Leave Macaulay Culkin Home Alone, he gets in a little trouble and hilarity ensues. Leave sweet Jane Bryan alone for a few days, she gets involved with a sophisticated, older gentleman stalker, who becomes thoroughly obsessed with her and then gets himself shot dead in her company by a highly dramatic and enigmatic cabaret singer. And that’s just where the movie really starts. Confession has a lot of fascinating things going on both onscreen and off: it’s based on a real story, it was made with strict limits to perfectly mirror, down to scene length, a German hit movie, it’s surprisingly fluid and sweeping despite its rigid and sometimes turbulent production and its use of a common plot pattern, and it marks important periods and performances in the careers of its stars. A tracking shot opens the movie at the Warsaw train station, with Jane Bryan bidding her mother farewell, wondering what she’ll do without her. Her answer comes not long after, as she and her friend are spied, and spy the spying, by Basil Rathbone. He sends a messenger to give the girls some concert tickets and disappears. Though initially reluctant, Bryan’s curiosity gets the best of her, and she gets talked into attending, but Rathbone isn’t in balcony seat 1, as expected. Instead, he is the pianist, who depends on seeing a nod from Bryan, which she accidentally gives, as his sign that she will meet him after the recital.
Bryan is pensive and studious, an earnest observer of signs and moments, most of which she doesn’t fully understand; she’s so young (19 in real life), transparent and bashful, childish at times, that she really does a good, realistic job highlighting the age difference between herself and Rathbone. Another thing she does well is to remind us that no matter how remote and stiff an era may seem to us, the youth still and always had the very same impulses and made the same mistakes. Her naiveté is all too apparent in her easy use of the word, “nice” which as Rathbone points out, is such a neutral, weak, catchall term, but it’s perfect for her, reveals her limited frame of emotional experience and reference, and exposes what makes her an easy target for a scoundrel. Right after that first evening, when she rushes home like Cinderella, Rathbone is too persistent, surprising her by taking over her music classes, pawing her, professing an obsession with her after knowing her only this short time. Bryan wavers between an instinctual aversion and a youthful tendency to confuse such over-attentiveness for “true love.” It seems like a lot has happened in the movie before we get to Kay Francis, but now she appears, as the stage curtains part at a cabaret to which Bryan has snuck in the middle of the night to see Rathbone. A jarringly blonde Francis sings (not really, it was dubbed) “One Hour of Romance,” an appropriate tune—just how appropriate we’ll soon discover–as the spotlight exposes Bryan and Rathbone in their booth, in that era’s version of the kiss-cam. When Francis sees him, she faints dead away, while he blanches and can’t get out of there fast enough. He doesn’t win the race though, for Francis shoots him dead as he reaches the very top of a staircase, in a fantastic scene (eat your heart out, Bette-Davis in The Letter) where her gunshots are indistinguishable from the sharpshooting act currently on stage. From the moment Rathbone rolls down the steps landing at her feet, it’s a Kay Francis movie all the way.
The scene changes to an expansive, packed, theatrical, intimidating courtroom, and Francis changes to a dreary, gaunt, hollow-eyed and scraggly figure that you could almost mistake for a slumming Lizabeth Scott. “You killed a human being” charges the judge, but just from what we’ve seen thus far that’s already debatable. Francis freely admits the murder, refuses to speak in her own defense, and causes a stir and irresistible curiosity when she reacts in horror to the discovery of her suitcase and demands a closed court to tell her story, saying it would violate every law of public decency! This is where you might guess what the “secret” is, but even if you do, it’s still great fun to watch, and I sure won’t spoil; I’ll just warn you to stay away from the IMDB, and give you a hint: this movie uses a variation on one of the common plots of women’s pictures of the pre-code era, a plot that kept being recycled into the 1960s. The court is closed to the spectators, and as Francis stares deep into space and nostalgia, with that wistful thousand yard stare she probably could have trademarked, we step out of the wayback machine in 1912, to see a more familiar Kay Francis — younger, dark, elegant and spirited, gliding through scenes, throwing her head back to laugh and so forth. She’s a successful singer who’s happy to leave it all (including a younger but no less creepy Rathbone) to marry solid, comforting, pleasant soldier Ian Hunter. When Hunter goes off to war, she stays too long (there’s that twist in the Cinderella motif again) at a party thrown by who else, Basil Rathbone.
There are loads of messages and morals to glean from this picture; one is people’s tendency to unrealistically idealize their carefree “good old days” and fall prey to the lure of reliving something best left in the past, instead of appreciating and embracing the duties, responsibilities and real, rich rewards of grown up roles, commitments to spouse or family. Through the 30s, Hollywood catered to the female audience with many women’s pictures containing both appealing and finger wagging messages, setting new roles versus expectations, presenting tear-jerkers, scary morality tales as well as inspiring, powerful female role models (paradoxically, more than actresses of our supposedly liberated age get in movies now). In her career Kay Francis managed to play the whole spectrum, sometimes in one movie. In Confession she really gets a lot to work with, and it all starts when her doctor advises her to “go out and have a good time.” She does, stays too long at the party, and pays for it, getting herself in trouble through poor decisions, leading to a moment of indiscretion, compounded by deception. By trusting in the wrong people and things, she loses something she spends the rest of her life yearning and searching for. Does she make it up somehow, and is she justified, when she shoots Rathbone? Watch and see.
