Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Thursday 16 December 2021

The False Madonna (1931) - Kay Francis and the Art of High Melodrama

Sometimes the premise of a classic movie is so ridiculous that you know that audiences back in the day were rolling their eyes at the hackneyed melodrama and shaking their collective heads at the sheer stupidity of the picture play unravelling before them. It's always reassuring to read the letters in old fan magazines to see that movie mavens from practically day one were a sophisticated bunch who could recognise lazy writing, poor direction or blatant exploitation when they saw it. However, occasionally a film has a nonsensical, soapy plot, contains characters so over the top that they verge on comic and pulls the heart strings in such an obvious melodramatic way worthy of early D. W. Griffith, that despite the sheer absurdity of everything on screen, it somehow works. Not only that but it works in a beautiful, punch the air in delight sort of way that brings a smile to your face and a tear to your eye. That, as we all know is the magic of the movies, and believe it or not The False Madonna is such a movie.

Kay Francis plays Tina, one of a quartet of con artists led by William 'Stage' Boyd's disbarred physician Dr. Marcy. On the run after another failed confidence trick they hitch a train ride out of town and stumble upon a dying woman in a nearby compartment. The woman's last wish is to see her estranged son Phillip Beddows again after 14 years and, crucially she also happens to mention that he has recently inherited $10 million. Seeing an opportunity, Marcy uses the knowledge gleaned from her final utterances to set up Tina as the long lost mother in a plot to swindle the boy out of his fortune.

Right from the start we are in somewhat muddy waters as the general conceit of the plot already hinges on the audience suspending their disbelief on a number of key points. Most obviously, that the son, or indeed anyone in his close family or household would realise that the woman returning home bears no resemblance to the one that left. To make matters worse, once the impersonation begins there is no attempt to make 26 year old Kay Francis look remotely like a woman with a 17 year old child, (let alone the fact that the woman in question is played by 52 year old Julia Swayne Gordon).  Surely a gang of experienced con artists would have at least thought to change up her make up? Admittedly a number of these details are addressed during the movie but Kay's youthful appearance stands out as an obvious flaw in their plan. However, as the film progresses, the number of implausible moments increases, and after a while it's best just to accept everything and move on. 

Initially sceptical, and wanting out of the criminal life, Tina is convinced to do one last job and "Play the long lost Madonna". All she needs to do is "Be sweet, be poor and shed a few tears" and so she begins by sewing some holes into a dress and adding some motherly braids to her hair. Now looking at least 27 she reluctantly sets off to meet her long lost 'son' and find a way to get his newly acquired money. As luck would have it, and because this is the highest of melodrama, the son in question turns out to be blind (the result of a plane crash) and the only obstacle to her scam is the boy's family friend and lawyer, Grant Arnold. He has met the real Mrs Beddows but conveniently admits it was many years ago, his memory is vague and that all photos of her were destroyed when she left 14 years previously. Though highly implausible at outset, all the angles have now been covered and Tina is set to cash in. What could go wrong?

Reunited with her long lost son, Tina spends time in the gardens with him and they sing songs (badly) by the piano and he is so happy that he decides to give her a cheque for $50,000. Phillip's boyish enthusiasm for life despite his disability starts to thaw Tina's icy heart and before long a crisis of conscience emerges. Finally, Grant admits that Phillip is actually dying and, in true melodramatic form, that "any shock, no matter how slight might finish him", and so Tina's mind is made up - she will forego the money and stay with Phillip.

In the midst of this tragic situation returns Dr. Marcy posing as a physician and eager to get the fortune. He threatens to expose Tina if she doesn't get the money by the next morning. However, Phillip takes a turn for the worse and dies that night. Marcy returns and is outraged that Tina has let him down. Luckily Grant has been researching Marcy's crooked past and has called the police. Tina, tells him tearfully, "When I came here I believed in your code. I believed that life was a racket. It was a case of get mine first cause the world owed me what i could grab...I was to play on the feelings of a boy, a lonely boy aching for the love of a mother...that boy believed in me. For the first time in my life I learned the joy of giving, not taking".

