Sunday, December 28, 2008
Allotment Wives (1945)
Kay Francis ... Sheila Seymour
Paul Kelly ... Major Pete Martin
Otto Kruger ... Whitey Colton
Gertrude Michael ... Gladys Smith
Teala Loring ... Connie Seymour
Bernard Nedell ... Spike Malone
Anthony Warde ... Joe Agnew
Matty Fain ... Louie Moranto
Jonathan Hale ... Brig. General H. N. Gilbert
Selmer Jackson ... Deacon Sam
Terry Frost ... George Shields
Reid Kilpatrick ... Philip Van Brook
Doris Lloyd ... Alice Van Brook
Marcelle Corday ... Madame Gaston
Evelyn Eaton ... Ann Farley
Directed by William Nigh.
Produced by Jeffery Bernerd & Kay Francis.
Story by Sidney Sutherland.
Screenplay by Harvey Gates & Sidney Sutherland.
Art Direction by Dave Milton.
Set Decoration by Vin Taylor.
Cinematography by Harry Neumann.
Film Editing by William Austin.
Miss Francis' Gowns by Odette Myrtil.
Miss Francis' Hats by Keneth Hopkins.
Musical Direction by Edward J. Kay.
Special Effects by Bob Clark.
A Monogram Picture.
Released December 29, 1945.
Everyone loves a good fulfillment of campy melodrama every now and then for some humorous relief. Allotment Wives takes the form of campy film noir, a sort-of take on Mildred Pierce (1945) in which a self-sacrificing mother will do anything to garner happiness for her daughter. While Mildred Pierce asks the question “could this mother really have committed murder?” Allotment Wives asks “who the hell didn’t this manipulative monster-mommy didn’t have gunned down?”
Kay Francis is, of course, the monster-mommy. It’s one of her best roles.
By 1945 Kay’s generation of Hollywood (Norma Shearer, Garbo, Dietrich, Joan Crawford) had been all but eclipsed by the younger Judy Garland, Greer Garson, Lana Turner, and Betty Grable. At that time, Joan Crawford’s career had slumped considerably, though not as much as Kay’s. When Warner Brothers gave her the title role of Mildred Pierce, the budget was limited due to a belief that Joan, like Kay, was still “box office poison.”
The film exploded at the box office, being one of the top-ten grossing movies of the year, and Crawford won an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance. As usual, the smaller “poverty row” studios, such as Monogram Pictures, were quick to market off of the success of Mildred by producing their own version. Since the Production Code Administration paid less attention to studios like Monogram, a character like Shelia Seymour could virtually kill off an entire city population as long as she was gunned down---by honest policemen--- at the end.
Similar to Divorce, Allotment Wives was co-produced by Kay with Jeffery Bernerd. The cast, with the exception of Kay, was an unfamiliar one. Gertrude Michael, who played Gladys Smith, was one of the more promising starlets of Pre-Code Hollywood. Her battle with alcoholism seriously limited her chances at emerging into a famous celebrity. But that's about it, and it's unusual that Kay didn't get star billing in this one, but then again, maybe it's better she wasn't picky about such things at the end of her career in films.
A typical low-budget programmer, Allotment Wives was completed within ten days and released to smaller theaters of lesser quality. It didn't become a box office record-breaker, but had a respectable run because of Kay, who, in the eyes of most moviegoers, was not in favor of a rebirth---in Hollywood, at least---like Joan Crawford. Perhaps it's better that Kay ended her career when she did.
But then again, perhaps not...
Allotment Wives opens with a brief explanation about the War Department Office of Dependency Benefits (ODB), and their effort to aid the families of servicemen giving the ultimate sacrifice for their country by serving in World War II.
However, the narrator also describes the attempts made of those who saw the ODB’s efforts as a quick way to make some serious cash. Women were married off to naive servicemen, collecting their checks from the ODB and giving them back to racket-leaders who organized the whole ordeal.
These women became known as "Allotment Wives..."
