Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Saturday, 30 January 2016

God's Gift to Women (1931) - Louise Brooks, Joan Blondell and Laura La Plante: Three Women Fight Over Frank Fay, One Wins

Frank Fay was a fast talking Broadway star who was snapped up by Warner Brothers for a string of talkies at the dawn of sound. The hope was that with his immense stage popularity and gift of the gab the studio could make him into an attractive new star to give a boost to the fledgling technology. Sadly, his personality didn’t catch on big with the movie going public and by the time he made God’s Gift to Women in 1931 we find him near the end of his contract, looking tired and exhausted after a rough couple of years in Hollywood. By all accounts Fay wasn’t the easiest of men to like, as he was known to be incredibly egotistical and his marriage to Barbara Stanwyck was a tumultuous affair which did his standing no favours. A lot of his early films miscast him as a ladies’ man, and God’s Gift to Women is no different. Here he plays Toto, a modern day Don Juan, with an insatiable eye for the ladies and a reputation as an incorrigible rake. Despite this he somehow manages to fall in love with demure society girl Diane (Laura La Plante) and he resolves to mend his ways. A sudden life threatening heart ailment appears to seal the deal, but unfortunately his many previous girlfriends have other plans and continue to fight over him (well, he is God’s gift to women…)

So there you have it, the set up for an entertaining Pre Code bedroom farce, full of knockabout comedy, racy one liners, daring fashions and familiar faces. However, in reality the movie just doesn’t quite work. It may be the fact that Frank Fay just doesn’t suit the role, or that he talks incessantly to the point of distraction, or that the whole set up is just too preposterous to take seriously. It’s a fun, diverting movie but nothing to write home about (or in a blog for that matter). Based on that, the movie would probably deserve to be largely forgotten and consigned to gather dust in a darkened vault surrounded by Frank Fay’s other pictures.

And that would be its fate if not for, in hindsight a very interesting bit of casting that keeps the film alive in the minds of film fans. For not only does God’s Gift to Women contain one of the few featured sound roles of Louise Brooks, but it also has Joan Blondell in her sixth feature film appearance. And to make it even more interesting, they appear together! And they wrestle each other on a bed! Sometimes the random cast lists thrown together in the days of the contract studio players result in some very odd and interesting pairings. Often, when past and present collide you get to see stars of different eras or on different career trajectories briefly work together. Vilma Banky and Edward G. Robinson in A Lady to Love, Al Jolson and Harry Langdon in Hallelujah, I’m a Bum!, Clara Bow and Jean Arthur in The Saturday Night Kid or even John Gilbert and the Three Stooges in The Captain Hates the Sea are examples of this intriguing clash of eras that spring to mind but there are surely many more.

In God’s Gift to Women we have the effervescent spirit of the Flaming Youth meeting the epitome of Depression era sass, and stuck in the middle is pretty but dull Laura La Plante. The result is a film with three actresses all at different stages of their careers and going in three entirely different directions. Here the past, the present and the future co-exist in the movie in the forms of Louise Brookes, Laura La Plante and Joan Blondell respectively.

By the time she filmed God’s Gift to Women, Laura La Plante had enjoyed a film career for over a decade, attaining great success as a silent leading lady for Universal. She is perhaps best remembered in silent pictures for the 1927 version of The Cat and the Canary, directed by Paul Leni. When sound arrived she made a fairly seamless transition, first starring in the popular part talkie Show Boat. She continued making films for Universal, but after leaving them in 1930 she bounced around the studios for a couple of years before retiring in 1935. In God’s Gift to Women she is still a top billed star and a leading lady, but there is the distinct feeling that time and the competition is catching up with her. A lot of silent stars seem to have been given a run of sound films as a sort of courtesy since they were stars (providing their voice was good enough). Actresses like Olive Borden and Billie Dove made a string of sound films as headline attractions then either moved down the playbill or disappeared altogether. Laura La Plante lasted a bit longer than many other silent stars but on the strength of God’s Gift to Women it’s clear that she was on borrowed time. She’s perfectly acceptable in her role as society girl Diane but she lacks that certain something to make her special. Her voice is good, apart from a tendency to over enunciate her lines, and she handles the comedy fairly well but nothing about her stands out. She is one of many leading ladies of the Pre Code era whose pretty, aristocratic and virtuous nature began to look a bit old fashioned once the Depression fully kicked in. When you consider the new talent coming up in 1931 as competition it’s easy to understand why early retirement was a sensible and dignified option for Laura La Plante and many like her.

