Saturday, July 28, 2012

But the Flesh Is Weak (MGM, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was But the Flesh Is Weak, the next film on the TCM sequence of movies by director Jack Conway from which we’d already screened Untamed, They Learned About Women and The Easiest Way. Once again Robert Montgomery was the male lead — as he was in Untamed and The Easiest Way — though the difference was by then he’d already been in the marvelous 1931 adaptation of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, and But the Flesh Is Weak (the listing has a hyphen in front of the title but the actual opening credit doesn’t) and this was clearly a follow-up. MGM bought the movie rights to The Truth Game, a highly popular 1928 play by Ivor Novello in which Novello himself had starred in both London and New York (so once again Montgomery was cast in a part created by a British Gay playwright as a starring vehicle for himself) and the movie went through various titles, including Novello’s original one as well as Mister and Mistress (which probably would have been too raw even for the relatively loose so-called “pre-Code” era!) and A Family Affair. This time Montgomery was clearly the star attraction: not only was he the only actor billed above the title, but the female leads, Nora Gregor and Heather Thatcher, weren’t exactly household names then or since.

The story casts Montgomery as Max Clement, whose father Florian (C. Aubrey Smith at his most C. Aubrey Smithiest) is training him to marry a rich woman in order to replenish the completely drained family fortunes — advice Florian once gave himself, only to ignore it and marry Max’s now-deceased mother instead. Accordingly Max cruises Lady Joan Culver (Heather Thatcher), whom the American Film Institute Catalog describes as “plain, but very kind,” though she seemed less “plain” to me than surprisingly butch, given an unattractive hairdo, ugly glasses and a severe, almost masculine wardrobe not that different from how Dorothy Mackaill had dressed in Warners’ The Flirting Widow (another rom-com about the British classes) the year before, and when Lady Joan says she’s lived for 10 years of adult life without any thought of marriage, one practically expects her to add, “At least not marriage to a man!” Only when Lady Joan takes Max home with her and a party is in full swing, Max is immediately smitten by one of the other guests, Rosine Brown (Nora Gregor), whose thick German accent is explained in the script by her being a Viennese woman who married an Englishman who has since died. Max is insistent on getting Rosine even though she’s not only broke, she has a sugar daddy of her own, foofy Lord George Kelvin (Edward Everett Horton), who shows up at Rosine’s house when Max is there — and Max actually locks Rosine in her bedroom and practically rapes her before she finally falls in love with him (either that or he just wears her down).

Max is ready to marry Rosine when his dad screws things up at a casino at which Florian hits a lucky streak, wins 5,000 pounds at baccarat, then loses it all and ends up 4,500 pounds in debt — and Max abruptly reverses course and proposes to Joan on condition that she cover his father’s debt. Only Rosine shows up at Joan’s engagement party and Max decides to tell Joan the truth: he’s genuinely fond of her and he’ll try to make her a good husband, but Rosine is the one he’s really in love with. Joan agrees to let Max go but Rosine is understandably upset that Max jilted her for Joan’s money, and it’s only when Max traps her in a bedroom (again!) and hits her that Rosine finally submits again, and there’s a clever finale in which Max is driving away in a car, Rosine runs after him, Max gets out of the car and they make up and then suddenly realize that the car is going off by itself with no one at the wheel, and they chase after it. The car, it turns out, is a present from Max’s father Florian, who landed a middle-aged rich woman, Lady Ridgway (Eva Moore, the religious fanatic in The Old Dark House) — in fact the one he jilted way back when to marry Max’s mom — so he’s got the money to pay Joan back and leave Max and Rosine enough to start a life together. There are some interesting casting quirks, including two of the character actors from Frankenstein, Frederick Kerr and Forrester Harvey — indeed, Kerr plays Joan’s father and after the wedding party turns into a fiasco I joked that Kerr would say, “Now I have to go worry about my son, the one who’s creating a monster in an abandoned lighthouse” — as well as Nils Asther, who’s billed fourth but only appears in one scene towards the end as Prince Paul, a rich man Rosine latches onto after Max temporarily abandons her for Joan. (He’s ahead of C. Aubrey Smith, who has a far larger part in the film in terms of character importance and screen time.)

But the Flesh Is Weak is clearly a movie that could only have been made in the so-called “pre-Code” (actually the Production Code was in effect but it was much more loosely enforced than it was later) period, what Charles and I like to call the “Hollywood glasnost,” and its easy equation of love and money as equally important motives for marriage and its honesty towards the existence of mistresses and the sugar daddies (or, sometimes, sugar mamas) that support them clearly mark it as a European rather than an American story — while the streak of romantic violence in Montgomery’s character is clearly (also) a reprise from Private Lives and he makes it credible even though the idea that a man could win a woman literally by beating her into submission seems not only barely credible but downright offensive today: one reviewer noted that if a man behaved today the way Montgomery’s character does in this film at best he’d have restraining orders taken out against him and at worse he’d be prosecuted for rape and assault. Novello appears to have written the script for the film himself — at least no other writer is credited — and there’s a joke that seems odd coming from a British author: in the middle of a play attended by the characters, Max and Rosine leave during the second-act intermission and Max says, “There’s nothing wrong with an intermission. It depends on what it intermits” — the reason that’s odd in a British play is that in Britain a break in the middle of a performance isn’t called an “intermission” but an “interval.” (Maybe Novello wrote that joke for the New York version of the play.) It’s a charming story and Jack Conway directs it pretty straightforwardly, though it’s witty enough and moves fast enough that it doesn’t come off as a photographed play. I’m surprised to learn both from the American Film Institute Catalog and that MGM actually did a “post-Code” remake, Free and Easy, in 1941 (a title recycled from Buster Keaton’s first talkie in 1930!), which would be interesting to see if only to learn how they bowdlerized it to get past the Production Code Administration and the Legion of Decency!