US / 65 minutes / bw / Universal Dir: Edwin L. Marin Pr: Carl Laemmle Jr Scr: Cyril Hume, Peter Ruric, Milton Krims Story: Women (1928 play; vt The Women in His Life) by Edith & Edward Ellis Cine: John J. Mescall Cast: Paul Lukas, Leila Hyams, Patricia Ellis, Phillip Reed, Dorothy Burgess, Onslow Stevens, Murray Kinnell, Lilian Bond, Joyce Compton, Sara Haden, Dorothy Libaire, Richard Carle, Charles Wilson, Wilfred Hari, Gregory Gaye, Marcia Remy
An interesting Pre-Code B-feature that’s often listed as a comedy mystery even though it isn’t: it has a few humorous moments, mainly thanks to snappy dialogue inherited from its stage original, but the overwhelming mood is one of impending tragedy.
Victor Gresham (Lukas) is a bestselling novelist and an obsessive roue. It’s not hard to work out where he gets the inspiration for each new smutty novel, as his publisher, Paul Q. Bindar (Carle), explains to the sales reps:
“You must continue to play on Gresham’s personal life to the press. Victor Gresham, one of his own heroes. Every book represents a woman in his past, and every woman in his present means a book in his future.”
(With over eighty books to my own credit, I kinda wish that . . .)
The inspiration for his latest, not-quite-completed novel, Frailty, was an American actress, Margaret “Peggy” Fanning. Married, like most of his conquests, she wrote to him from Paris, where she was on tour, to tell him she was getting a divorce from husband Stanford. He has yet to learn that, on receiving his dismissive response, she committed suicide.
One morning Victor is found at his desk having apparently shot himself through the heart. On the desk in front of him is an explicit suicide note. Even so, blustering Inspector Quillan (Wilson) of the NYPD suspects foul play.
And there are plenty of potential culprits, as we learn in a flashback that lasts most of the rest of the running time, because last night the most devoted of his exes, Carlotta Barbé (Bond), the inspiration for his novel String Music, organized a surprise party for him at his flat made up of a bunch of his old flames:
- Gladys Durland (Hyams),
- Nan Fitzgerald (Burgess),
- Foxey Dennison (Compton) and
- Gail Melville (Libaire).
Then there’s Carlotta herself, Bindar, Bindar’s publicity manager Carter Vaughan (Reed) and Jean Sinclair (Ellis), the cover illustrator/designer whom Bindar is commissioning for the upcoming Frailty. To complicate matters, Carter and Jean are a not-yet-quite-official item, while Victor has been itching to get his clammy little mitts on Jean since the moment he saw her. Even though she loves Carter, she can hardly help but be at least a little responsive to the wily seducer . . .
The shenanigans are observed impassively by Victor’s staff: his secretary, Frances Bennett (Haden), his butler, Fletcher (Kinnell), and his chef, Sato (Hari). Although all three of these supporting actors appear far down the cast list—Hari in fact going uncredited—they make a surprisingly large contribution to the movie, their presence giving it a structure where otherwise it might have been a bit swirly.
Joyce Compton is as cute and funny as always as Foxey and Dorothy Libaire is oddly memorable as Gail, but the three most important women in the line-up, aside from Jean, are Carlotta, Gladys and Nan.
Carlotta is something of a force of nature—avuncular old Bindar reckons that, of any of them, she’s the most likely to reel Victor back in, simply through determination. Nan, who’s been having her difficulties with the bottle, was the first of Victor’s women to be “honored” with a novel, and it’s obvious there’s a residual deep bond of genuine friendship and affection between them.
Polo widow Gladys, like Carlotta, is intent on getting Victor back, and is quite willing to divorce husband Lyn (Stevens) to that end. In fact, as she tells Victor, Lyn recently picked up a copy of “her” novel, Forever Lilith, and recognized “funny little intimate ways” the heroine displays “under certain circumstances.” So it may well be that it’s Lyn divorcing Gladys rather than Gladys divorcing Lyn—that is, if Lyn doesn’t murder Victor first.
There’s a touch of the bedroom farce to all these proceedings, of course, complete with saucy misunderstandings and innuendos, but for the most part, by far, it’s played, as I said, less as farce than as tragedy. Real people are getting hurt here—not least Victor himself, who for the first time in his life believes he’s actually fallen in love, only to find that the object of that love, Jean, isn’t available to him.
Because of its stage origins, Affairs of a Gentleman has a far higher class of dialogue than you’d expect in an hour-long B-feature. Some of this is just witty in the standard theatrical manner—
Victor: “You ought to be spanked and put to bed.”
Foxey: “That’s all right with me, Vicky.”
—but more impressive are the more serious, reflective moments, as when Victor dwells on the emptiness of his life or Nan on the future she’s thrown away.
The mystery still remains, of course, as to how Victor died: murder or suicide? The answer to that is held back until the movie’s very final moments.