Friday, December 26, 2008

The House on 56th Street (1933)

Kay Francis ... Peggy Martin Van Tyle, aka Peggy Stone
Ricardo Cortez ... Bill Blaine
Gene Raymond ... Monte Van Tyle
John Halliday ... Lyndon Fiske
Margaret Lindsay ... Eleanor Van Tyle Burgess
Frank McHugh ... Chester Hunt
William 'Stage' Boyd ... Mr. Bonelli
Hardie Albright ... Henry Burgess
Sheila Terry ... Dolly, a Sextet Girl
Phillip Reed ... Freddy
Philip Faversham ... Gordon
Walter Walker ... Dr. Wyman
Nella Walker ... Eleanor Van Tyle

Directed by Robert Florey.
Story by Joseph Stanley.
Screenplay by Austin Parker & Sheridan Gibney.
Art Direction by Esdras Hartley.
Gowns by Orry-Kelly & Earl Luick.
Cinematography by Ernest Haller.
Film Editing by Howard Bretherton.
Music Direction by Leo F. Forbstein.
Music Composition by W. Franke Harling. & Bernhard Kaun.

A Warner Bros. Picture.
Released December 1, 1933.

Box office information:
Cost of Production: $211,000
Domestic Gross: $410,000
Foreign Gross: $284,000
Total Gross: $694,000
Profit/Loss: (?)

For her last release of 1933, Warner Brothers had decided that it was time to pair their top male and female stars, Paul Muni and Kay Francis, in Ever in My Heart. Unfortunately, Kay and Paul were never paired, and the property went to Barbara Stanwyck. As a result, the studio gave Kay a Ruth Chatterton reject, The House on 56th Street.

When Kay, William Powell, and Chatterton arrived at Warner Brothers in 1932, Ruth had been the top star under contract at Paramount. Her clout was carried over to Warner Brothers, where the roster consisted of B players like Bette Davis and James Cagney. With only a year at the studio, Ruth was beginning to decline in public favor, and Kay was really starting to emerge as an important asset for Warner Brothers.

Ruth blamed the reason for her decline rightfully on Paramount and Warner Brothers, who, after her success in Madame X (1929), paired her in cliché melodramas with little distinction. She had had enough, and her passing on of The House on 56th Street might have not been the worst decision of her career. It’s another mother-child melodrama, with the mother going to great lengths to protect her daughter. This time, the mother takes the blame for the murder her daughter committed, though she walks away unpunished at the end of the final reel.

The previous year, Kay had triumphed in a streak of four excellent movies, Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise among them. The year this movie was produced and released, she had only two notable roles, The Keyhole and Mary Stevens, M.D..

But it was The House on 56th Street which would turn her into a major household name. Film Weekly noted that the production made Kay “a power to be reckoned with at the box-office.” As where Chatterton would have been typecast with this film, Kay was given a transition. It established her as a top melodramatic star and actress, and with Chatterton’s refusal to play the heroine of Mandalay (1934), Kay would complete her eclipse of her as the Queen of Warner Brothers.

Adolphe Menjou was the original choice for the Ricardo Cortez role, and the film was remade in England in 1938 with Bebe Daniels as The Return of Carol Deane. But, as the case with many remakes, Carol Deane lacked the spark of the original version so fondly remembered by critics and audiences of the day.

Webmaster's Review
The Gotham Theatre Follies are the opening attraction of this picture. After three chorus girls parade in period wardrobe, we see Peggy Martin with a smile from ear to ear. She’s drawing attention from both Monte and Lyndon, who are both in love with Peggy and knowledgeable of the situation. “You certainly draw them in, Peggy!” says one of her fellow chorus girls back stage. Her friends insist that she should be with Monte, considering he’s young, handsome, and rich.

When Monte and Lyndon meet at a bar for a drink, Lyndon announces that he’s seen thirty performances, while Monte’s only watched twenty-eight. “I’m two up on you, Monte…” The men exchange competitive stares at each other.

Backstage, Peggy impresses her fellow dancers with the card tricks she learned from her father, who learned from her grandfather.

After the show, Peggy accompanies Lyndon to an elegant party. He raises his glass and makes a toast, “Here’s to the ladies, God bless them. We can’t live with them, and we can’t live without them.” Monte sneaks up on Peggy at the party and confesses his love for her. They makes plans for a ride in the park. “I’d feel so happy…if I didn’t feel like I was hurting someone else,” she tells Monte. He not only proposes marriage, but tells her she can not go on with her career onstage.

As Peggy returns home, Lyndon is already there waiting for her. He begins to tell her to watch out for Monte, because his family record is one filled with cheating men who love their women until they tire of them.

Monte and Peggy marry, and spend their honeymoon in Paris, watching a performance at the Moulin Rouge, taking a ride on a gondolier, and partying at luxury gambling houses. Unfortunately, Peggy shows signs of having a gambling problem, and Monte shows concern for their future if she is unable to stop her addiction to cards.

The Van Tyle’s return to their beautiful home in New York. Monte has spent an unbelievable amount of money furnishing their new home, the house on 56th Street. “I love it so much…that I can just sit on the floor and…pat it!” Peggy says, teary eyed and everything. A newspaper clipping tells the news of the Van Tyle’s delivery of a baby girl.

