Friday, February 09, 2024

The Grant Mystique: Thirty-Day Princess (1934)

Thirty-Day Princess (1934, directed by Marion Gering) finds Cary Grant fading into the scenery a bit. This isn't the only case of this in his early films, but it's one of the most conspicuous. Grant was wholly unsatisfied with his part in this film and complained about it, prompting Paramount to loan him out to United Artists as punishment. Grant never forgot this. When his contract with Paramount was finished in 1937, he went freelance rather than re-up or sign with another studio. He wouldn't make another film for Paramount for a couple of decades. He held a grudge. Grant wasn't the only contributor unsatisfied with his work, either. This film credits Preston Sturges as one of its writers and, like Grant, he was unhappy with how little of his work ended up on screen. This is the only film on which Sturges and Grant both worked, so it's a missed opportunity.

The story finds a destitute central European nation, Taronia, arranging to borrow capital by issuing $50 million in bonds in the United States. This is to happen under the guiding hand of financier Richard Gresham, who has chanced to meet the king of Taronia at a spa. Gresham proposes to put a face on the campaign and nominates the princess, Catterina, to act as ambassador. Unfortunately, Catterina develops a case of the mumps upon arriving in New York and Gresham has to act fast to prevent the whole enterprise from falling to ruin. He conducts a search for a lookalike to stand in for the princess while she recovers, eventually hiring out of work actress Nancy Lane for the part. Nancy is a dead ringer for Catterina. Apart from her diplomatic duties, her main mission is to convince newspaper publisher Porter Madison to drop his paper's opposition to the scheme...

Grant's character, Porter Madison the newspaper publisher, is the primary antagonist/romantic lead in this film and second-billed to boot. You could be forgiven for thinking that Grant's part would inevitably be more than just decorative. You would be wrong, alas. Grant isn't tasked with much comedy, nor is he given any particularly good dialogue (he sometimes overplays the dialogue he has, particularly in the last scene of the film in which Madison and Nancy Lane come to a reconciliation). He sometimes acts like a nitwitted foil for his hard-boiled editor or his medium-boiled leading lady. His character often seems like a plot complication rather than a person. A viewer weaned on His Girl Friday might choke on the complete lack of cynicism in his character here. He's easily gulled by his leading lady in the way Elmer Fudd is sometimes gulled by a crossdressing Bugs Bunny. It's a bad trait for a journalist, let alone a leading man. His character seems entirely gormless. Naive, even. This ill suits the Grant persona, though in fairness, Grant was still working out the bugs in his screen presence at the time. He wasn't a polished actor or a polished movie star just yet. You can occasionally catch him visibly waiting to deliver his lines in this film rather than letting them flow naturally; Grant didn't really learn improvisation until he worked with Leo McCarey on The Awful Truth and the process of becoming comfortable with improvisation goes hand in hand with Grant's ascendancy as a movie star. It would be many more films before Grant learned the trick of listening to his co-stars without having to concentrate on his cues and/or when to hit his marks. This wasn't the only film to cast Grant as a rube early in his career, either (see the two films he made with Mae West, for examples). The Grant Persona still needed a lot of work. This film mostly showcases Grant as a clothes horse. As a mannequin, even. He sure knew how to look good in suits and formal wear, a skill he kept from his early career throughout his major stardom. For all of this, I can't help but wonder if the film is just badly directed. He had already given a pretty good performance for Mitchell Leisen in The Eagle and the Hawk a year earlier, so it wasn't for lack of ability. This film squanders so much promise.

Cynical realism and all of that is reserved for the film's nominal star, Sylvia Sidney, and for should-have-been-second-billed Edward Arnold. Sylvia Sidney is the center of the film, with the double role of Catterina and Nancy Lane, and her character vacillates between naive royal and hardened working girl on the make. Edward Arnold is this film's version of Walter Burns, who points both the actual princess and the fake princess at problems in the way of his bond scheme. He offers Nancy an additional $5,000 if she can circumvent Madison's opposition, which was a mint in 1934. The backdrop of the Great Depression is a great motivator for all kinds of shenanigans in the films of the day, and this film leans into Nancy's status as a desperate woman needing a job to eat. When she forces a door at the automat, her motives are crystal clear. When she is cornered by Gresham's detectives, she reasonably fears that she's been nabbed by the cops. Cops were still the enemy of the worker in the film of 1934. The production code hadn't yet pursued a law and order agenda. By rights, Gresham should be the villain of the piece, an idea reinforced by Edward Arnold's entire career of playing corrupt bosses and capitalists. The time is right for him to be a villain, too. Bankers were none too popular in the early 1930s. Gresham is presented as essentially benevolent here, but one can't help but wonder if Madison's instincts are right about him in the first place. The politics here are murky.

Thirty-Day Princess is a variation on The Prince and the Pauper and Cinderella and a bunch of other fairy tales. It's a variation, too, on the plot of most Horatio Alger books, in which a resourceful young waif is plucked from penury by some wealthy benefactor. These kinds of plots were everywhere in the deepest parts of The Great Depression. Joan Crawford and Loretta Young feasted on them. So did Sylvia Sidney. In a time when the prosperity that was allegedly just around the corner seemed fickle and elusive, it was a powerful fantasy. This isn't a bad film, though I would balk at calling it a particularly good film. It's occasionally charming. It provides its leading lady with an acting showcase. As a Cary Grant film, though? It's not a film that is lit by his stardom, nor is it a film that led to better things for the actor. It's not a Cary Grant film, per se. It's just a film that Cary Grant happens to be in.

My other posts on Cary Grant. Only about sixty more films to go:

This is the Night (1932)
Enter: Madame (1935)
The Eagle and the Hawk (1933)
The Last Outpost (1935)
Wings in the Dark (1935)
Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Penny Serenade (1941)
Suspicion (1941)
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
To Catch a Thief (1955)
North by Northwest (1959)
Operation: Petticoat (1959)
Charade (1963)

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