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A FEATHER IN HER HAT (Columbia, 1935), directed by Alfred Santell, is an odd little film about a self-sacrificing woman, a theme most commonly found in 1930s dramas made popular by soap opera queens, including the likes of Ruth Chatterton or Kay Francis as prime examples. Pauline Lord (1890-1950), a veteran stage actress with MRS. WIGGS OF THE CABBAGE PATCH (Paramount, 1934) her screen debut, plays another one of her quietly compelling characterizations that might have set the standard for future film roles had she not made this her second and final screen performance.
Taken from a novel by I.A.R. Wylie, Pauline Lord plays an English widow named Clarissa Phipps, proprietress of 'Clarissa's Corner Shop' located on the poor section of town on Little Egbert Street. In a prologue set in 1925, Clarissa witnesses a gathering at Hyde Park where Captain Randolph Courtney (Basil Rathbone), a limping war veteran and alcoholic aristocrat, giving a speech to the crowd. After he collapses, Courtney is placed on a park bench for a rest. Believing he could be a good influence on her son, Richard (William Martin), Clarissa decides to take the cultured man home with her so he could have the boy grow to become a gentleman. Move forward, 1935. Richard (Louis Hayward), now a young man, has one ambition in life, to become a playwright. On his 21st birthday, he's told by Clarissa that she is not his mother but only a woman entrusted to him by her employer. Having done her part in raising him, Clarissa entrusts Richard with a bank book of a thousand pounds so he could go out on his own and make a success. Going through a bunch of old letters, Courtney informs Richard of his natural mother being an actress named Julia Trent (Billie Burke), now remarried to Paul Anders (Victor Kilian - resembling that of actor Paul Lukas from LITTLE WOMEN (1933) right down to his accent), and living somewhere in town. Locating her whereabouts, Richard takes up lodging at her residence under his supposed real name of Richard Orland. Although loved by Emily (Nydia Westman), his childhood sweetheart, Richard falls in love with Juliet's step-daughter, Pauline (Wendy Barrie), a young socialite loved by producer Leo Carthwright (David Niven). Clarissa, who favors Pauline, does her best to discourage Emily from seeing Richard. During the premiere of Richard's first play, "Song of Sixpense," starring Julia Trent, Clarissa, in attendance with a feather in her hat, reveals another secret to Richard after the performance.
With Pauline Lord as the leading character, much of A FEATHER IN HER HAT belongs to Louis Hayward, though the more outstanding but less challenging performance goes to Basil Rathbone. With 1935 being Rathbone's busiest and most productive year on screen, with such notable roles in David COPPERFIELD, A TALE OF TWO CITIES, CAPTAIN BLOOD and THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII, this production, the least known of all, provides him the opportunity to play a kindly yet dignified gentleman, in contrast to menacing villains, and a chance to age slightly as the story progresses. One of the main flaws with A FEATHER IN HER HAT is how under developed it is, especially during its opening minutes which seems to have been tightened through the editing process, leaving out perhaps important details that would have been beneficial to the plot. Pauline Lord appears more confident as a movie actress than she was in MRS. WIGGS OF THE CABBAGE PATCH, but sometimes breaks away from speaking with British accent.
Other members of the cast include Thurston Hall (Sir Elroyd Joyce, producer); J.M. Kerrigan (Mr. Robjoy); Nana Bryant (Lady Drake); and Lawrence Grant (Doctor Phillips).
If the underscoring heard during the opening credits sounds familiar, its one lifted from Columbia's 1934 Academy Award winner, IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, and used as introductory score again in other Columbia products as TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934) and SHE MARRIED HER BOSS (1935). A FEATHER IN HER HAT, which runs at 76 minutes, has become one of a great number of long forgotten features from the Columbia library that has turned up in recent years on Turner Classic Movies (air date: November 8, 2008). Alhough not the best in the lot, it's a worthy rediscovery, especially for film buffs looking for hard to find movies such as this one. (**1/2)
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