The film opens with Colonel Pete Martin reporting to General Gilbert to learn more about the racket, and tips on how to uncover new leaders and expose this scam by destroying it from the inside out. Gilbert uses the Sheila Seymour case as a prime example of how intelligent and unsuspecting these criminals can be.
Of anyone involved in this ordeal, Shelia Seymour would be the most unlikely of criminals. She ran the most successful canteen for servicemen, aside from running her own beauty salon, which was a front for where her crew would hold their emergency meetings.
Gilbert begins to explain the case…with the story really being told in flashback, though there is no narration or returns to Gilbert’s office, with the exception of the end of the film.
On a beautiful day, Shelia Seymour lunches with businessmen, discussing plans for her canteen. At the other end of the diner, a woman and her man are busted for passing money across a table, before an unsuspecting serviceman sits down at the table to meet a “swell” girl someone he knew put a good word in for. A policeman busts the two, sends the officer on his way, and arrests the allotment wife and her organizer.
When the organizer tries to pull a gun on the officer, Pete succeeds in breaking his plans, and the two are walked off to jail.
Shelia returns to her beauty salon where she holds an emergency meeting in her office. There her men discuss what’s been going on, and the ODB’s realization as to what’s been going on. When one of the men suspects danger, Shelia responds that “A hot breath on my back is sometimes more stimulating than a cold shower.”
Moranto, a slimeball who had been planning to take over Shelia’s racket, is thrown out of her group and gunned down after they disperse. Watch when Kay scolds him and then tells him “You’re through! Get out!”
Shelia and Whitey, probably the man most closest to her in her life, sit down and begin to discuss things. Most important to Shelia is Connie, her daughter, who the two spot drunk in a bar just a Shelia begins to tell him that “the only decent though in the world I ever had was for her.” They get her home, put her to bed, and Shelia heads over to her canteen.
There she runs into Gladys Smith, an old associate of hers who she pretends to have no idea of when Gladys first approaches her. Shelia, whose real name was Edna, and Gladys were buddies on the streets, growing up as kids. They were sent to reform school, after which Shelia married rich and manipulated what she couldn’t get to her advantage. Gladys remained on a more obvious path, and is now working for Moranto’s crew.
When Shelia returns home, Connie comes down the stairs to have a blow-out with her mother which rivals the one between Joan Crawford and Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce. “I’m tired of your preaching!” Connie screams. “I’m tired of being another stupid mother’s daughter. I’m tired of you!” Of course she gets slapped, then covered in remorse from Shelia, who promises that if Connie returns to school and finishes, she, Shelia, and Whitey will go on a special vacation together.
The two have a drink, while Gladys spies through a window. She was given the cold shoulder by Shelia when she approached her at the canteen, and wanted to make sure that Shelia was really “Edna.” She shakes her head and tells her accomplice she’s “sure,” and the two drive off into the night.
Later, when Gladys returns to Shelia’s home, the two discuss their past while Gladys gleefully throws out how they used to share the things they stole growing up. “Stealing was a stupid way to get up in the world,” Shelia tells her, right before she offers Gladys a job at her beauty salon as a chance to make some money.
Both are on to each other from there on, and Shelia arranges to have Whitey set Gladys up so she gets arrested and taken out of the game. The charge is bigamy. Shelia believes that, before Gladys married her second serviceman, she was still married to the first one.
Unfortunately, this proves to be false. The first husband was killed in action literally right before Gladys remarried. But while in the cell, Gladys finds out some interesting information from her cellmate...
Remember the woman in the diner who was arrested? Turns out she is Gladys’ cellmate, and the two begin to discuss things by writing with lipstick on a stool (Gladys suspects they have the cell rigged with “electric ears,” which proves to be true). Through this Gladys learns that Shelia arranged Moranto’s death, and now has a full-blown dedication to go after her old partner in crime, and get back at her by targeting the one thing more important to Shelia than anything else: Connie.
