Trial of Vivienne Ware, The (1932)

US / 56 minutes / bw / Fox Dir & Pr: William K. Howard Scr: Philip Klein, Barry Conners Story: The Trial of Vivienne Ware (1931) by Kenneth M. Ellis Cine: Ernest Palmer Cast: Joan Bennett, Donald Cook, Richard “Skeets” Gallagher, Zasu Pitts, Lilian Bond, Allan Dinehart (i.e., Alan Dinehart), Herbert Mundin, Howard Phillips, William Pawley, Noel Madison, Jameson Thomas, Ruth Selwyn, Christian Rub, Maude Eburne, J. Maurice Sullivan (i.e., John M. Sullivan).

Wealthy NYC socialite Vivienne Ware (Bennett) falls for sleazy architect/builder Damon Fenwick (Thomas) and agrees to marry him, much to the chagrin of the lawyer who loves her, John Sutherland (Cook). After it becomes evident that Fenwick is two-timing her with Silver Bowl Café danceuse Dolores Divine (Bond), Vivienne breaks off the engagement. Later that night Fenwick is found murdered; when the cops arrive at Vivienne’s apartment next morning to question her, they find her packing for a trip, disbelieve her explanation that this is the first she’s known of the murder, and arrest her.

Of course, John takes on her defense, even though he himself believes he saw Vivienne taking a cab to Fenwick’s house just before the murder.  In court, the aggressive, permanently irate prosecutor (Dinehart) piles up the incriminating evidence against Vivienne; in fact, she seems even guiltier to us than she does to the court, because we saw her destroying an incriminating diary page (“And if Damon deceives me again I shall not be responsible for the consequences”) just before the cops arrived to tell her of Fenwick’s death. The tide starts to turn when, as Dolores is testifying, a man hurls a knife at her from the rear of the court; eventually arrested, he proves to be Joe Garson (Phillips), cousin of the owner of the Silver Bowl, Angelo Paroni (Madison) . . .

The Trial of Vivienne Ware is a very well told and executed movie, with a clever narrative whereby several integral parts of the story are omitted from the chronological telling of the movie’s first half, only to be filled in later as flashbacks from the court proceedings. This narrational sophistication is matched by Ralph Dietrich’s editing, which makes extensive use of the so-called swish cut: the transition from one scene to another is effected by means of what seems like a pan shot so rapid that the images blur; when they unblur, we’re into the new scene. This creates a sort of subliminal illusion that everything’s been done in a single take, which adds considerably to the paciness of proceedings.

And the movie does pack a lot of action, dialogue and plot into its scant running time. It also finds room for quite a lot of humor, some risqué enough that, just a few years later, the imposition of the Hays Code would have prohibited it. For example, here are two of Dolores’s fellow showgirls chatting in the dressing room:

“What a sucker I was. I thought that sugar daddy of mine meant he was going to take me abroad for a trip to France.”

“Yeah, where’d you get that idea?”

“Because he told me someday he was going to show me the place where he was wounded in the war.”

Pitts and Gallagher perform a supposedly droll double act as radio broadcasters Gladys Fairweather and Graham McNally, whose commentaries on the ongoing trial are rather less witty than some of the rest of the dialogue.

There are some odd little indications that the movie was made in a hurry (for example, after Joe Garson jumps through a plate glass window, falls several feet and rolls over a couple of times, the cops haul him upright and we discover that, miraculously, his hat is still firmly in place), but the narrative devices, including the editing, render it a cut above most other fillers of its day.

There’s no DVD on, but Ellis’s novel is available: The Trial of Vivienne Ware

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 Evelyn Prentice