Posted by Jeff Stafford on August 19, 2012
Tuesday, August 21st marks Kay Francis day on TCM’s Summer Under the Stars and the lineup of films should not only please her avid fans but also introduce newbies to this elegant underrated actress of the early sound era who is not that well known today. While there are plenty of high points to recommend here from the giddy sophisticated comedy-romance Jewel Robbery (1932), a Pre-Code Ernst Lubitsch wannabe, to the eclectic political espionage thriller British Agent (1934) to the exotic and risque melodrama Mandalay (1934), I cast my vote for THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET (1933) as the quintessential Kay Francis vehicle and an excellent introduction to the actress.
Made at the height of her career at Warner Bros. and following her critical and boxoffice successes in Trouble in Paradise and One Way Passage the previous year, THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET seems tailor-made for Francis’s screen persona and gives her one of her best roles as Peggy Martin, a coquettish showgirl whose rise and fall is chronicled over a 25 year period beginning in 1905. Ironically enough, the part was originally intended for Ruth Chatterton who turned it down but it seems more appropriate for Francis who receives name-above-the-title billing and owns the movie from first to last frame.
Peggy Martin is a dream part for any actress, requiring one to go from youthful high spirits to weary middle age with plenty of dramatic transitions along the way. But it also accents the qualities Francis was famous for – her flair for playing strong-willed, resilient characters, many of them career women, and her stylish sense of fashion (she has no less than 36 costume changes which was a major selling point to female audiences of her era). It’s true Warner Bros. made the mistake of casting her in too many cliched programmers with inferior scripts such as Dr. Monica (1934) that might have been surefire moneymakers and pleased her fans at the time but it ultimately worked against her as Bette Davis soon eclipsed her as the studio’s biggest, most prestigious star. Yet, despite a steady stream of soap operas (Street of Women, 1932), melodramas (Confession, 1937) and tearjerkers (Give Me Your Heart, 1936), Francis often elevated a film’s quality by her presence alone and, in many cases, gave superb performances in movies that tend to go unnoticed today like THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET.
In his reference work, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, film scholar David Thomson writes that “Kay Francis was a short-lived bloom, as far-fetched as the sophisticated romances of the early thirties where clothes were identity. But in A Woman’s View (1993), Jeanine Basinger makes a good case for remembering the intensity of Kay Francis’s brief impact, and the curiosity of her special reliance on the glamour (or religion) of clothes and jewels. She was a strange couture goddess who lived with the rumor that she had some black blood, as well as coded diaries that alluded to boozing and sleeping around. She soldiered on, despite a lisp that let her “r”s sound like “w”s; and despite a huge salary engineered by agent Myron Selznick who got her away from Paramount and over to Warner Brothers. In truth, that was a tough shift, for Paramount was a studio that loved clothes and those ladies who treasured them.”
THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET is like an epic mini-series compressed into a 69 minute feature and, as directed by Robert Florey, there is not a wasted minute. It’s an emotional rollercoaster ride that works as a satisfying, populist entertainment but offers something more too – a sense of tragic grandeur that gives the ending a bitter sting in the manner of….say, Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, though some like find it closer to the surprise twist of an O. Henry short story. While it doesn’t really qualify as some forgotten masterpiece, THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET has a distinct and engaging literary quality about it and was based on a popular novel of its day by Joseph Santley.
The first section of the film, set in the pre-automobile days of New York City, establishes Peggy as a vivacious young thing with the world at her feet, especially male admirers. She is being courted by (and is clearly the mistress of) Lyndon Fiske (John Halliday), an older, wealthy man about town who has no intention of marriage. At the same time, Peggy is being pursued by Monte Van Tyle (Gene Raymond), a younger man from high society who proves to be more than just a galavanting playboy.
The young couple fall in love, marry against his parent’s wishes (a scene that takes place off camera, keeping the pacing brisk) and take a honeymoon to Europe where Peggy’s talent for gambling emerges at a Venice casino. (This becomes a character strength AND liability and has a cyclical effect in the storyline; it will become a trait her daughter inherits as well). Peggy has already admitted a flair for card games due to her father’s influence – he was allegedly a riverboat card shark – but Monte notes an obsessive quality to Peggy’s gaming at the tables and is compelled to address this during their Venice stay.
Peggy: I could live here forever. Isn’t it thrilling?
Monte: That wouldn’t please me at all.
P: Why? It’s so exciting.
M: That’s just why.
P: What do you mean?
M: When you gamble, you seem to forget everything, even me.