Gladys takes Connie under her wing, and plans to make big money off of her by marrying her off to unsuspecting servicemen. When Shelia hears of this, she is enraged, telling Whitey that “I want Connie and I want her quick. And also, I want Gladys Smith. I want her all to myself. Tell the boys to bring her to me. There’s $5,000 for the one who gets her. Trouble for all if they don’t.”
That very night Gladys and her accomplice, Spike, show up at Shelia’s during the middle of the night. Armed with guns, Spike goes downstairs to clear out Shelia’s safe, while Gladys stays in Shelia’s room. Gladys grabs the phone, calls the ODB---planning on having them go arrest Connie---and before she can mention Shelia’s name, Shelia grabs her gun and shoots Gladys dead.
As soon as Shelia’s boys shoot Spike dead, they meet her upstairs where she orders them to “Get rid of that,” glancing at Gladys’ body. They all run out to get Connie out of the jail. Shelia goes as an unsuspecting friend of one of the officers. She offers to “talk to the girl,” while her men come in and pretend to kidnap Connie, bringing her to home.
There’s a shoot-out during this, and Whitey is gunned down by the officers.
Back at Shelia’s place, she and Connie plan to leave the country for their trip. After years of a rocky relationship, the two begin to make fresh start. “Mother, I think you’re wonderful,” Connie tells her.
Meanwhile the police uncover Shelia’s racket, and arrive at her house right before she and Connie are to leave. Standing at the top of the stairs, just after she pulls her gun, Shelia is shot down by the officers, her last words being “Nice shooting.” She then tumbles forward.
Back in General Gilbert’s office, discussing what happened, Pete chimes in that they convicted Connie Seymour, also. They agree that Connie was the least innocent of them all, considering she was Shelia’s “adopted daughter.”
Before her death, Shelia made sure that, if anything were to happen to her, people would believe that she had adopted Connie, found her on the street, anything but know the truth, which was that she was born to a criminal mother with no sense of good or evil.
It was Shelia’s last heroic effort to protect the only thing she considered valuable in her life, her own daughter.
I love this film. Luckily, it was one of the first Kay Francis movies I ever saw, and I consider myself so lucky because of that.
Her performance is superb, and her best scenes are in the meeting at the salon, when she argues with Whitey over Connie’s behavior, her argument with Connie about her leaving of school, and the one when Gladys and Spike enter her room in the middle of the night.
There’s a hardness, a bitterness, to this performance which makes it unlike anything Kay had ever done. She really makes one picture her on the street as a kid with Gladys, stealing and cheating to get back what life denied her.
Kay’s hairstyle in the film is a little ridiculous; clearly a cheap imitation of Joan Crawford’s in Mildred Pierce. It adds to the campiness of the overall production.
Gertrude Michael, as Gladys, also is phenomenal. She’s unbelievably fake, manipulative, and deceiving. Connie is an annoying character, but Otto Kruger does wonders with his Whitey. He’s all-knowing, and tells Shelia everything she needs to hear, whether she wants to believe him at first or not.
There’s a sleaziness to this cheap Monogram output which makes it one of the best the studio ever released. It’s one of their most popular films, for obvious reasons. Old crime movies like these are so irresistible, with all the shootings, smack-talk, slang, and perverseness to the over-all atmosphere.
William Nigh also directed Kay’s first Monogram feature, Divorce (1945), but he did not direct Wife Wanted (1946). He creates a blood-thirsty atmosphere with a direction which is far superior to Divorce. There’s a lot more action to Allotment Wives, and the story gets around a lot more, too. Granted it gives him more opportunity for artistic freedom, but Nigh runs with it to his fullest possible extent.
For this he is due a major credit.
On the scale of “must-sees” in Kay Francis’ work, one being the least notable and ten being the highest, I’d rate Allotment Wives at around eleven or twelve. It’s great, ridiculous crime entertainment, and surely anyone who watches it will agree they would like to see it again, and again, and again…