This post is Cinedrome’s contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association‘s first blogathon of 2013, Fabulous Films of the 1940s. (Now there’s a topic; CMBA could probably do five such ‘thons, with all members taking a different title, and never exhaust the possibilities!) Go here for a complete list of entries; you’ll find my colleagues holding forth on a mouthwatering array of movies legendary and obscure, long-remembered and half-forgotten.
Before I get into my own contribution to the blogathon, here’s a bonus: I can’t make it an official entry because I’ve already posted on this picture before. But if we’re talking about Fabulous Films of the 1940s, I can’t forgo mentioning one of my absolute favorites, Henry Hathaway’s Down to the Sea in Ships (1949). As I said in my post (which you can reach at the link), I simply don’t understand why this one isn’t one of the best-loved movies of all time; sooner or later (and if I have anything to say about it), I’m sure it will be. (UPDATE 2/18/13: Reader David Rayner of Stoke-on-Trent, England, whose admiration equals my own, has written to tell me that Down to the Sea has been released on Region 1 DVD in the US and is available here from Amazon. Don’t miss it!)
But now, getting back to the blogathon at hand — drumroll, please — here’s another one of my particular favorites from that embarrassment-of-riches decade…
Goddard is one of the great also-rans of
movie history. As she never tired of saying, she was the front-runner for the role of Scarlett
O’Hara in Gone With the Wind —
that is, until some pert little nobody from England came along. In an interview late in life,
Goddard told how she had been finally offered the role and, understandably
excited, decided to throw a party to celebrate. Selznick came, she said,
and so did the English actor Laurence Olivier, in town shooting Wuthering Heights for
Sam Goldwyn. Olivier (again, according to Paulette) brought along his
girlfriend Vivien Leigh, Selznick took one look at her, and that was
The story is nonsense, of course. Goddard never
had Scarlett nailed down, certainly not enough to throw a party over it.
David Selznick’s first sight of Leigh is well-documented, and it wasn’t at
Paulette’s house. Just about everybody knows that story, so I needn’t go into it here; suffice it to say the near miss on Gone With the Wind haunted Paulette Goddard for the rest of her life — through her 1940s peak at Paramount (when she never quite made it into the top rank of Hollywood stars), and especially through the long years before her death at 79 in 1990, years during which GWTW‘s fame grew even as her own dwindled.
There’s another sort-of connection with Gone With the Wind in Goddard’s career. It’s a bit of a stretch, I admit, but here goes: As you probably know, during the second half of the 1930s, Scarlett O’Hara was the most coveted role in Hollywood, and the novel’s millions of fans waited breathlessly for the movie David Selznick would make of it. Warner Bros. decided to cash in on the moss-magnolias-and-the-old-plantation fever by dusting off a 1933 Broadway flop by playwright Owen Davis called Jezebel, which also happened to be about a flirtatious and headstrong southern belle. Warners worked it up as a vehicle for Bette Davis and triumphantly swept it to the screen a year ahead of Gone With the Wind.
Fast-forward a few years to 1944. Another novel has set the hearts of America’s female readers a-flutter and got every actress in Hollywood rubbing her hands. The book is Forever Amber by 24-year-old Kathleen Winsor, about an ambitious village girl’s sexual exploits during the Restoration of Charles II of England, up to and including a liaison with the king himself. (Like Gone With the Wind, Forever Amber sparked a vogue for naming newborn girls after its heroine that endures to this day.) When this racy, titillating book by an unknown housewife sold 100,000 copies the first week (on its way to 3 million), Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox wasted no time nailing down the movie rights. Undaunted, the boys at Paramount decided to steal a march on Zanuck the way Warners had on Selznick, and the beneficiary of their ploy was Paulette Goddard.
Born in 1902, Rosamond Marshall wrote some 16 novels altogether between her first, None But the Brave: A Story of Holland in 1942 and her last, The Bixby Girls, published in 1957, the year she died. Her books sold pretty well during her lifetime — especially in paperback reprints with semi-lurid covers and titles like Duchess Hotspur, Rogue Cavalier and The General’s Wench — but only two of them ever made it to the screen: The Bixby Girls (filmed in 1960 as All the Fine Young Cannibals with Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner) and Kitty.
