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Monday, August 21, 2017

Ann Harding will not be eclipsed in the delightful pre-code Double Harness (1933)

Ann in the  early 1930s
(from Wikipedia)
Perhaps it's appropriate that TCM is honoring Ann Harding on Monday, August 21, 2017--the day of the great solar eclipse.  For here is a terrific actress and leading lady of classic Hollywood whose career has faded from view over the years since the 1930s, when she reigned at RKO Studios and very popular with depression-era audiences.  Working against her today, are a few factors, in my opinion -- a) none of her films have made it into the top echelons of time-tested audience or critics' favorites lists, hurt, no doubt, from being out of circulation (especially the 'pre-code' films) until recently; b) she was only nominated for one Oscar, in 1931, in the very early days of the talkies; c) her screen persona and fashion style was never 'cutting edge' or emblematic of female glamour of a particular era, and she liked it that way; d) she took an extended break from Hollywood after the mid-1930s, and when she returned in the early 1940s, she was being cast in supporting parts.

If you want to know more about Harding and her career, I recommend the posting about her on the blog Pre-code.com here, as well as a recent bio by Scott O'Brien.  O'Brien did a Q&A for the Filmstruck blog and revealed quite a bit about both her professional and personal lives.

Publicity for Double Harness (IMDb.com)



"Then together in double harness
 They will trot along down the line, 
Until death shall call them over
 To a bright and sunny clime."  

--from a traditional cowboy song called 'Dan Taylor.'







It's my favorite of her films, but I admit to watching Double Harness a few years ago for William Powell, the leading man in the film, who I had recently discovered.  I came across this obscure film on YouTube, (it's still up here) and didn't know what to expect, thinking I might not even finish it. Yet it grabbed me and held my attention; I savored its sophisticated story and efficient pacing, frank treatment of sexual politics of the era and its (mostly) strong women, as well as the nuanced characterizations that emerged.

Joan (Harding), Valerie (Browne) are motoring with their father
 (Stephenson) in San Francisco, discussing Joan's romantic
entanglements.  Nice use of rear projection in this scene.
The term 'double harness' of course refers to marriage, and Ann's character is Joan Colby, a wealthy single woman living in San Francisco with her father (Henry Stephenson) and younger sister Valerie (Lucile Browne), who apparently is in danger of spinsterhood when Valerie is set to be married.  Joan is the 'steady, dependable one' according to her father, in contrast to the shallow, spendthrift party girl Valerie.  But Joan is not to be relegated easily to the spinster life--she has recently snagged John Fletcher (Powell) as a boyfriend, and while he's 'the playboy of the west', according to the father, and is not interested in running the family business, Joan decides she's going to reform him by marrying him.  But alas, while John apparently is smitten with her, he declares he has no interest in marriage, and is still being pursued by former flame Monica (Lilian Bond). So Joan decides that she's willing to become his mistress, and then secretly orchestrates, with Valerie's help, the discovery of the two of them in a compromising situation by her father.  John does the honorable thing, but the passion has been snuffed out by the shackles of this 'double harness', and he wants a divorce after a respectable time. Joan is resigned to the failure of her plan, but in the meantime still manages to influence John to look after his business, which begins to turn around, and the two seem to be on a path to eventual happiness until Valerie, in an angry fit blurts out the ruse Joan pulled to trap John in marriage, and the rug seems to pulled out once again on the couple.  This takes us to the last three or so scenes of the film, and well, you can watch to see what happens.
Lilian Bond, William Powell, and Ann Harding in Double Harness
Double Harness was based on a play by Edward Poor Montgomery and adapted for the screen by Jane Murfin, also the screenwriter for The Women and Pride and Prejudice.  Due to legal battles at RKO, the film wasn't available to be viewed by mass audiences until in 2007 Turner Classic Movies acquired the rights and put it out on DVD.  The director, John Cromwell, is the father of actor James Cromwell, who is still working today.  James Cromwell spoke at the 2016 TCM Film Festival screenings of the film (in which I and hundreds of others didn't make it in -- but that's another story...).  Thankfully fans can watch the clip here.  In his remarks Cromwell referred to Ann Harding as 'brittle' in this part, and with all due respect, I completely disagree.  She enchants every scene and makes you root for her even as she manipulates those around her to get what she wants.  She's a perfect match for William Powell, in the suave, sophisticated, and utterly charming way. A side note: Powell was still at Warner Bros., a year before his MGM rise, and was loaned out to RKO for this film.

