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Saturday, March 30, 2013

THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET (1933)

Don’t let the dreary first half of this Kay Francis MotherLove meller put you off. Once Francis steps out of jail (after 20 years for Manslaughter), the film morphs into a Pre-Code sacrificial tale of considerable perversity. Director Robert Florey doesn’t exactly pour on the style, but he sure crams a lot of story into 68 minutes. Kay’s a dazzling chorus girl in 1905 with two beaux: rich old John Halliday (very creepy), and rich young Gene Raymond (very bland). Decisions, decisions. Francis opts for young Raymond. But after a few years, and a baby girl, she calls on Halliday who’s in poor health, despondent & suicidal. She tries to stop him as the gun goes off; and winds up playing solitaire in a jail cell for a couple of decades while her little girl grows up believing her to be dead. Meantime, Raymond dies in WWI as newspaper headlines tick off the passing scene. Okay, so much for our dreary first half, which is only made worse by gowns & make-up that are unbecoming on Francis . But once she steps out to greet the dashing NYC of the ‘20s, gets a youthifying salon treatment, and joins forces with Ricardo Cortez’s glib card sharp, the film turns into a naughty treat. There’s that long-lost daughter to save (Margaret Lindsay); a second murder to deal with; even a return to her old house on 56th St., now a Den of Iniquity/Speakeasy where the erstwhile newlywed is now Gotham’s top lady Blackjack dealer. The script, showing a remarkable disinclination to match crime to consequences, lets people get away with an awesome array of moral & criminal lapses in the second half. And, with no way to cut around so much ‘objectionable story material,’ once the Production Code started being strictly enforced the following year, this little eye-popper got lost. No classic, not even very good, but a real find.

DOUBLE-BILL: To see Francis at her best, go back a year for ONE-WAY PASSAGE and TROUBLE IN PARADISE/’32. And there’s a late return to form playing against Carole Lombard as Cary Grant’s unyielding spouse in IN NAME ONLY/’39.

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