Genre: Period romance/comedy/drama
Here’s a movie that isn’t afraid to let one see its main characters being less than chivalrous. It’s another movie I first saw years ago on AMC and hadn’t rewatched until recently. Though I enjoyed a lot of it, some aspects don’t work so well for me now.
Kitty (Paulette Goddard) was an orphan purchased from the workhouse to become a thief in London. Raised in the “trade” by Old Meg (Sara Allgood), she’s sent out one day with orders to earn her keep. Caught while trying to steal a man’s shoe buckles, she attracts his attention and thus her life changes. The man is Thomas Gainsborough (Cecil Kellaway) who pays her half a crown to sit for him. While he’s painting her, 2 young bucks arrive who admire the “unknown lady.” Brett, Earl of Carstairs (Patric Knowles) is leaving soon for India so he yields to Sir Hugh Marcy’s (Ray Milland) interest in her. Marcy soon discovers she’s a thief from Houndsditch but he takes her in as a scullery maid to keep her away from Old Meg.
Kitty’s portrait attracts the attention of the Duke of Malmunster (Reginald Owen) who had Hugh fired from his government position. Seeing an opportunity to gain the Duke’s favor, Hugh announces Kitty is a young lady who is the ward of Hugh’s aunt Lady Susan Dowitt (Constance Collier). He also tells the Duke she’s currently traveling abroad in order to gain time to teach her to be a lady. Several hilarious scenes a la Pygmalion follow with Hugh coming off as a sterner task master than Henry Higgins ever dreamt of being. When she’s almost ready, Kitty is seen by a neighbor but since he’s only a tradesman, though a rich one, Hugh dismisses him as a possible suitor. But when Hugh’s creditors have him thrown into debtors prison, Kitty impulsively marries Mr. Selby who pays her “aunt” a rich dowry.
Hugh is furious since he’d promised Malmunster first dibs but events conspire and Selby is killed by a servant when he discovers Kitty’s true past. Now Hugh springs the trap and catches a Duke for Kitty’s next husband. But when the elderly Duke dies, who will Kitty choose next? Hugh, whom she’s always secretly loved, or Brett, recently returned from India and already crazy about her?
Kitty is based on a book, which I’ve never read, and I wonder if parts of it weren’t whitewashed a bit for Hollywood since some of Kitty’s story remind me a bit of “Forever Amber” in its darker tone. During my recent rewatch, I couldn’t help but feel more sympathy for Mr. Selby and the Duke who are basically married by Kitty in a cold blooded grab for their money and position. Selby is made to later appear as a brute and, I guess according to Hollywood, that makes him okay to kill. The Duke had injured Hugh’s pride and was shown as an old fool who believed a lie Kitty perpetrates on him so I guess it’s okay if he dies too.
Lady Susan and Hugh are honest about what they hope to gain from Kitty, lots of money, but Lady Susan ends up as a more sympathetic character to me as she seems to quickly develop some true affection for the girl. Hugh on the other hand, always has his hand out for more from Kitty and is the real instrument behind selling her off for cash. It’s not until almost the end of the movie that the scales fall from his eyes, mainly due to Brett’s courtship of Kitty, and he realizes he loves Kitty. Even then, he pulls a somewhat dirty trick to gain her back. To my mind, Brett is truly the better man for Kitty even though she ends up telling him that she belongs with Hugh as they’re two of a kind who understand and deserve each other. But though Hugh now knows he loves Kitty as she has always loved him, has he really changed his behavior or will he soon have run through Kitty’s inheritance from the late Duke and be back in debtor’s prison? Who knows.
The costumes in the film are lovely and per one source were based on actual Gainsborough portraits. According to the intro to the movie by the AMC host, the ornate fans used are period pieces donated by aristocratic English ladies and later auctioned to raise money for the war effort. The backdrops are obviously sound stages but fairly effective even so. It does look like Paramount lavished a lot of money of the film even though the decision was made to film it in B&W instead of color.
So even though the storyline doesn’t hold up as well as I remembered it, there are some fine performances from Milland, Goddard and especially Collier and Kellaway. Collier is wonderfully funny and Kellaway has what is probably the best line of the film even though it’s the last one. If you’re looking for a nice costume period piece from Hollywood’s heyday, check for the upcoming showing on TCM (listed for February 4th).