and again."

From that moment, Brent has a chance to live again through the connection he and Kay feel for one another. Soon the two are married, the gentle William character (called "Gibraltar") acquiesces gracefully and generously offers them an aerie on Long Island to build their nest in. As reality sets in, the impractical nature of Brent resurfaces, and Kay's character, who loves him and comes to see him as beyond her help, the film takes a series of interesting turns.

If the film has a major flaw, it is the ending, which in true Warner's speedy fashion was rather abrupt and out of tune with the preceding drama, at least to me.

There are several scenes that were particularly enjoyable. I especially liked that moment when Kay & Brent spot one another for the first time, and the small touches in the story. The couple's ride atop a 5th Avenue bus, their visit to the Augustus Saint-Gaudens statue of General Sherman in Central Park, the expression on Brent's face when he starts to feel trapped on a commuter train to NYC, and their relationship with "Gibraltar", (played by Warren William in a quiet, gentle key that made me think of him even more than usual as a rather sweet greyhound, rather than his often wolfish self on screen).

I was puzzled by the ending. Then I read that Warren William, whose character is secondary to the leads, with few scenes, was about to finish his Warner's contract at the time of production. His stability and loyalty appear to make him a more logical mate for Kay, who craves a stable, meaningful life. Yet, because of his precarious position at Warner Brothers, and because George Brent had just signed a multi-year contract, his unlikely redemption was emphasized, distorting the story a bit for me. A good movie, nevertheless, with some moments that gleamed, despite the flaws.

Here's a link to the trailer for Living on Velvet, which refers to Kay's keeping a diary--something that those of us who know Kay's story, might find amusing.
Some background information:

  • A link to a complete list of Kay Francis films being shown on TCM in September
  • A link to an interview with Kay Francis biographer Scott O'Brien at TCM's Movie Morlocks


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