For Reel

A Notorious Affair (1930)
April 20, 2012, 1:33 am
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , ,

Director: Lloyd Bacon

Among the most celebrated of screen beauties in the late 1920s was Billie Dove, a Ziegfeld girl who famously starred alongside Douglas Fairbanks in Albert Parker’s The Black Pirate. She would be pursued by a number of men in Hollywood, including a brief romance with Howard Hughes, before retiring from the screen in 1932 to spend time with husband Robert Kenaston, an oil executive. Her earliest available sound picture (many of which are reported lost) is A Notorious Affair, a by-the-numbers adultery melodrama in which she plays the loving wife to Basil Rathbone’s violinist. Rathbone was a major success on the stage and, after his performance as the lover of Norma Shearer in 1929’s The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, would find a number of starring roles on screen. Aside from his charms at Sherlock Holmes in that series of films, his performances were often stilted and forgettable. He is perhaps never worse than he is in this pre-Code picture, falsifying an absurd Italian accent and single-handedly undermining the drama with laughable camp. It is certainly not a coincidence that director Lloyd Bacon seems to have little interest in his performance, or even a wish to further explore the capable yet forgettable ingenue in Dove, but instead affords Kay Francis the lion’s share of his attention.  Playing a man-eating vamp, Francis wears short hair and with her deep, sultry voice, captivates with an androgynous eroticism. The only great joys of the picture are in seeing her chew men up and spit them out, at one point heartlessly complaining, “I never noticed you had pale blue eyes before. I hate pale blue eyes.” Bacon affords her a number of luminous close-ups and allows her character to occupy the screen alone in several introspective moments, an acting luxury that he doesn’t afford her co-stars. However, as good as she is, one still can’t quite recommend such a dull affair, and Francis’ best work was yet to come.

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