Dr. Marcy escapes and later, Tina readies herself to leave. Out of nowhere, Grant asks if she would stay for him. Replying "Sometimes the blind can see so much clearly than we can", Tina decides to stay and start a new life with Grant.

Now, in the above summary, the plot seems to be as old as the hills, which it is. It has many classic elements of melodrama; a criminal with a conscience healed by love, a rediscovered family relationship (sort of), the constant threat of exposure by outside forces, tragic and sudden illness and death, inexplicable romance between characters to give a happy ending and many more. All of these are standard tropes seen in films right back to the earliest Biograph reels and the dramatic stage before that. Silent movies, for the entirety of their existence loved this type of high drama as it leant itself easily to its visual and emotional style to the point of it unfortunately becoming a cliché, both then and now. This love for torrid theatrical melodrama continued unabated with the coming of sound, and early talkies are littered with a seemingly endless supply of drawing room dramas, essentially filmed plays. Apart from being a way to get hit Broadway plays a showing in the provinces, these were easy to film, used limited sets, showed off the new technology of sound and provided a healthy dose of drama and romance for audiences.

However, the problem is that for a motion picture, a filmed stage play is not too interesting and not every director had the 'Lubitsch touch' to make such things sparkle with life. As a result a lot of early sound pictures, though often of historical and cultural interest are in fact dull as dishwater and awash with semi remembered secondary players getting to grips with talking pictures with varying levels of success. As a result, for a melodrama to stand out from the crowd and shine, a number of elements need to be in place. 

Firstly it needs a plot that is bordering on the ridiculous, with situations and coincidences that are both obvious yet outrageous. The melodrama also needs lead actors that can pull off the material, with the ability to make audiences invest fully in the seriousness of the nonsense going on around them, and if possible wring every droplet of emotion out of the tortured words and scenes. Additionally, supporting actors need to be stoic and sincere, a calm inlet in the middle of a storm. If possible there needs to be at least one cast member who doesn't get any of the above memos and just freestyles a memorable and excessive performance. Add a director with just a smidgen of flair and you possibly have yourself a great example of high melodrama. 

It's a difficult balance, especially for modern audiences, as the worst thing a classic movie can have is an audience laughing at it when it means to be serious. Yet at the other end of the spectrum, there is a fine line to be maintained between high melodrama and high camp. Those are two different things, but often audience hold a movie up as a 'camp classic' when it is not intended that way. We can always laugh with a movie, but laughing at it is unkind and unnecessary. The False Madonna is indeed silly, but it's never funny and contains a sincerity of its convictions at its heart that makes it something bigger than the sum of its parts.

Going back to my essential requirements, The False Madonna scores big with its plot. As if the 'criminal pretends to be the lost mother of a dying blind boy for his money' plot wasn't silly enough, the layers of ridiculousness pile up when the lead is a clearly too young for the part Kay Francis in all her finery. As discussed earlier, this essentially exposes the preposterousness of the story as absolutely no effort is made to make her look even a few years older. Strangely, her 17 year old 'son' is played by John Breedon, an actor a full year older than Kay Francis! Luckily he somewhat looks the part, but is clearly nowhere near his teenage years. These unusual casting decisions actually make the worn out plot that bit more interesting and the quick transitions from criminal enterprise to heart warming love with the addition of sudden tragic death become somewhat more memorable as a result.

However, the real cornerstone of the the whole movie is Kay Francis in a truly star making performance. Here, Kay was at the tail end of her contract with Paramount and on the cusp of her breakthrough move to Warner Bros. It was her first film as the top billed star and showed that she easily had the ability and aura to headline a movie. From her first scenes in the railroad car sitting in thoughtful silence while her criminal cohorts complain about their latest failed grift, we are drawn to her as a conflicted character. The fact that she looks so out of place with a cast of grotesques just highlights her plight, and shows how far she has been pushed to end up so numb to her lifestyle immediately invests the viewer in her dilemma. Kay Francis proves to be an incredibly subtle actress at this stage in her career; she never completely commands or dominates the screen but her furrowed brow and perpetually worried look draws the audience's attention and sympathy. It builds towards her closing speech - a beautifully orchestrated exercise in restrained hysteria that belongs in any Kay Francis highlight reel. It's the sort of lip trembling performance that she perfected at Warner Bros, but in The False Madonna it seems she already has a real understanding of her screen persona and its potential for pathos and tragedy.