Confession was a remake of the hit 1935 German movie Mazurka starring Pola Negri, a movie based on a true story, and one somehow made without Nazi tampering during a time of the socialist government’s controlling grip on the film studios. It was left alone partly because of its nonpolitical content and partly because, as most dictators worship celebrities, Hitler had a major crush on Negri. Warners snapped up the rights, planning to make the Hollywood version with the same title, director William Dieterle and starring Fredric March, Bette Davis and Anita Louise. Bette turned it down, the title changed to One Hour of Romance, and eventually ended up as Confession directed by Joe May (The House of the Seven Gables, Johnny Doesn’t Live Here Any More). May was obsessed with recreating the German version, using the same music and going so far as matching scenes to the original timing with a stopwatch. In pursuit of perfection May was unbendingly strict and firm about every detail, having Rathbone repeatedly tumble down that huge staircase in his death scene, and clashing with Francis and Bryan, who commented on the lack of spontaneity. Despite such difficulties and complaints, Francis gave a great performance, possibly her best. May also got in a memorable spooky but sentimental effect at the end to convey something Francis is thinking but dares not do; it’s one of the many instances where the German expressionist influence is used to great effect. The melodrama is heightened by some very fluid, you might even say modern (I don’t dare call it “nice”) camera work, and lots of interesting angles and lighting. The camera’s almost constantly moving, and usually in a way that fits the level of activity and pace of the plot, sweeping down halls, alongside trains and racing up stairways, along with swelling classical music, zooming in at the right moments to emphasize a reaction.
There are some recurring motifs and images, like both women focusing on chandeliers when kissed or engaged in romantic reflection, that aren’t just cute filmmaking but serve a purpose to connect characters in your mind before they are connected in the story. A neat bit of Francis’ acting takes only a few seconds and concerns her scarf. As she’s led out of the court and into jail, she mindlessly, almost catatonically puts it on and a guard instantly snatches it away from her. Right when he does it, she has a fleeting moment of confusion, then realizes why, and conveys that if the idea of suicide might not have crossed her mind before then, it might not be such a bad idea now that he’s reminded her of it. She builds intensity right along with the plot, and as flashback time catches up to “present time” many of the mysterious scenes get filled in and become much more interesting. For instance, the shooting is far more dramatic and exciting the second time around, shot as it is entirely from Francis’ viewpoint, which necessarily involves frantic activity as she races to get her hands on a pistol to put an end to Rathbone. If you’re a casual movie viewer, or new to classics, then you might not be aware just how popular Kay Francis was. For most of the 1930s she was bigger, had more influence on fashion, and drew larger audiences and a higher salary than most of the stars considered iconic today, like Crawford or Davis (who basically replaced Francis as Queen of Warners). Francis was the very first actress to be named America’s best dressed woman. She had the glamour, bearing and dramatic features of an exotic model, but shunned the celebrity lifestyle, neglected the business side of her career and once said, “I can’t wait to be forgotten” which she truly seemed to be for a long time. Confession came near the end of her most successful years, after which she would be pushed aside by the studio, and moved down the credits for, or just plain replaced by newer stars like Bette.
Basil Rathbone was 45, but they still had to age him a bit in the present day sections of Confession, because in real life he as was elegant and vital as ever, and right in his prime years as sometimes slimy and sophisticated, sometimes thoroughly evil, but always compelling and powerful actor. Jane Bryan didn’t make that many movies, but was reliably, believably sweet and lovable, and if needed, had a slightly mischievous streak as well. She went on to have more pivotal roles in business and politics, marrying Justin Dart, who’d previously been executive and in-law to the Walgreen business and family, then turned around a failing Rexall drugs, eventually merging it with Kraft. Justin was responsible for the clever idea of getting you to journey to the back of the drug store for your meds, thereby passing, and hopefully buying, the other products on the way. He and Jane were partly responsible for another big development, and that was helping nudge someone into a political career, namely, their good friend, and her costar in a few movies, Ronald Reagan. Confession’s supporting cast includes some real gems that movie buffs will recognize, such as Veda Ann Borg as one of Rathbone’s vengeful castoffs, staring daggers dipped in pure malice. In the court, there’s determined prosecuting attorney Robert Barrat, the imposing, intense and excellent character actor; there’s Ben Welden for the defense, an actor who usually was seen in film and TV as a gangster, ranging from menacing to sometimes comically ineffectual, and then there’s Donald Crisp as a Judge who makes you wonder to the very last second whether he will be lenient or unforgiving, as he holds more than just Kay Francis’ secret in his hands.
Judging by its reviews, which seem to get more glowing with the passing of time, Confession is a movie that’s increasingly being rated as one of Kay Francis’ best, and so it’s fitting that it’s also the very movie that over forty years after its release introduced her to and piqued the interest of her biographer Scott O’Brien. His book, Kay Francis: I Can’t Wait to be Forgotten – Her Life on Film and Stage which draws a wealth of information from her diaries, is highly recommended, and a source of many details I included here. There’s also another bio, Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career , which I haven’t read but you should know about.
Confession is on TCM Tuesday afternoon at 1.30pm
This post is part of the 2012 TCM SUMMER UNDER THE STARS Blogathon, presented by Jill at Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and Michael at ScribeHard on Film. I encourage you to go check out all the other great writing covering each day of TCM stars and their movies, and check them out via twitter @TCMsutsBlog