Evelyn Prentice (1934)

US / 79 minutes / bw / Cosmopolitan, MGM Dir: William K. Howard Pr: John W. Considine Jr. Scr: Lenore Coffee Story: Evelyn Prentice (1933) by W.E. Woodward Cine: Charles G. Clarke Cast: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Una Merkel, Rosalind Russell, Isabel Jewell, Harvey Stephens, Edward Brophy, Henry Wadsworth, Cora Sue Collins, Frank Conroy, Jessie Ralph, Isabelle Keith, Jack Mulhall.

Released just a few months after the epochal Powell–Loy team-up The Thin Man (1934), this is a curious mixture of psychological thriller with Thin Man-style comedy crime, plus some noirish elements such as the innocent woman wrongly accused, the (different) innocent woman falling prey to a blackmailer, and the vampish femme fatale—in this instance, Rosalind Russell in her first big-screen role as widow Nancy Harrison, cleared of manslaughter thanks to the efforts of high-flying defense attorney John Prentice (Powell).

Immediately after the acquittal, John has to travel to Boston; Nancy books herself on his train and does her best to “express her gratitude” to him. Thwarted in this, she plants in his onboard drawing room a watch with an incriminating inscription, which watch the pullman company believes belongs to Mrs. Prentice and so forwards on to John’s wife Evelyn (Loy). Not unnaturally, Evelyn believes this is proof that husband John, who consistently neglects her for his law practice, has been having shenanigans with the lovely widow.

Evelyn Prentice (1934) - a telgram lets the cat out of the bag about John's carryings-on

A telegram lets the cat out of the bag about John’s supposed carryings-on.

But Evelyn’s own conscience is hardly clear: during John’s absence she’s been carrying on a flirtatious relationship with supposed poet and definite lounge lizard/serial blackmailer Lawrence “Larry” Kennard (Stephens). When Larry tries to blackmail Evelyn over innocent-yet-guilty-seeming letters she sent to him, she picks up his gun and . . . and . . . and then we don’t quite know what happens. Certainly Evelyn believes she killed Larry; she says as much to sassy, multiply divorced family friend Amy Drexel (Merkel). Yet the cops pick up Larry’s long-suffering mistress Judith Wilson (Jewell). Ravaged by guilt, Evelyn persuades John to defend Judith . . .

The climax takes the form of a fairly gripping courtroom drama, which comports well enough with the earlier psychological thriller/noirish mode but clashes quite a lot with the comedy-crime mode. There are obvious attempts to link Powell’s character to The Thin Man‘s Nick, notably his love of a cocktail or three; but here he has more gravitas than in the series. Loy, too, for the most part plays her role straight, leaving the comic relief in the quite capable hands of Merkel. Collins, as the Prentices’ daughter Dorothy, exhibits the kind of old-fashioned infant cutery that sends grown men (and women) rushing for the exits.

This was remade as Stronger than Desire (1939).

On Amazon.com: Evelyn Prentice

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