Lively, entertaining reviews of, and essays on, old and newer films and everything relating to them, written by professional author William Schoell.

Monday, September 15, 2008


THE HOUSE ON 56TH STREET (1933). Director: Robert Florey.

"There was an old maid in Nantucket ... " limerick told by young lady at restaurant party.

Peggy Stone (Kay Francis), a chorus girl torn between two suitors in 1905, marries Monte Van Tyle (Gene Raymond) and moves into the house he built especially for them on 56th street in Manhattan. After a grotesque series of events that pretty much destroy Peggy's happy life, she winds up back in the house under unusual circumstances. Once you get past the film's undeniable contrivances, this is an interesting, somewhat poignant drama/soap opera.


The moral ambiguity of the film, which is quite irritating on first viewing, might be one of the film's most interesting elements. Peggy, who is completely innocent, is convicted of murdering an old flame who's shot in a suicide attempt as Peggy tries to wrestle the gun away from him (and she must have had the worst lawyer in New York, as the dead man's doctor knew he had only months to live). Later on there's a good scene when Peggy, now a croupier in the house on 56th street -- her honeymoon home turned into a speakeasy and gambling den -- plays cards with her own daughter Eleanor (Margaret Lindsay), who thinks her mother is dead. Incurring debts of $15,000, Eleanor begs Peggy's partner Bill (Ricardo Cortez) not to go to her husband for the money, and when he refuses, shoots him. At the end Peggy sends Eleanor off to sail to Europe with hubby, and tells her boss she killed Bill herself (in self-defense, more or less.) The boss agrees to cover up the crime.

The trouble with this, of course, is that Eleanor, who was not forced into gambling by anyone, committed a cold-blooded murder and her mother did not. Still, this can hardly be called a happy ending. One senses that Eleanor, who is not tightly wrapped (and well-played by Lindsay), will be haunted by her crime for the rest of her life (even if Peggy lied and told her Bill wasn't dead). And Peggy will spend the rest of her life as an employee in a house that was supposed to be a lifetime home for her and her family (husband Monte died overseas in WW1 when Peggy was in jail.)

Kay Francis' performance is not exactly Oscar-worthy, but she does a nice job essaying a woman in various, very different times of her life. Raymond and Cortez are professional, and, as noted, Lindsay is quite good as the daughter. Director Florey doesn't always make the most of the dramatic possibilities of some sequences, such as when Peggy gets the telegram regarding her husband's death while in jail.

Verdict: A house is not a home, all right. ***.

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