Ann Harding was absolutely lovely, with long blond tresses, but refused to be a slave to the fashions of the time, such as bobbing or unnaturally waving her hair. She often left her home without makeup.  In her films she often wore her hair up in a bun at the nape of her neck.  In Double Harness, this of course, gives her that 'steady, dependable' look, bordering on matronly.  In the very first scene in the film, Ann establishes that Joan is also maternal, adjusting her father's tie, giving her sister advice when asked, and sacrificing her share of her father's dowry to her sister's extravagant wedding plans.  Later she even prepares dinner, donning apron and all.  But a saint she is not.  She is deeply cynical, and all too knowing of the ways of the world. "If I ever get married, it will probably be at City Hall in a pair of slacks and a turtleneck" she tells her father with a wry smile.  Shortly before this film started production, Harding herself had recently been divorced from Harry Bannister, a stage actor with whom he had her first daughter. No doubt, she could bring a true quality of world-weariness to her character.
Ann in the kitchen, filling in on the 'cook's night out'
Yet she could dress to the nines and instantly become stunning, the elegant kind of woman that a wealthy bachelor-about-town could become attracted to.  This transformation in Joan early in the film is complete because Ann's Joan is smart.  Further, while maybe 'coolly virginal', as stated by Powell's character, she still presents a knowing exterior during their first evening together when she smokes a cigarette and declares "I must admit, I've been enamored of you for years" while casually looking away.

Because of Joan's inherent goodness and depth of character, she ensures that we forgive her manipulative ways, without even our discerning that there is anything to forgive.  Her determination has given her confidence.  "If I'm as good as I think I am, I (will be seeing John) several more nights in succession," she tells her father when he commented on her recent success with the wealthy John.
Ann and William Powell locked in a romantic joust
Yet she comments to her sister on how she has no natural talents, and therefore can only be successful by marrying a successful man. (This, I found hard to believe, with someone as smart as Ann's Joan.)  Ultimately she discovers that with her natural kindness and confidence, honesty pairs much better than duplicity. She takes full ownership of her actions, and when her secret is revealed, she admits everything to her husband, but leaves him with heartfelt words of how she loves him, and then calmly wishes him the best.  "I don't make scenes, Mrs. Page," she says to Monica.

The last part of the film, in which a dinner party goes wrong on many levels, devolves a bit into slapstick, and perhaps earns the film the categorization of 'comedy', but I think undermines the sophisticated pre-code drawing room drama of manners that this film really is.  And I doubt comedy was Harding's best suit.

Harding was known in her hey-day for her sophisticated yet sympathetic portraits. She had a timeless quality that needs to be better appreciated today. Double Harness is the perfect place to start.  With her modern acting style, and frank treatment of sexual politics, we could be forgiven if we forget, for a while, that this film was made in the 1930s.  Watch it.

This post is my contribution to the 'Summer Under the Stars' blogathon, hosted by Kristen of Journeys in Classic Film.  Please head over there now to check out the other posts for Ms. Harding, and all the stars being honored by TCM this month.   Double Harness airs on TCM overnight tonight (2:30 AM Eastern).

4 comments:

  1. Wonderful look at the intriguing Double Harness and the lovely Ann Harding. For years, I only knew her later work, and was surprised that I should be surprised at her early Hollywood career. When Ladies Meet may be my personal favourite from that era and Two Weeks With Love from her "mom" phase.

    Although, the oddball Christmas Eve has a special place in my heart as well. Believe it or not, in that odd 1947 film she plays a senior citizen!

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    1. Thank you! I enjoyed 'When Ladies Meet' quite a lot. Alice Brady really impressed me in that one, as well. I will definitely put 'Two Weeks With Love' on my list to watch. Is the Christmas film 'It Happened on Fifth Avenue'? I watched it one Christmas a couple of years ago and was expecting something else, I think, with less wit and more schmaltz, but it really was good. Too bad Ann's role wasn't bigger, but it certainly is a keeper.

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  2. This is a fine, interesting article. I enjoyed reading it, and I look forward to reading more of your articles in the future.

    By the way, I would like to invite you to join my blogathon, "The Great Breening Blogathon:" https://pureentertainmentpreservationsociety.wordpress.com/2017/09/07/extra-the-great-breening-blogathon/. It is celebrating the life and work of Joseph Breen, the enforcer of the Motion Picture Production Code between 1934 and 1954. As we honor his birthday, which is on October 14, we will be discussing and analyzing the Code era, breening films from other eras, and writing about our own ideas for classic movies. One doesn't have to agree with the Code and Mr. Breen to enjoy that! I hope you will do me the honor of joining. We could really use your talent!

    Yours Hopefully,

    Tiffany Brannan

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for your kind comments. I will consider this blogathon as I plan my posts for the rest of October.

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