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Friday Film Review: Kitty

Kitty (1946)
Genre: Period romance/comedy/drama
Grade: B-

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.

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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).

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

13 Comments

  1. Lynne Connolly
    Jan 29, 2010 @ 04:31:50

    I had a youthful infatuation with this film.
    Get a load of these:
    From “Kitty”
    http://tinyurl.com/yeefgra
    Gainsborough’s portrait of Sarah Siddons, the actress:
    http://tinyurl.com/y9ppw9s

    There are lots of “Gainsborough” portraits in the film that were actually painted by a Philippine actor, Charles Gemora, who was usually seen on the screen in a gorilla outfit.

    Definitely a product of the “British Community” in Hollywood, it interested me enough to get me to look up the history of the nutters who went to California and then spent their days drinking tea and playing cricket. I dreamed up a murder mystery set in that background once, but I never got around to writing it. It still fascinates me.

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  2. Jayne
    Jan 29, 2010 @ 06:59:12

    Lynne, have you ever read the book upon which it’s based? I just wondered how closely it was followed.

    I adore the costumes in the film. But where is the “guy in the gorilla” part? Will have to look for that.

    The murder mystery set in Hollywood sounds fascinating.

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  3. Darlene Marshall
    Jan 29, 2010 @ 09:22:08

    I saw this film when I was a teen (saw it on television–I’m not that old!), and I remember being struck by the moral ambiguity of the characters. That made it memorable, and I felt sorry for the old duke.

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  4. Jayne
    Jan 29, 2010 @ 13:11:07

    I felt more sympathy for Malmunster this time around. And the new Duke will be the perfect age to become a Regency hero!

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  5. Lynne Connolly
    Jan 29, 2010 @ 14:35:36

    No, I’ve never read the book. I think I went and looked for it once, but never found it.

    Two other films that I love in the same kind of genre are British ones – “The Wicked Lady” with the divine Margaret Lockwood, and “The Man In Grey” with James Mason at his most – well I can never decide if he’s icky or gorgeous. Wonderfully ambiguous.

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  6. Cristiane
    Jan 29, 2010 @ 19:40:21

    I love this movie. Terrific performances from all – especially Paulette Goddard; it’s probably her best performance. I’ve always wondered the same thing – whether the book was racier, like Forever Amber. I just discovered that the NY Public Library (the one with the lions, on 42nd Street) has the book in its collection – I was thinking of going over there and browsing through it (it can’t be checked out). Great costumes and sets – and I think the director (Mitchell Leisen) is very underrated. Very stylish and hard-edged for a period drama of the 1940s. Where did you see it, if you don’t mind my asking? It’s not on DVD and I’d love a copy.

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  7. Jayne
    Jan 30, 2010 @ 05:43:52

    @Cristiane:

    I just discovered that the NY Public Library (the one with the lions, on 42nd Street) has the book in its collection – I was thinking of going over there and browsing through it (it can't be checked out).

    I wonder why it can’t be checked out? Is it so rare that they don’t want to lose their copy?

    Great costumes and sets – and I think the director (Mitchell Leisen) is very underrated. Very stylish and hard-edged for a period drama of the 1940s.

    I just checked to see what other movies of his I’ve seen and was surprised by the number. I especially like “Death Takes a Holiday” and “Easy Living” and see that he directed “Remember the Night” which was recommended as a good Christmas themed film (and which I noticed has now been released on DVD).

    Where did you see it, if you don't mind my asking? It's not on DVD and I'd love a copy.

    I made a VHS tape of it years ago when American Movie Classics aired it. I recently transfered the tape to a DVD. But Turner Classic Movies is supposed to be showing it on February 4th – hence why I posted my review now so that people who wanted to see it could catch it. http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title.jsp?stid=80446

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  8. Cristiane
    Jan 30, 2010 @ 16:24:35

    @Jayne: Ooh! Thanks for the info about TCM. I will definitely be recording it. And, yes, I believe that is why you can’t check it out of the NYPL – as far as I know, it’s been out of print for years. Luckily, I just realized that I’m going to be down in NC for a week in March, and saw that they have a checkoutable copy at the UNC library. I will report back on its Forever Amber-ness.

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  9. Jayne
    Jan 30, 2010 @ 19:25:56

    @Cristiane: Cool. I’ll be interested to know if the book might be worth tracking down.

    Several of the movies I’ve reviewed recently are not out in DVD format but are being shown on TCM. Which is why I’ve put up all these reviews of more obscure stuff. I promise I’ll get back to more recent, and more obtainable, films soon.

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  10. Jayne
    Jan 30, 2010 @ 19:40:34

    Lynne, I’ve never heard of either of the films you mentioned — and it doesn’t look as if they’re available in the US now. But I’ll keep my eye open for them.

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  11. Lynne Connolly
    Jan 30, 2010 @ 20:39:23

    “The Wicked Lady” is Margaret Lockwood as a lady who plays highwayman and uses everyone around her to get what she wants. James Mason recognises her and blackmails her.

    “The Man in Grey ” is about two women who go their different ways. One marries a marquis and the other becomes an actress. The young Stewart Granger provides gorgeous eye candy in this one (btw, did you know his real name was James Stewart?)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A_TekKYWBj0

    “The Seventh Veil” is angst all the way through. James Mason as a crippled musician who encourages his distant relative Francesca (Ann Todd) to play the piano. She becomes a genius pianist but has a breakdown. I love this film, it’s definitely a sinful pleasure. It is so overwrought, so purple and so non pc, it’s delicious.

    “Kind Hearts and Coronets” is Denis Price as a spurned member of a ducal family. His mother ran away with her singing teacher. Louis (Price) decides to murder the seven people between him and his title and avenge his mama. Alec Guinness plays all eight family members, male and female. One of the blackest, funniest films ever.

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    Jan 31, 2010 @ 01:52:12

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  13. Cristiane
    Jan 31, 2010 @ 17:45:03

    @Lynne Connolly: Entertainingly, considering Kitty, both The Man in Gray and The Wicked Lady were products of Gainsborough Pictures, which specialized in racy (for the 1940s) costume dramas. They are great, overheated fun. (I’ve seen The Wicked Lady a few times on TCM – Greatest Channel Ever.)

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