by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film Charles and I watched last night was The Velvet Touch, a 1948 vehicle for Rosalind Russell that was the third film under a three-picture contract she had signed with RKO. The first two films she made for them had been serious, high-minded projects — Sister Kenny (1946), a favorite of mine because it’s one of the most savage and cogent attacks on medical orthodoxy ever produced by a Hollywood studio; and a three-hour plus adaptation of Mourning Becomes Electra, Eugene O’Neill’s famous play, made in 1947 and, like Sister Kenny, directed by former screenwriter Dudley Nichols. (Russell wanted to get Greta Garbo out of retirement to play her mother in Mourning Becomes Electra, but when Garbo said no she and Nichols ended up hiring Katina Paxinou, even though the age difference between them was only three years.)
Both Sister Kenny and Mourning Becomes Electra were major box-office bombs, and so for the third film Russell owed RKO she and her husband, Frederick Brisson (son of Danish entertainer Carl Brisson, who starred in the 1934 “pre-Code” musical Murder at the Vanities), decided to reach for a sure-fire property and make a sleazy film that would be a box-office smash and restore her star standing. What they came up was a wild melodrama that quite frankly would have been better suited for Bette Davis or Joan Crawford: four writers — William Mercer and Annabel Ross, story; Walter Reilly, adaptation; and Leo Rosten (the only one of these writers I’d otherwise heard of), script — concocted a story in which Russell was cast as Valerie Stanton, Broadway stage star whose career has been directed to the heights by her combination producer and lover, Gordon Dunning (Leon Ames, in a surprisingly sleazy performance for someone best known as the all-wise father of Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis and Doris Day in On Moonlight Bay), who has given her a series of comedies with fluffy titles like “It’s a Gay Life” and “Scandalous.”
Valerie is losing interest in Dunning both as career mentor and romantic partner: she wants to replace him in the former role with Peter Gunther (Walter Kingsford), who wants her to star in his new production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler; and in the latter role with Michael Morrell (a role that cried out for Cary Grant and got Leo Genn, who though a fine actor simply isn’t charismatic enough to be credible as the man no woman can resist). After the final performance of her latest production, she and Dunning have a confrontation in his office in the theatre building, and he insists that he’s not going to let her go as either lover or star; he grabs her and she reaches behind him, grabs an award he won for best director in 1940, and clubs him with it. The film begins with her clubbing Dunning, presumably to death (I say “presumably” because for a while I thought the writers were leaving open the possibility that her blow had merely rendered him unconscious, and someone else had sneaked in later and finished him off, but no-o-o-o-o: it soon develops that we’re supposed to understand that she did indeed kill him), then flashes back and spends about half its 101-minute running time giving us all this as backstory before it returns to the present tense about midway through with the welcome appearance of Sydney Greenstreet as Captain Danbury of the New York Police Department, whose cool professionalism dominates the second half of the movie over the relentless overacting of the rest of the cast.
Danbury soon decides that Dunning was killed not by Valerie but by Marian Webster (a surprisingly homely-looking Claire Trevor), her rival both professionally and for Dunning’s affections — indeed, during the flashback we find that Valerie tried to get Dunning and Marian back together so he’d leave her alone and let her marry Michael, but all that resulted was a nasty and very public argument between Dunning and Marian in Sardi’s restaurant that Danbury learns about and is thereby convinced that Marian had a motive to kill Dunning — and Marian ultimately commits suicide, which convinces Danbury that she was guilty and he can close the case. Only Valerie finds herself driven crazy by her own guilty conscience as she rehearses Hedda Gabler, and the writers and no-name director John Gage spend about half an hour leading us to believe that on opening night Valerie will substitute a genuine, loaded pistol for the prop gun with which she is supposed to commit suicide at the end of the play and off herself for real — only in the end she doesn’t: she leaves Danbury a note with her confession on it (written, natch, on a page torn out of a program for the play) and survives long enough to take her curtain call before he takes her in at the end.
The Velvet Touch is total nonsense as a story, and as a vehicle for Russell it leaves a lot to be desired — we don’t know whether she survives at the end out of a Production Code decree or because as a ham actress she wasn’t going to off herself before having a chance to take a curtain call — we want to see Russell over the top in a comedy context, as Auntie Mame or Mama Rose, but not in this sort of heavy-breathing melodrama Davis or Crawford could have done better. There does seem to be a certain autobiographical aspect in this movie — after she’d made two High Dramas which had been box-office flops Russell may have been feeling as trapped by audience expectations as Valerie is in the story, burning for a chance to play drama while her public made it clear they wanted to see her in comedy — and as effective co-producer (Mr. Brisson gets sole credit but I’m sure he and Mrs. Brisson collaborated in a lot of their decisions about this production!) as well as star she seems to want to have it both ways, including enough scenes from Hedda Gabler to show she could act in a classic drama (the closing credits have a separate title card for the onscreen cast of the play-within-the-film, with Russell the only actor who’s in both the Gabler sequences and the overall movie) even though the early scenes of her acting in one of Dunning’s comedies are by far the ones in which she seems the most comfortable and appealing. Still, The Velvet Touch is a fun picture in a dumb way, and it made tons of money for the Brissons and for RKO, thereby accomplishing its purpose of rehabilitating its star’s career.