Just watched The Man in Possession (1931) because I was sorting and randomly found the movie (thank you Karen!!) in my “to watch” box, and after picking myself up off the floor and reconfirming that I indeed had in MY possession a Robert Montgomery movie I hadn’t watched yet (I claim to be a huge fan of his, but am a miserable failure at that apparently) I popped it in and spent the first little while a bit confused, thinking, “I’ve seen this before. No, I would remember Robert. Something must be wrong with me.” Turns out I had seen this only a few months ago, but with Robert Taylor, when it was called Personal Property (the 1937 remake). In my defense I can explain my total cluelessness by saying I try not to read about movies I haven’t seen yet as I hate spoilers and preconceptions and like to make up my own mind, such as it is. So here’s a quick review: I loved The Man in Possession.
Montgomery plays the son of a hoity toity family much like a seatback airplane tray, locked and upright –what else could it be, with C. Aubrey Smith at its head (excuse me while I LOL, for I can never think write or say his name without recalling Carol Channing saying it as whistling Cecilia Sisson, see it here). Montgomery’s family also includes brother Claude played by the terrific and prolific Reginald Owen, who here huffs with open-mouthed and whole-bodied spasms of exasperation, and engages in some of the most hilariously awkward attempts at courtship you’ve ever seen. Montgomery, who ran afoul of the law with some creative attempts at debt management, i.e. selling a car that wasn’t his, is offered a payoff by his family (well, not mom, who loves her cute boy) to disappear from England and never darken their door or blot their family name again. Montgomery, being generally too proud and resourceful to slink away in shame from anything, gets himself an honest job instead, as a deputy sheriff. Turns out his first job is to take possession of the property of Irene Purcell whose unpaid bills are piling up almost as fast as the wealthy (or so she thinks, for some of them) men she’s trying to bag to pay her debts. Seeing as there’s nothing in the rules against the man in possession making himself useful while in the house, Montgomery is convinced to butle for the big dinner Irene is hosting for her most promising prospect, none other than his own haughty brother Claude, who thinks she’s the wealthy catch. The table’s set, so to speak, and of course amusement ensues as Montgomery’s family arrive, do double and triple takes, try as they might, through comically served cocktails and clumsily served dinner, to conceal their shock at seeing Montgomery serving them, with the help of witty screwball maid Charlotte Greenwood.
Not only does he capably butle, he also upends Irene’s relationships, scares off her suitors, works his way into her heart. Befitting the risqué pre-code era, we are shown in no uncertain terms that he’s spent the night with Irene, through the use of some lingerie that’s suffered fatal violence and will give maid Clara some challenging mending work. Plus the next morning Montgomery serves up “l-o-v-e” spelled with bacon, which to me seems just about the purest, most impressively romantic expression of said emotion ever. He also tries to convince Irene that money isn’t everything, and despite the impressive bacon-gram, she has a lot of trouble swallowing the idea of living just on love, which prompts Montgomery to fall back on his resourcefulness in finding funding. In this P.G. Wodehouse adaptation of a H.M. Harwood play, it’s all light, mainly limited to the one major set, highly amusing and active, directed by Sam Wood and held together by a great cast centered on Robert Montgomery’s reliably playful, charming and mischievous presence. At this point he was on a steady roll, gaining good reviews and exposure eighteen movies into his career; his very next project was to be another play adaptation, his (and Norma Shearer’s) masterful comedy Private Lives, which kicked his career to the next level. Irene Purcell could be described (well, I shall anyhow) as a refined dame, a British amalgam of Joan Blondell and Barbara Stanwyck, and she’s just great; a perfect match, as devilish and naughty as Montgomery, only a touch more mercenary. One persistent suitor, Sir Charles, is played by Alan Mowbray, another much seen actor and an early Screen Actors Guild founder and member of their board of directors. A nice bit of trivia is that Mowbray played inspector Lestrade to Reginald Owen’s Sherlock in A Study in Scarlet. Owen played Dr. Watson in 1932’s Sherlock Holmes and also reprised his role as doofus Claude Dabney when The Man in Possession was remade in as Personal Property, the film I had already seen, with Robert Taylor and Jean Harlow.
Recently made available as part of this Montgomery box via Warner Archive.
Check out some nice write-ups here at classic film addict, obscure classics (where the movie’s compared with Personal Property) but to really get a load of links go here, to Classic Montgomery and a search on “possession” for a nice roundup of relevant posts including this nice review by Laura (Misc Musings)