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Charming Sinners is the second dialogue film based on the work of
England's Somerset Maugham. The film was something new for the cinema.
It was not about action. It was about wordsexpertly delivered by a
well-seasoned cast. Clive Brook, Montague Love, and William Powell had
been stage veterans since the 1910's. Ruth Chatterton and Laura Hope
Crews (who plays her mother) had worked together for years in the Henry
Miller Company. Charming Sinners was perfect turf for Chatterton, who
dominates the picture and delivers with poignancy and bite.
Chatterton, as the wife of an errant husband (Clive Brook, appropriately stiff and full of himself), opts for the single standard with the sole purpose of getting him back. Enter the polished William Powell, a former beau who is still in love with her. Together, they have much more chemistry. There is an exquisite musical interlude at the piano. While Chatterton plays and sings a wistful melody, Powell pours his heart out. She dismisses his ardor with an appreciative laugh. The question is: will Ruth take a vacation from marriage and rendezvous with Powell in Italy? Although the film ends differently from the stage production, it is an effective, thoughtful finish for an engaging frolic amongst the upper-crust.
Filmed in early 1929, critics were impressed by the film and its players, but complained about the sound quality. It was shot in the wee hours of the morning (typical of early sound features), and it's a marvel that the players pulled off such an amusing piece of work. Robert Milton and Dorothy Arzner co-directed the film. It must be pointed out that the tragic Mary Nolan, the only non-stage veteran (except the Ziegfeld Follies), is excellent as the pampered schemer with whom Brook is smitten. Always thinking and plotting, she turns her distasteful character into something peculiarly fascinating. She proved that some silent stars didn't need to fear the influx of stage veterans with the advent of sound film.
... and for good reason! In 1929, the movie camera post dawn of sound
was unable to move at all. So Somerset Maugham's play about a
philandering husband who wants to have his cake and eat it too was just
perfect film material given the limitations of early sound technology.
So don't judge this film too harshly.
The philandering husband, Robert Miles (Clive Brook), is having an affair with Anne-Marie Whitley (Mary Nolan), also married. Robert's wife of ten years, Kathryn (Ruth Chatterton), finds out and plans her clever revenge, which, with surgical precision, manages to teach her husband a lesson, give herself a European vacation, and not ruin either her marriage or that of the Whitleys. William Powell plays the suitor that lost out to Robert ten years before and wants another chance, but it's a small part as Powell is not the big star he will be in just a few more years.
I think tragic Mary Nolan as Anne Marie has the most interesting part and she handles it quite skillfully. Anne Marie wants to preserve her marriage, yet she is careless about being seen in public with Robert by people who would have every reason to rat her out. She throws Robert's cigarette case onto her bed and it lands under her husband's pillow. Why??? You could say finances are why she wants to hang on to her marriage, but you can't say the same for her so-called "friendship" with Robert's wife, Kathryn, whom she continually and sincerely calls her best friend even though she is sleeping with her husband. What a puzzling creature she is!
Give it a chance if you ever get the opportunity. The dialogue is very witty since it is the work of a clever playwright, and the acting is quite natural. It is not the stilted stuff of other early talkies where the actors don't seem to know what to do with themselves and the writers are used to writing title cards. Only the lack of motion subtracts from its charm.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I have often read about early sound "drawing room" comedies and "tea
cup" dramas and now I have seen one. Studios thought this was what the
movie going public wanted to see - filmed plays where stage stars stood
around in different rooms speaking lines very clearly. Suddenly silent
star favourites were out and any actor who had had a speaking part in a
Broadway production was treated like a superstar!!! Ruth Chatterton had
been a big stage star, "Come Out of the Kitchen" (later a Nancy Carroll
film "Honey"), and "Daddy Long Legs" were just a couple of her hits,
but in the 1920s Hollywood only wanted her husband, Ralph Forbes (who
also had a beautiful speaking voice - see him in "The Phantom
Broadcast"). In 1929 it was a different story and Paramount welcomed
her with "Charming Sinners" which was based on W. Somerset Maugham's
"The Constant Wife". Ruth Chatterton received a new lease of life when
talking films could display her stage trained voice.
Ann Marie (Mary Nolan) is having a scintillating affair with Robert Mills (Clive Brook) - the only problem is he is married to her best friend Kathryn (Ruth Chatterton). They are seen by Mrs Carr's party (Laura Hope Crewes is seen to much better advantage in "The Silver Cord" (1933)) and waste no time in going to Kathryn's to tell her. The only thing is Kathryn has already seen them together and has waylaid Ann Marie's husband George into taking her shopping to prevent a scene.
There are some quite witty lines in the film. "Helen has come out - and gone in again" - Mrs. Carr, talking about her daughters' coming out. "All men are little boys - Robert just needs a spanking!!!" - Kathryn giving Ann Marie advice about men.
Karl (William Powell) enters the scene - he loved Kathryn before she married Robert and has never stopped loving her. Meanwhile George has found Robert's cigarette case - under Ann Marie's pillow!!! Ann Marie visits Robert at his surgery, worried that George suspects their affair and unfortunately Kathryn overhears. George comes to the surgery brandishing the cigarette case but Kathryn saves the day by claiming the case was left by her. Everyone is grateful but Kathryn is plotting her revenge.
Clive Brook does what he can with his role - Robert is supposed to be a stuffy hypocrite - why Kathryn wants to save her marriage is a real mystery. William Powell doesn't have much to do. The two standouts for me are Ruth Chatterton and Mary Nolan. Mary Nolan is super as Ann Marie and, I felt, really understood her role - it was unfortunate that she didn't have a bigger career. Most people know Mary Nolan's story. A beautiful Follies girl who attracted men who delighted in beating her up!!! Sacked from the Follies for creating too many scandals she went to Europe where she became a top movie star. Coming back to the States, her astonishing beauty got her a contract with Universal. "Charming Sinners" was her last good film and showed she could hold her own among top stars. Drugs took hold and by 1932 she was finished in films and in trouble with the law. "Charming Sinners" is a rare chance to see the fragile beauty of Mary Nolan.
Despite their occasional creakiness, I'm a great fan of the early talkies. This one, however, is not only creaky but downright inept in every department, save one -- acting. In the acting division, thanks to the sterling efforts of Mary Nolan, Montagu Love and William Powell (in a very small, if important role), it's only 90% rotten. Clive Brook gives such a bad performance, one contemporary reviewer assumed he was playing the butler and wrote a tongue-in-cheek critique accordingly. Sad to say that while Brook plumbs the depths of ineptitude, Miss Chatterton and Miss Crews do not exactly shine either, although it's tempting to blame their staginess on the extremely static yet over-emphatic direction they obviously received from Robert Milton. As a result, the Somerset Maugham comedy-of-manners comes across with all the wit of a turkey's egg. Sparse production values and hole-in-the-wall photography don't help either.
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