Sunday, February 22, 2009

PLAY GIRL (1941)

Kay Francis plays a woman of a certain age who has a reputation for making her living by trapping men in breach of promise suits; the film begins at Lake Placid with the father of her latest target warning her to stay from his son. She and her companion (Margaret Hamilton) head to Florida where the pickings are usually easier, but Francis is aging and it's harder for her bait to get some nibbles. Instead, she winds up taking a poor young thing (Mildred Coles) under her wing to show her the ropes of gold-digging. On the way to Chicago, the women have an encounter with handsome cattleman James Ellison, and Coles takes a particular shine to him, but Francis is sure that Coles can do better, and sets her up with businessman Nigel Bruce, rich but considerably older and stodgier. Coles goes about setting Bruce up for a fall and gets $50,000 out of him. Just as Francis gets Coles another target, Ellison re-enters the picture and Coles starts to date him until she discovers he's actually a millionaire; he proposes but she's afraid he'll think she just wants his money and she runs off. Francis makes a successful play for Ellison until Ellison's mother comes to his rescue. In a rushed ending, Francis backs off and gets Ellison and Coles back together, with the promise of snagging Ellison's uncle for herself.

This should have been a fizzy screwball comedy, but something is off in any number of departments: Francis is OK but seems too old to play gold digger, and not old enough to settle for less than love—it might have worked if she'd come off as either peppier or drabber. Coles is a forgettable love interest and has little chemistry with Ellison, who is otherwise fine as the romantic lead. The supporting cast is fairly strong: Bruce is amusing, and I quite enjoyed the unexpected moment when he makes fun of Francis's troubles enunciating her "R's" (though Francis also gets in a jab at Bruce's mannerisms); Hamilton is even better, miles away from the Wicked Witch, in full modern spinster mode. Though the part isn't exactly taxing, she's fun and I'm sorry she didn't more do more roles like this. Also with the handsome Kane Richmond and the always welcome Cecil Cunningham. The pace is a little slow and the look of the movie is rather low-budget. OK if not top-drawer romantic comedy. [TCM]

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