Gallant Lady (1933) by matthew c. hoffman

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Transcript from our screening on 4/3/14:

Gallant Lady was the last film to be added to our spring lineup; I didn’t want to do this series without Ann Harding. I may not have picked her best film, but it’s something most of us haven’t seen, and I’m sure for some, this will be your first experience with her. The title of tonight’s film well describes Ann Harding herself. In many of her films, she played characters who embodied class and sophistication. Harding became associated with the noble heroines she played onscreen. She was the gallant lady of Hollywood, so it’s fitting that the only biography written about her would be called Cinema’s Gallant Lady.

The other day I was paging through a book called 501 Movie Stars: A Comprehensive Guide to the Greatest Screen Actors. But apparently, it’s not all that comprehensive since Ann Harding is nowhere to be found under the letter “H.” They did list Goldie Hawn and Salma Hayek. It’s an understatement to say that Harding is underappreciated today, but in her day, she was known for her ethereal beauty and her long blonde hair, her deep voice and precise diction, and for the stage-trained abilities that separated her from other stars who might’ve gotten by on looks and charm.

Hers was a modern style of acting that seems as fresh today as it was back then. She came across as natural without any affectation. There was a honesty in her characterizations. Onscreen, she could convey the impression that she was truly listening to another actor and not just waiting for her cues. She could project thought without words and without any over-the-top histrionics. Her ability to understand a character through that person’s perspective made Ann Harding an exceptional talent we could sympathize with.

In his introduction to Scott O’Brien’s essential Ann Harding: Cinema’s Gallant Lady, film critic and author Mick LaSalle writes, “The loss of Ann Harding to history is not something akin to the relative obscurity of, say, Madge Evans, a completely charming actress of the same era. In terms of talent, this is more as if Bette Davis were somehow to be forgotten. Harding’s body of work was small. Her luck in terms of studios was nonexistent, and the coming of the Production Code eliminated the sex drama, the genre in which she thrived. For these reasons, most people have never seen an Ann Harding movie. But the talent was enormous—and apparent to anyone within 10 minutes of watching her on screen.”

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Ann Harding entered this world as Dorothy Walton Gatley in 1902. She was born on an Army base in San Antonio, Texas. Her father was a career officer who later served in World War I. Dorothy grew up living a military life and following its protocol, but she was a strong-willed girl who wanted to rebel and lead her own life. Her family travelled a lot and she never had permanent roots until much later when she settled in Hollywood. Dorothy grew up in New Jersey, and after she finished school she found work as a freelance script reader in Long Island for the Famous Players-Lasky studio. This was hardly fulfilling work, but one day she found her adventure. She answered an ad calling for an inexperienced actress to perform in a play staged by the Provincetown Players, a repertory company. This led to a long association with the theatre world which would culminate with a highly-respected but physically grueling career on Broadway. Her father never approved of her decision to be an actress. For many years she was estranged from General Gatley, who felt she had taken the “straight and inevitable road to Hell.” Ann’s stage career eventually took its toll on her and she left for the West Coast. There, she found new opportunities in the motion picture medium.

Of the many actresses who migrated to Hollywood from Broadway, Ann Harding was perhaps the finest of them all. She made her film debut in 1929’s Paris Bound with Fredric March. That same year she appeared opposite Ronald Colman in Condemned. But the role that really made her a star came in the 1930 version of Philip Barry’s play, Holiday, later remade eight years later with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Ann would receive her only nomination for Best Actress for her performance in this early talkie. Some of her best work followed in the wake of this success, including 1931’s Devotion and 1932’s Animal Kingdom—both with Leslie Howard– When Ladies Meet, and Double Harness with William Powell. Ann Harding was RKO’s leading actress, but Katharine Hepburn was waiting in the wings.

Though tonight’s film features a fine performance by Harding, it also reflects the kind of typecasting that would limit the range of her work. Gallant Lady depicts Ann as the sort of self-sacrificing woman she would play in several tearjerkers including her very next film, The Life of Vergie Winters (1934). But regardless of the soap drama aspects, Ann always elevated the material. She virtually defined the “woman’s picture” of the 1930s. Gallant Lady is a “weepie” about mother love geared towards the female audience. It has Ann playing Sally, a young, unwed mother who gives up her baby for adoption. She tries to put her child out of her mind and go on with her new life as an interior decorator. However, after a chance encounter with her son in Europe, she resolves to be a mother to him again.

