Dec 15, 2017
Double Dealing DVDs: Kind Lady (1935/1951) and Strictly Dishonorable (1931/1951)
Ever try watching a double feature that is two versions of the same story? I did it at a film festival once. It was a screening of the silent Chinese film Cave of the Spider Woman (1927) and its glossier go-go remake The Cave of the Silken Web (1967). What struck me most about the pairing was how much more I enjoyed the individual films when I had the added interest of comparing them to each other.
That is the experience I had watching a pair of original/remake double features from Warner Archive recently. The DVD double feature debuts of Strictly Dishonorable (1931/1951) and Kind Lady (1935/1951) stuck with me a lot longer than they would had I seen only one of the films in each set. The former pair was pleasant fun, while the latter filled me with dread, but won my appreciation.
Strictly Dishonorable (1931/1951)
Though the source of this comedy romance is a successful Preston Sturges play, neither screen version has quite the sexy oomph that the director could give to his stories. The films are different takes on the story of a young woman who ditches her uptight fiancée for a more exciting Italian opera singer.
The raciest is unsurprisingly the pre-code one, starring Sidney Fox as the restless lady, George Meeker as her rude husband-to-be and Paul Lukas as the taller and more romantic man of song. Meeker is one of those utterly baffling screen boyfriends: he’s unattractive, irritable and seems to hate everyone and everything, which makes you question Fox’s wisdom in taking up with him in the first place.
Fox starts to acquire better taste when they encounter Lukas in a speakeasy and over the course of a night he seduces her seemingly by not being an uptight jerk, though the accent had to help. Fox is an odd actress; she can seem passive, but if you spend enough time watching her, her subversive nature begins to reveal itself and you begin to understand who is in control. This isn’t as steamy or playful as it should be, but it’s cute.
The MGM remake is very much of its age: glossy, cheerful and with a more elaborate plot. Opera star Enzio Pinza plays the lead and there are several pleasant, if unmemorable musical numbers in the film to show off his talents. In this version Janet Leigh is a young actress in one of singer's stage productions who is obsessed with him, while her stuffy boyfriend (Arthur Franz) wants her to give up the business and settle with him in New Jersey. Here the story expands to unfold over more than a night and takes on subplots involving revenge, spies, breach of promise and then more revenge. It’s too busy to have the same intimate charm as the original, and the extensive age difference between Pinza and Leigh adds a creep factor, but it is jaunty and pleasantly brisk in that familiar MGM style.
Kind Lady (1935/1951)
I was a bit stunned by how strongly I was affected by both versions of this thriller, which is also based on a stage play. They’re two solid productions that succeed in dramatically different ways. The core story is of a wealthy woman who lives with her cook and maid. She is known for her kindness, so it is not surprising when she takes an interest in a struggling painter. By the time she realizes his intentions are not honorable, he has already taken control of her life.
The 1935 version stars Aline MacMahon as the lady, which is a departure from the play which featured an elderly heroine. She makes the part work though, relying on her character’s heart ailment to give her the necessary fragility. Basil Rathbone is the seedy painter and while he is attractive, MacMahon quickly becomes ill at ease in his presence. Nevertheless, he quickly cons her into taking in his supposedly ailing wife and child while an additional cast of unsavory characters descend on her home.
Suddenly this sharp, compassionate woman is rendered powerless and in danger of losing the art collection she treasures. It’s an incredibly uncomfortable film to watch; MacMahon is completely loveable and she suffers so much. That it is well made and unbearably tense is undeniable though.
While the 1951 remake returns to form by casting the elderly Ethel Barrymore in the lead, there’s almost no frailty about her. Though Maurice Evans is much more physically threatening than the merely greedy Rathbone, this grand dame doesn’t lose her head. Even though she is overpowered by the advances of this psychopathic creep and his band of thugs (including the excellent Keenan Wynn, Betsy Byers and Angela Lansbury), she remains icy, swiping away breakfast trays like a queen and shaming them all. She is also allowed to be much sharper in this version, using her compassion to find allies and in the process saving herself.
I loved the contrasts between these two films and the amazing performances of the leads. While the plot was essentially the same for each the tone was dramatically different. The original oozes with greed, bizarre little quirks and emotionally imbalanced characters, leaving you wondering if anyone is on even footing. It gets under your skin a bit.
Barrymore’s bad ass take on her character adds a bit more straight shooting pleasure to the remake, but she faces a much more disturbing villain in Evans, who enjoys causing fear as much as he desires feeding his greed. It was not easy watching these lovable women go through what they do in these films, but they are both tense, well-acted thrillers.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.