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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I saw 'On Your Back' at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The
plot reminded me of several Fannie Hurst novels, without being as good
as any of them.
Character actress Irene Rich portrays Julianne, a working-class seamstress from Manhattan's Lower East Side who claws her way up to becoming the modiste of a chic boutique in Fifth Avenue. But her success is not down to hard work or talent. Her business consists of introducing gorgeous young women (with no money and no scruples) to wealthy older men (with plenty of money and no scruples). The film's moralistic tone makes it quite clear that Julianne's boutique is a bordello in all but name ... apart from the fact that the sexual trysts, arranged on the premises, are conducted elsewhere.
Julianne has used her wealth to put her handsome son Harvey through college. Now she has a society belle all picked out for him to marry. But Harvey scandalises his mother by preferring Jeanne, a chorus girl with no social pedigree. Jeanne is a perfectly decent person, as we see ... but the snobbish Julianne doesn't consider her 'respectable'. Julianne vows to ruin Jeanne unless Harvey terminates the engagement. When Harvey refuses, Julianne contrives events to make it seem as if Jeanne is a sugar daddy's mistress.
SLIGHT SPOILERS COMING. Because this movie is so obsessed with sexual hypocrisy, I was surprised that nobody seemed to notice a sexual double-entendre in the film's title. Julianne boasts that her fortune was made by putting beautiful clothes 'on your back'. In the final sequence, she is told rather bluntly that she's nothing more than a madame ... and the title's sexual meaning is finally invoked.
'On Your Back' is proficiently directed by Guthrie McClintic, whose long and prominent stage career was spent almost entirely in the shadow of his wife, Broadway star Katharine Cornell. His abilities here make me wish he'd directed more films. (Cornell, a huge star of the stage, is now almost totally forgotten since she avoided films and television.)
Ilka Chase brings wit and acerbity to a supporting role, but the best performance in this film is by the French character actress Rose Dione, hampered somewhat by her thick accent. Whenever I see Rose Dione on-screen, I'm always reminded of her splendidly sensitive performance as the nanny of the sideshow freaks in 'Freaks'. During her scenes in 'On Your Back', I expected to see Johnny Eck and Schlitzie the Pinhead come scurrying out of the back room of the dress shop. I'll rate 'On Your Back' 6 out of 10.
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