With Clive Brook
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The film has some rather contrived plot elements. It takes a serious stretch of the imagination to believe she would cross paths with her son again, and I’m not sure what purpose Tullio Carminati’s Italian count serves in this film other than to sing a couple songs and hit home the unrequited love theme. But I don’t want to fixate on the story because this is not a story rooted in reality. Certainly by today’s standards the plot is incredible, but we have to remember that 80 years ago women were not as liberated as they are today. An unwed mother had limited options. In Gallant Lady, Ann Harding is forced to use deception as one of those options. But even if the story is ambiguous in what it wants to say, it features some well-drawn characterizations that hold the viewer’s interest.

Author Scott O’Brien writes, “Gallant Lady is a compelling drama, and certainly worthy of the talents that brought it to the screen. Gilbert Emery, who had rescued Ann’s Broadway career by getting her to play in Tarnish, wrote Gallant Lady specifically for her. He stated that he wished to showcase a talent he had observed and worked with. (Darryl) Zanuck had offered Ann the invitation to choose her own story, and she felt Emery’s Gallant Lady had potential. ‘I still have the audacity to think I can spot a good picture story,’ Ann declared at the time.”

With any other actress, Clive Brook might’ve stolen the show as Sally’s admirer, Dan. He plays a disgraced doctor and social outcast who wanders in and out of the film– drinking, smoking, and providing our heroine with much-needed advice. It’s a wonderfully understated performance, and his presence as Sally’s emotional anchor is one of the highlights. Brook was a distinguished British film star who became a popular leading man in Hollywood beginning in the late 1920s. Some of you probably remember Brook opposite Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, but he was also known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in three films.

With Otto Kruger
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Otto Kruger plays Phillip Lawrence, the adoptive father. Kruger is known for his roles in films like Son of Dracula and Murder, My Sweet. Longtime Broadway actress Janet Beecher, who made her film debut in 1933, portrays Maria Sherwood, and Dickie Moore is Deedy Lawrence. Moore, of course, is fondly remembered for the series of “Our Gang” shorts he appeared in as well as numerous classic films throughout the 1930s and 1940s. He had a role in what is widely considered to be Ann Harding’s best film, Peter Ibbetson, playing Gary Cooper’s character as a boy. Moore is the only star from this film still with us– now 88 years old.

The film was directed by Gregory La Cava. He originally worked for William Randolph Hearst as a producer of early animated cartoons, but he eventually became a director of live-action silent movies. He is best known for the films he did in the 1930s, most notably My Man Godfrey with Carole Lombard and William Powell. This landmark screwball comedy would reward La Cava with an Oscar nomination for Best Director. He showed that he could handle comedy as well as heavy drama.

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Though it was a box office hit, the popularity of women’s films like Gallant Lady would eventually fall out of fashion. Though Harding was greatly associated with these types of pictures, there were other factors involved in the decline of her career. Harding was a naturally reserved actress who didn’t go out of her way to talk to the press. She once said, “Whatever charm and dignity an actor may possess are ruined if delved into too deeply.” As a result, she didn’t endear herself to the critics. Some of whom unfairly attacked her films simply because they didn’t like her. By 1937 she had had enough of Hollywood, yet she would return in the 1940s in supporting roles in films like Mission to Moscow with Walter Huston. She would never again be the star she had been in the early 1930s, but Ann Harding never craved publicity or sought stardom. For her, acting was a craft. She thought only in terms of the ensemble—not the needs of an individual star.

It’s a shame Ann Harding was wasted with too few opportunities to display the kind of talent she had exhibited on Broadway and in her early film roles. She was pigeonholed into a certain type of screen persona when she was in fact far more diversified than that. Leslie Howard had specifically requested her for 1934’s Of Human Bondage, but she turned that role down and it eventually went to Bette Davis. Ann did wish to make a film version of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises— a property she had acquired the rights to at one point. Certainly, portraying Lady Brett Ashley would’ve been a fabulous departure for her, but sadly, Hollywood’s Production Code enforcers closed down on any studio’s attempt to translate this novel to the screen. It was another in a series of lost opportunities for Ann Harding.

She will never be remembered the way we remember a Barbara Stanwyck or a Bette Davis. These were actresses whose careers spanned decades. Harding’s career as a leading lady was cut too short for that kind of immortality, but we can certainly rescue her from total obscurity. We can keep her memory alive by screening her films for new audiences. Younger generations who have only been weaned on today’s celebrity culture can begin to understand and appreciate the depth of a 1930s actress like Ann Harding– both as an artist and as a person. Her films contain a humanity that mainstream Hollywood has long since forgotten.

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