M: But you do. It seems to take complete possession of you. That isn’t good for you, you know. Besides, I’m just a little bit jealous. I don’t want to share you with anything, not even gambling.
P: You know, my father once said chance was the most fascinating thing in the world. It’s in my blood I guess but dearest, if it upsets you one tiny bit, I promise never to do it again.
The foreshadowing is self-evident and you know promises are made to be broken in THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET but just when you think the narrative is going to settle into a gambling addiction morality tale like the 1949 Barbara Stanwyck vehicle The Lady Gambles, the film goes off in an unexpected direction. In fact, like any good mini-series, THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET continues to introduce surprising twists and turns along the way and characters who make strong impressions but disappear after their service to the plot has been fulfilled. Among those who make their brief scenes count are John Halliday as Peggy’s jilted suitor whose suicide attempt launches the third act of the story, Ricardo Cortez – often typecast as slick, seductive hustlers – oozes predatory charm here as Bill Blaine, Peggy’s “business partner” in act four of the story, and Margaret Lindsay as the daughter who never learns that Peggy is her mother and re-enters her life in the film’s final act, bringing a happy/sad closure to it.
Of course, the actual house on 56th Street is as important a character as anyone in the movie and serves (over a period of time) as a luxurious mansion, a gambling den and a tomb for Peggy. When Francis says earlier in the movie, “I never want to leave this house. I want to live here always,” the words come back to haunt her in the worst way. Yes, there have been many other movies where a house has played a key role – Forever and a Day (1943), for example, and both versions of The Haunting, but THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET is a superior early example of this now familiar plot device.
There are also elements of Madame X and Stella Dallas throughout THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET with Francis playing the self-sacrificing mother to absurd lengths but so convincingly that she is never laughable. And there are hints and glimpses of an even darker movie around the edges that become more prophetic as you reach the bleak final shot – all evidence of Robert Florey’s masterful direction. He would work similar minor miracles on two Peter Lorre B-movies: The Face Behind the Mask (1941), a surprisingly moving melodrama with a tragic rise-and-fall scenario not unlike the Kay Francis vehicle, and The Beast With Five Fingers (1946), an atmospheric, almost hallucinatory thriller which Luis Bunuel had worked on briefly before being discharged by the studio.
The one stumbling block to THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET for some may be the period setting. I have to admit that the turn-of-the-century is probably my least favorite period of 20th century America – at least as depicted on the screen. It’s ridiculous I know but there is something extremely suffocating, staid and repressive in the look of the era from the fashions – bowler hats, tall, stiff collars and Gibson Girl hairdos to the music (chorus girls doing the Can-Can, barbershop quartets, songs like “Daisy Bell” or “Put on Your Old Grey Bonnett”) to the day to day culture (horse-drawn carriages, bicycles built for two, etc.) It’s a world that seems strangely alien and irrelevant now unlike the Roaring ‘20s which is more approachable because of certain aspects like gangsters, Prohibition, the Great Depression – things that still resonate today because there are modern parallels. Despite this, THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET does an admirable job of recreating the period and then whizzes through it to the jazz age – the tumultuous events of the era are depicted in a montage of newspaper headlines (the sinking of the Titantic, the beginning of WWI, The Stock Market crash) as Peggy serves time in prison on a manslaughter charge only to emerge in a New York City she no longer recognizes.
THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET was well received by critics and audiences alike in 1933 with The New York Times reviewer writing, “Kay Francis is the leading player in “The House on 56th Street,” which is quite an original and intriguing pictorial drama. The actual story is secondary to the interesting idea of depicting what happens to a dwelling in the East Fifties in the course of a quarter of a century.” More recent fans of the movie include film historian Lawrence Quirk who claims the movie “contains Kay Francis’s finest performance, in the type of role that made her a household name in the 1930s. The House on 56th Street is not only the perfect Kay Francis vehicle – it is in its own right a touching nostalgic romance that haunts the memory.” Lynn Kear and John Rossman, authors of Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career, consider it one of the actress’s best performances, and the Self-Styled Siren notes, “It’s very much a Depression movie, one that looks back at past gaiety, beauty and love and can’t stop grieving for the way it’s all been snatched away. The sheer bloody unfairness of what happens to Kay must have been so real to an audience whose hopes for comfort had been brutally rescinded through no sin of their own.”
Decide for yourself when TCM airs THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET on Tuesday, August 21 at 9:30 pm ET. The movie is also available on DVD from The Warner Archives Collection.
Sources and articles of interest:
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