Monday, April 20, 2015


Lowell Sherman is a second-rate poet and writer who has lived the philandering playboy life for quite a while, but now he finds it prudent to marry—the first scene in the movie is of Sherman giving a speech at a bachelor party for himself at which the guests are a dozen or so of his former lovers. Neither he nor his wealthy fiancĂ©e (Alice Joyce), who has been keeping him, has any illusions about this being a love match, but young Frances Dade is upset because she's in love with Sherman and can't abide the thought that he's settling for less. However, Dade is being pursued a wealthy young chemist (David Manners) who has, until now, been a good friend to Sherman. Manners discovers that Dade has been sneaking around with Sherman, and hoping to get Manners off her back, Dade lies and says she's pregnant by Sherman. But instead of losing interest, Manners arrives at Sherman's home with a gun.

Every so often, I get hooked on a classic-era actor, usually a supporting player (Eric Blore, Edna May Oliver) or a B-movie actor (Tom Neal) or someone who was a big name in their day but who is largely overlooked now (Kay Francis), and I try to see as many of their movies as I can. Usually this leads to more appreciation of the actor on my part, but sometimes things take a different turn. Back in the early days of my immersion in classic movies—about the time that Turner Classic Movies got started in 1994—I glommed on to David Manners, a handsome fellow whom I knew primarily for his roles in two of my favorite 30s horror movies, DRACULA and THE MUMMY. His career was relatively short, from 1930 to 1936; he retired young and went on to paint and write (fiction and philosophy), and the fact that he came out late in life as gay was interesting to me. Though he was only onscreen for six years, he made almost 40 movies in that time, usually as a romantic second lead, but few of those movies were well-regarded enough to be on home video, so I had my work cut out for me. Thanks to TCM and YouTube, I’ve now seen over 20 of his films, and this is the one that made me stop and wonder why. Manners (pictured below to the right of Joyce and Sherman) is hardly a terrible actor, but his comfort zone is slim; he's best as a passive playboy type and when he tries something more challenging, he usually just comes off as weak and whiny. As I look back, I see he's actually a weak link among the casts of his Universal horror films (in DRACULA, it's mostly because his character, Jonathan Harker, was gutted to the point where he has very little to do except wring his hands over Dracula's attempt to possess Mina). Manners' best acting is done opposite Barbara Stanwyck in Frank Capra's THE MIRACLE WOMAN, so maybe he just needed a good director to get him out of his mild-mannered shell.

Sorry for the digression, but the first 20 minutes or so of this film were so bad, I considered not finishing it, unheard of for me for a movie that features one of my favorite actors. I had to re-consider Manners’ standing in my classic movie pantheon. Ultimately, the movie got better, but it's basically a filmed stage play, most of which takes place on one set, Sherman's apartment. The direction is (mostly) static with awkward staging and melodramatic dialogue delivered almost over-the-top but not enough to be campy. (Dade: "Please don’t make love to me…"; long pause; Manners: "I can't help making love to you.") In particular, Sherman's artificial acting style takes some time to get used to. Oddly, however, it all started to come together in the last half, and though I could not really recommend this movie strongly, I wound up not sorry to have seen it. Despite the serious nature of my summary above—and the dramatic bent of the acting—this is basically a romantic comedy, and it ends satisfyingly. I never believed that these people were really in love, except for Manners who did seem sincere if not passionate, and maybe his sincerity is what makes him worth watching. In fact, the most positive feelings of affection are expressed between Sherman and Manners. The general picture of the battle of the sexes that emerges here is best embodied in this exchange when Dade expresses her disillusionment with Sherman: "I saw you—mercenary and unadventurous—I saw your soul!" Sherman replies, after a beat, "Why do women always talk about souls?" You know, maybe I enjoyed this movie after all. I do know that I'll keep digging up movies with David Manners. [TCM]

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