Actually, though, not quite all of Kitty did make it to the screen. Marshall’s novel was what we now call a bodice-ripper, the tale of a 14-year-old London prostitute blithely sleeping her way up the social ladder during the days of King George III. As the story opens, Kitty — she doesn’t have a last name, or at least doesn’t know it — lives with and works for Old Meg in the wretched slums of Houndsditch. Old Meg sold Kitty’s virginity when the girl was only nine, and now Kitty spends her days thieving and her nights whoring, turning her loot and her earnings over to Old Meg in return for squalid shelter and crumbs of food.
One day Kitty indulges a common ploy: stealing the shoes of a gentleman as he’s being carried piggyback on his footman across a muddy street. When she’s caught and brought back to the man’s doorstep, he finds her face interesting and invites her in. He’s the painter Thomas Gainsborough, and he wants Kitty to pose for him. Once he’s had her washed and decently clothed he’s surprised to see that she’s not a child but a rather attractive young woman; she in turn is overawed by his studio, especially one portrait, which she impulsively dubs “Blueboy”.
screenplay of their otherwise rather undistinguished careers. (Both men received associate producer credit on the picture — although their producing duties may not have amounted to much, at least not in Ware’s case: he died at age 37 in May 1944, nearly a year-and-a-half before Kitty‘s premiere.)
By the way, there’s a curious side note to this business of the painting: In reality the subject of Gainsborough’s famous portrait is not known for certain, but is believed to be one Jonathan Buttall, son of a wealthy London hardware merchant. In Marshall’s novel, this is the name of Kitty’s hot-tempered first husband, while the Blue Boy (a more accurate rendering of the portrait’s title) is named Brett Harwood, a cousin of Buttall’s. In the movie, all this was changed. The importance of the painting in Kitty’s life is downplayed, and Brett Harwood becomes a rival to Sir Hugh for Kitty’s heart. Meanwhile, her first husband is renamed Jonathan Selby — no doubt to avoid offense to any living descendants of the real J. Buttall.
But I digress.
the kind of picture Leisen could do better than anybody else, and its mixture of
mannered comedy and gutsy drama suited him perfectly”. The picture is a sumptuous
feast for the eye, evoking 18th century London’s riot of teeming streets and Rococo
decor as sharply as a series of engravings by William Hogarth. It’s a pity the picture
couldn’t have been made in Technicolor — thus evoking Gainsborough rather than
Hogarth — but Paramount was notoriously frugal on that score; among the major
studios, even cheapskate Universal was more generous in their use of color. But
even as it stands, Kitty richly deserved its Oscar nomination for art direction —
for Hans Dreier and Walter Tyler; the production design was by Raoul Pene Du
Bois. (Kitty lost; the award went to Anna and the King of Siam.)
Kitty gave Paulette Goddard the opportunity to deliver the performance of her career,
and she came through with a performance nearly as good as Wendy Hiller’s in 1938’s
Pygmalion (and considerably better than Audrey Hepburn’s in My Fair Lady). Always
a conscientious actress rather than an inspired one, Goddard worked hard on her
cockney accent. According to Chierichetti, Leisen credited Phyllis Loughton and
Connie Emerald (mother of Ida Lupino) for this, adding that for Goddard’s diction
as the new-and-improved Kitty, “we moved Connie Emerald out and Constance
Collier in”, and the old girl coached Goddard/Kitty as much off screen as Lady Susan
did on. There’s not a false note in Goddard’s performance, nor in any of the rest of
the cast, which was surely one of the largest and best either she or Leisen ever
worked with: Milland (against-all-odds charming as Sir Hugh, a more unsympathetic
rotter than Henry Higgins ever was), Collier, Knowles, Kellaway, Dennis Hoey
(as Kitty’s first husband), Reginald Owen (as her second), Sara Allgood
(Old Meg) and the ever-popular Eric Blore as Sir Hugh and Lady Susan’s
querulous manservant Dobson. (Blore has one of the picture’s best lines,
which I hereby spoil for you: On Kitty’s first night in Sir Hugh’s household,
Dobson hands her a tea tray and orders her to take it up to Lady Susan.
Kitty: “‘Ow will I find ‘er?” Dobson: “Drunk, as usual!”)
Kitty is another of those pre-1950 Paramounts now owned