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29 January 2018

Mistress of Melodrama: Kay Francis in Comet Over Broadway

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It has always puzzled me that Kay Francis, a beautiful, intelligent, and talented woman who was one of the most popular movie stars of the early 1930's, never asserted herself (like Bette Davis, Olivia de Haviland. and James Cagney did, for instance) and insist on better material. After some wonderful, high-class productions with co-stars like Ronald Colman and directors like Ernst Lubitsch, Francis was increasingly provided with with inferior scripts and uninspired directors. She never complained about it, though she was perfectly aware of the fact.

This movie has some excuse for seeming a little disjointed; director Busby Berkeley became  ill during the filming, and it was completed by an uncredited John Farrow. Francis was such a professional that she gave her best efforts to the material she was given, and her performances are always thoughtful and dignified. And that's what saves Comet Over Broadway. Considered objectively, the plot is pretty ludicrous; but why should we consider it objectively? Enjoyment of a star vehicle depends on the star, and Kay Francis always delivers.
Ian Hunter, Busby Berkeley, and Kay Francis on the set

The story opens with Francis as Eve Appleton, a small-town wife who longs to act, and stars in local amateur productions. When a professional theatrical company comes to town, she is thrilled to meet the fading star player, who invites her to his hotel room to discuss her career prospects. At least, that's her naive idea. Disaster strikes when her husband, Bill (John Litel) follows her, enraged, strikes the actor, whereupon he hits his head and dies. He is arrested, tried, and convicted of manslaughter, and sentenced to prison.
Kay Francis and Ian Hunter

Now shunned by her neighbors, Eve changes her name and leaves town to go on the stage, taking her toddler daughter Jackie (Sybil Jason) with her. This is the most interesting part of the story; Eve, spurred on by her need to provide for herself and her little girl, will do anything to succeed in her profession. But she finds that she can't do that and care for Jackie adequately, too. Eve knows that traveling from place to place without a home of her own is stressful for the child, and that she herself can't put in the hours she needs to develop her career and give Jackie the attention she needs, too. While working in a burlesque show she meets Tim (Minna Gombell, superb as always), an actress whose career never really got off the ground, and who offers to help care for the little girl. At first this is simply occasional babysitting, but when Eve gets her big break, Tim offers to make a home for Jackie until Eve can finally earn enough to care for her properly. Eve sees that Tim sincerely loves the little girl, and leaves Jackie with her. Later -- and it's years later -- when she goes to see Jackie, it is clear that her child now thinks of Tim as her loved and trusted mother. In a rather striking twist for a classic-era film, Eve lets her stay where she's happy. The interaction between the two women is adult and thoughtful.

Minna Gombell as Tim, with Kay Francis as Eve

Able to concentrate solely on her career, Eve's star rises rapidly, assisted by the support of a wealthy producer, played by the charming and stalwart Ian Hunter, who was a very good match for Francis. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and classy, being English, and held his own in drama, comedy, musicals, westerns, and even Shakespeare, having played Theseus in the 1935 Midsummer Night's Dream. He is probably best remembered by Americans for his role as King Richard in The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn. Hunter spent most of the 1930's in Hollywood, but when World War 2 broke out in Europe he returned to England and never came back, spending the rest of his career on stage, screen and television in Britain.

The plot of this movie is actually rather simple and has a feeling of inevitability; off course, just as Eve finds love and success, everything falls apart. She discovers that Bill, her husband, has finally won a legal appeal and will be released from prison -- and she also learns that he has become seriously ill with heart disease. She feels it is her moral responsibility to return to him and care for him, since in her eyes she was to blame for his crime -- and taking Jackie with her this time -- leaving her success and the man she loves behind.

Francis makes this stark decision seem the result of serious thought rather than sentimental turmoil, lifting the whole story out of the depths of soap opera. Her circumstances leave her with no good choices; anything she does will cause pain to somebody, including herself. This is something faced by many people. The circumstances may vary, and perhaps be a tad more humdrum for most of us, but the pain is the same. Comet Over Broadway ends with a rather creepy suggestion that Eve won't have long to wait to be truly free, as her unfortunate husband is clearly very ill.

Critics, almost uniformly male, tended to criticize, and referred to such stories as these as "women's pictures," which was not meant as a compliment. But the resolution of such films depends on emotional truth, not logic. If Eve felt responsible, she was responsible; it's her feelings that matter, not the mechanics of plotting. As long as the viewer is willing to go along with that, this movie is quite enjoyable.

The French poster

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