Years later, Peggy’s mother in law introduces her to a friend of hers, Lyndon Fiske. “I’ve missed you more than I thought it was possible for one person to miss another,” he says. A few more years later, Peggy receives a note from Lyndon announcing that his doctor is sending him to Europe, and that he would like to see her one more time before he departs. “I made one great mistake in my life, giving you up,” he tells her.

“I should have known we couldn’t go on being friends,” Peggy tells him as he goes overboard with the confessions of love. She tells him that she’s leaving forever, and Lyndon shoots himself as a result. When the butler walks into the room, Peggy is seen with the gun in her hand, and charged with the murder of Lyndon Fiske.

Charged with manslaughter, Peggy gets twenty years for the crime she didn’t commit. “I wish it were possible for you to go ahead without ever thinking of me again,” she says with tears in her eyes. Out of interest for their daughter, Eleanor, Peggy tells Monte to take her far away, that she’s giving Eleanor up as a daughter, and hopes that Monte will find someone respectable to fill that role.

A montage of newspaper headlines appear as we see Kay playing cards, and a pendulum of a clock swinging back and forth. 1925 arrives, and Peggy is now free. A culture shock has her startled. All of a sudden there are cars and skyscrapers which fill up New York City, and she learns that Monte was killed in action in World War I. Eleanor has been brought up to assume her mother is dead.

“I want everything. A manicure, a massage, the color of my hair changed,” she tells the owner of a beauty salon. “I want to go out of her a completely different person.” We see a makeup process until, finally, it’s Kay Francis!

Onboard a ship, sultry Ricardo Cortez (Bill Blaine) approaches her from behind. Trying to get some, as always in these PreCodes, he asks her for cocktails. She is warned that Mr. Blaine is a compulsive gambler. She can care less. Peggy’s learned from the best of them.

Peggy has a crowd breathless as she basically kicks Blaine’s ass in an intense game of cards. Realizing they can get a shit load of money by ripping others off as a team, they decide to work together. Different gestures by Peggy indicate what moves Bill should make while he plays some innocent morons in unfair games.

A newspaper clipping announces the wedding of Eleanor to Henry Burgess.

In the back of a car, Bill tells Peggy that she’s going to be a sensation as the first female black jack gambler in New York. When they arrive at the gambling house, the house on 56th Street, it, of course, is the same one that Monte had built for Peggy and himself when they were first married. The beautiful bedroom Monte had shown her when they first entered back in 1905 is now one of the hottest spots to gamble away massive amounts of money.

One night, a friend visits Eleanor at the bar. She confesses that she’s had a huge gambling problem in her past, and that she is staying clear of the card table because she’s finally got healthy finances. When her husband decides to let her play, Peggy realizes that she’s going to be playing her own daughter. She lets Eleanor win, of course, until Bill tells her to teach her a lesson that will prevent her from gabling the rest of her life. By the end of the game, she’s more than $5,000 in the red.

“Don’t you think you’d better stop?”

“I don’t stop until I win.”

Morning comes, and Eleanor has gambled away $15,000. Bill tells her to come back after some sleep, where they can “talk” in his office. Later, the two get into an intense argument, and Eleanor pulls out a gun and shoots Bill dead. Peggy runs into the room to see Eleanor standing there emotionless. “He…he was telephoning my husband…”

“Wait out there,” says Peggy.

When Peggy gets to Eleanor, she finds her sobbing, saying that her mother had shot a man and was taken away to jail for it. Overwhelmed with guilt, Peggy tells her that Bill’s still alive, and that she needs to get as far away from New York as possible. When Bill is discovered dead, Peggy takes the wrap for it, but the owner of the house realizes that he needs her to make the money. Peggy agrees to the owner, just as she had to Monte, that she will never leave the house, the house on 56th Street.

This was the movie that made Kay Francis a household name. Ruth Chatterton had turned the property down, and, with the failure of Chatterton’s Frisco Jenny (1932), it was clear that Kay had eclipsed Ruth as Queen of the Warner Brothers lot.

Mary Stevens, M.D. (1933) had Kay suffering from the death of her child at the end of the picture, and she was next loaned out to Metro Goldwyn Mayer for Storm at Daybreak (1933). The House on 56th Street was her return to Warner Brothers, and the mother-love drama caused such a sensation that this movie officially began the formula for which most of the subsequent Kay Francis movies were based.

I Found Stella Parish (1935), Give Me Your Heart (1936), Confession (1937), and Comet Over Broadway (1938) had plot similarities to this movie, at least in terms of Kay’s relationships with her onscreen children. All were made for Warner Brothers, who took immediate notice of the public’s desire to watch Kay suffer for the sake of her children.

Kay’s performance rides along dramatic excellence and slight camp. The ridiculous situation doesn’t help (arriving at the gambling house which is the same home she once shared with her heavenly husband?). But, still, it’s one of her best roles. Gene Raymond is one of my favorite actors, and he’s a real gift in this movie. It’s a shame he didn’t make more movies with Kay like Ricardo Cortez (who, by the way, is excellent and unusually natural in his role of the gambler) did.

Michael Curtiz didn’t direct this one. Robert Florey did, and made an excellent job of doing so. Though Curtiz directed nearly all of Kay’s most notable Warner Brothers features (Mandalay [1934], British Agent [1934], Stolen Holiday [1937]), Florey never directed her again after this one.

It’s a great film.

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