Gotham Diary:
14 March 2012

The weather was so balmy this afternoon that I walked home from the Hospital for Special Surgery after the Remicade infusion. As always, I felt very lucky to walk along the river on my way somewhere. I wish that the Greenway were unbroken; I’d walk down to see Will. I think that I might just about manage that.


Last night, I watched three movies — in the days before infusions, I have learned to take it easy — and one of them was John Cromwell’s In Name Only (RKO, 1939). I don’t know why this picture, with Carole Lombard, Cary Grant, and Kay Francis, isn’t a better-known classic. It’s quick and sharp, and the stars make sure that it never gets drippy. Kay Francis plays a scheming adventuress who has married Cary Grant for his money, and then charmed the pants off his parents so that they take her side when their son, having taken the measure of his new wife a tad too late, cools toward her. Needless to say, she refuses to give him a divorce. One fine day, he meets Carole Lombard, and they two of them get along like a couple of screwballs. (How come they never made a screwball comedy together?) Now Cary really wants a divorce, and Kay gives in, or says she does. She goes off to Europe with Cary’s parents while Cary buys a house for Carole, complete with a nursery. When Kay returns, it appears that she never had any intention of following through with the divorce, so Cary gets drunk and falls asleep in front of an open window on Christmas Eve, catching pneumonia. In a fantastic finale, Kay reveals her true colors to Carole outside Cary’s room at the hospital, unaware that his parents have slipped in behind her. Cary is still pretty sick when the film fades to black, but a happy ending is promised.

Kay Francis is magnificently odious, and, in two scenes, when she’s being candid with a crony, she is positively corrupt. It’s an extraordinary performance, because she’s so beautiful, or at any rate so beautifully put together, that you’re always glad to see her, even when she’s being monstrous (which is always). Carole Lombard, in contrast, is almost scraggly, pinched, slightly gone to seed. Which is good for the movie: it makes you root for her. Cary Grant, who gets to do a delirium scene for real (not that he overplays it), looks younger than ever, but in his scenes alone with Kay he is all business — Mr Lucky, almost. Fans of Vertigo will be amused by the dispatch with which he shoos off the unwanted attentions of Kay’s best friend, Helen Vinson.

The film is set in Connecticut by day (mostly) and Manhattan by night. The production is done to a turn, and not a degree further; it’s as though art director Van Nest Polglase had just read the entire oeuvre of John P Marquand. The clothes are simply perfect; no film that I’ve seen makes a better case for 1939 as the Best Year in Twentieth Century fashion, at least so far as day wear is concerned. There is really no good reason for women to have deviated from the cut and shape on display in this movie. At one point, Cary takes Carole to the Harvard Game on the train, and she wears a short jacket not unlike one that Kathleen used to have, with big buttons. The only more captivating outfit in all of cinema is Grace Kelly’s Jacques Fath knockoff (the green suit) in Rear Window.

Could it be that nobody thinks highly of Carole Lombard anymore? Sure, everyone knows My Man Godfrey, but she’s something of a freak in that. Nothing Sacred and Made For Each Other aren’t as well known as they used to be (are they?), and To Be Or Not To Be got remade by Anne Bancroft. My favorite Lombard picture is Mr and Mrs Smith, but nobody likes that one, because it’s a screwball comedy by Alfred Hitchcock. Which makes it really the darkest of Hitchcock’s always funny movies. Lombard had a tendency to scream, and she also never shook that fruity early-Thirties studio dialect. (Francis is even worse, of course; plus, she lisps like Elmer Fudd.)

I discovered In Name Only about twenty years ago, leafing through Leonard Maltin, who called it “a solid soaper.” I was inclined to agree at the time, but now I must insist that it is brighter and more charming than that. As I say, its success owes as much to its speed as it does to its cast. While never rushing the action, Cromwell never lingers. The jolly note struck now and then by Roy Webb’s score is a bit off, but it doesn’t linger, either. Do us both a favor and get to know this movie.


In the current New York Review of Books, Giles Harvey reviews the Melrose novels, and, sure enough, he quotes the Emily Price sentence. I wonder what Edward St Aubyn makes of the inevitability of this extraordinarily felicitous phrase.