William 'Stage' Boyd gives a suitably snarling performance as the amoral Dr. Marcy. His single minded pursuit of wealth by deception contrasts ably with Kay Francis' conflicted mindset. Although off screen scandal derailed the early promise of Boyd's career in talking pictures, he is supremely believable in the part. There's a great moment when he learns that he's not going to get hold of the boy's fortune and he just calmly asks to leave, mentally moving onto his next victim without conscience. Perhaps he could have been used as a more theatrically evil villain but with everything else going on in the story it probably would have been a bit too much. Instead he is a villain in a far more realistic and satisfying way, an eternal grifter.

The rest of the cast are uniformly solid, highlighted by a smooth and understated Conway Tearle deftly weaving through the household drama between the false mother and her son without giving away his hand until the right moment. Other notable players on screen include Marjorie Gateson and Charles D. Brown as a cynical, eternally bickering couple in the quartet of conmen and frequent Hal Roach supporting actress May Wallace expertly lending her motherly face to the role of Phillip's nurse. As usual from a movie of the early sound era, the mix of long time silent bit-parters and recent theatre recruits makes for a rich supporting cast of believable faces.

However, one member of the cast that needs to be mentioned is that of John Breeden, who plays the tragic blind teen Phillip Bellows. He suffers from the same problem as Kay Francis does in playing his supposed mother in that he is plainly too old for the role. Despite his youthful face and costuming he just isn't particularly good in the part, mainly due to the strange acting choices he makes. Age is always a weird thing in classic movies, where 20 year old men wear tweed and smoke pipes and teenagers look like they are in their 30s, and this is no different. Breeden acts with a breathless enthusiasm of a child and an unnerving intensity that makes him borderline creepy. Whatever news he is given, be it his lost mother's poverty or his own fragile health it is all received with the same toothy grin and unwavering puppy dog positivity. Unfortunately the script does him no favours either with dialogue such as "It's lots of fun to be able to give things!". In the end, Breeden being so hyperactively happy is one of the main factors that pushes the movie into the strata of High Melodrama, as his performance is so ridiculous and off tone, like a boy having the best day of his life as the plane he is on is crashing to its destruction. Just a very, very odd performance.

There's not a lot to be said about the direction by Stuart Walker, it's workmanlike and keeps the pace going nicely. Walker only had a brief career as a director before switching to being a producer, but his body of work is solid, with Werewolf of London perhaps being his best known film. Here it could be said that he does an excellent job making the most of such a preposterous script, but some of the performances could have done with more work from him, particularly in toning down John Breeden and perhaps ramping up an often overshadowed Conway Tearle. However, his handling of Phillip's death scene, left mostly in silence and with a static camera fixed on a bedroom doorway, the opening and closing of which cueing the audience in to the health of the ailing boy is sensitive and beautifully staged and probably the highlight of the whole film.

Whether The False Madonna can be considered a good film is entirely reliant on the viewer's personal tastes regarding dramatic styles. It's old fashioned even for 1931, the plot is ridiculous, the key casting is ridiculous and some of the acting choices are ridiculous. For some this would be enough to consign it to the bottom tier of early sound features, but for me the disparate and (have I mentioned?) ridiculous elements somehow come together to produce a hugely entertaining piece of pure unadulterated escapist fun. Holding together this patchwork of preposterousness is an emergent Kay Francis, finding solid feet as a headlining star and previewing a blueprint for the kind of high drama she would go on to be queen of at Warner Bros throughout most of the 1930s. It's also the sort of movie that is meant to be enjoyed when you need to forget all your everyday worries, just as it was meant to be back in 1931. Essentially it's an unmemorable, fairly average movie, but if you decide to buy into its sincerity and histrionics, there's no better way to spend your time than with Kay Francis and some High Melodrama. 

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