On the other hand, Louise Brooks’ career was on the downward spiral by 1931 having returned from Europe to the Hollywood scene she loathed so much. I must admit at this point that whilst I understand Brooks’ importance as an icon of style and independent spirit, as an actress I don’t see what all the fuss is about. When she’s lit and filmed correctly she does have a transcendent beauty but out of this gaze she has little else going for her compared to many of her contemporaries (especially someone like Colleen Moore). A great star is a star wherever they go but in Louise Brooks’ case, she is only good when handled correctly and that to me is a limiting factor in her legacy. Additionally I always get the feeling that making films in Hollywood was such a chore to her and there are certainly times in God’s Gift to Women where she looks positively embarrassed to be slumming it in such nonsense. She plays Florine, one of Toto’s many girlfriends and she really only has one notable scene. Under doctor’s orders Toto is to stay away from women in order to stop him having an aneurism. She arrives to find that her rivals are also there and ends up having a cat fight with Joan Blondell and Yola d’Avril. Her initial appearance is filmed in profile, with her face almost turned away from the camera and her famous bob covered by a hat. It’s in these scenes, her signature look obscured, that you realise that if you didn’t know who she was she wouldn’t be making as much of an impression. She certainly has some charms but whether she truly thought the whole enterprise was beneath her or she was just tired of the Hollywood rat race, it’s clear her heart isn’t in it. However there is a reaction shot at the end of the scene of just her face in close up that is filmed perfectly and for a few seconds the familiar Louise Brookes look emerges. However, it’s a fleeting glimpse of a star whose best work was firmly behind her.

Lastly we have Joan Blondell playing Fifi, another in Toto’s harem of beautiful women. The film finds Blondell less than a year into her movie career and in her highest placing so far on the playbill (3rd). She was still eight months away from her breakout performance in Blonde Crazy but was steadily climbing up the ladder as a fresh young face. Whereas Laura La Plante represented the typically conservative and virtuous leading ladies of the mainstream cinema thus far, and Louise Brooks a reflection of the high living Jazz Age flapper that was extinguished by the Wall Street crash, Joan Blondell gives us a glimpse of the modern woman of the 1930s. Although Frank Fay is fast talking and fairly animated throughout the film, he looks too middle aged and brings a tired vaudeville sensibility to the movie. In contrast, Joan Blondell is bursting with a fresh, new type of energy. In her first scene she lights up the screen with her big eyes, short blonde hair, wide smile and snappy delivery, and her pep and effervescence prove to be a lively interruption to the creaky old bedroom farce. She looks modern, talks modern and acts modern and seems at this early stage of her career to be well on the way to finding the screen persona that would define her in Gold Diggers of 1933. It’s actually amazing how charismatic she is despite such a lack of film experience and screen time. Just like Louise Brooks’ character, she visits Toto to nurse him back to health and bursts in wearing a patterned, figure hugging dress and throwing herself on him. Compared to Brooks and Yola d’Avril, who make the same sort of entrance, hers is the most memorable and energetic. She then shows an excellent grasp of comic timing (something Laura La Plante struggles with at times) saying that her husband “is ferocious when he’s jealous. He kills people” The pause and the delivery of the punchline combined with a wide eyed look towards Fay at just the right moment is a brilliant piece of business and far more skilful than much of the stilted delivery and hammy acting throughout most of the film. The point is, that fledgling star Blondell is a real breath of fresh air in the movie and has future star written all over her.

Of course all this is with the benefit of hindsight. Contemporary audiences watching the movie would have accepted La Plante as a proper star player, may have remembered Louise Brooks as a star from the past and would have thought Joan Blondell was one of many up and coming young actresses that were regularly appearing on the screen. However, knowing what we know now, we see the three stars in a considerably different light. Joan Blondell obviously has charisma and star quality in spades and her appearance fits into the story of her hard working rise to the top of 30s cinema. Laura La Plante’s career has sadly now been largely forgotten and if she is remembered at all it is for her silent work, not her polite but dull sound roles. And Louise Brooks is an eternal icon, far more famous than her actual screen career ever deserved, but her story and life as a Hollywood free spirit continues to strike a chord with successive generations. Her appearance in God’s Gift to Women is a footnote in her career, though due to her fame reviews of the movie nowadays seem to centre on her performance, uneventful though it is.

When all is said and done, of the three women, Joan Blondell owns the movie. Hers is a dynamic, sarcastic and peppy character that would highlight the way for a decade of hard working chorus girls, quick witted screwball heroines and down of their luck ladies of ill repute. She is effortlessly of her time, and the other two would quickly be left behind as tastes changed. One star fell because she couldn’t keep up with the new generation, and the other because she didn’t want to. In the middle of these women was Frank Fay, whose own career was on borrowed time (for about twenty years at least).

God’s Gift to Women is, like I said, a nice little diversion highlighted by some dream casting. It’s not often you get to see Louise Brooks and Joan Blondell wrestle on a bed in nurses' uniforms, but it happened, and the world is a better place for it. Watching the scene it’s interesting to note that Joan Blondell really puts her heart into the catfight and appears far more animated (and possibly violent) than her co-stars. Louise Brooks looks awkward and embarrassed and Laura La Plante isn't even in the scene (she's far to well mannered). And in a way that works as a representation of their respective careers by 1931 (of course, in the long run Louise Brooks' fame outshone everyone but that’s another story). The lesson to be learned is that when the old stars start to fade, there's always a fresh and eager new face to take their place. Sometimes it’s survival of the fittest, and in 1931 Joan Blondell was the new breed clawing her way up, and Louise Brooks, Laura La Plante and Frank Fay, in the cruel jungle of Hollywood with its fickle and precarious ladder of fame were about to run out of time.