Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Successful Calamity

TCM's Star of the Month Mary Astor had a long career, lasting some 40 years from the silent era to 1964's Hush, Hush... Sweet Charlotte. Her career crossed genres as well as eras, with this week's look at Astor covering 25 years, and comedies, dramas, and a mystery in there. One surprisingly good movie in the lineup is the early talkie A Successful Calamity, at 6:45 AM tomorrow.

Astor is second-billed, playng Emmy Wilton, the second wife of banker Henry Wilton (George Arliss, the star of the proceedings). Henry is returning from Europe, where he's been negotiating on behalf of the US government to provide loans to various European countries after World War I. Henry's banking work has helped make the family wealthy, and after a year in Europe, he's almost anxious to return home to see the family. Unfortunately, they not as anxious to see him as he is to see them. Not because they're bad people; it's just that the kids are all grown up and have lives of their own, while Emmy has been keeping herself busy while Henry was away too. Emmy has become patron to a musician Pietro (Fortunio Bonanova) whose music Henry really doesn't care for. Son Eddie (William Janney) has become a moderately successful polo player under coach Larry Rivers (a very young Randolph Scott), and goes from polo match to date, barely noticing Dad has come home. Daughter Peggy (Evalyn Knapp) has romantic problems of her own: secretly, she loves Larry, but he wouldn't be a right fit to marry a yound socialite of Peggy's standing, so she has to feign a romantic attachment to Struthers, somebody more suitably wealthy (Hale Hamilton), even though he's a drip and we know he's not right for her. About the only person who still pays attention to Henry is his faithful valet Connors (Grant Mitchell).

So what's a neglected father to do? Connors tells him that because the servants and others of their social standing aren't well-to-do, they have to come up with ways to entertain themselves, rather than going to soirées or polo matches or whatnot. In short, they spend more time together, even if we've seen in a lot of other movies from the early 1930s that the working classes didn't have a home life that was as idyllic as Connors seems to portray it. But it gives Henry an idea! He finally gets everybody together at dinner and tells them that while he was away in Europe, the business apparently suffered some financial reverses, and this has left the Wiltons flat broke. Now, as I said at the beginning, Henry's family are supposed to be at heart good people; it's just that they had their own lives to lead. So when they hear that Dad is broke, they immediately do a 180, as opposed to the family in something like My Man Godfrey where the family members remain just as screwed up. Emmy tries to sell some of her jewelry to raise money, while Eddie tries to get honest work. Some of Wilton's business rivals even try to get the better of him when he's "broke", but they play right into his hands. Eventually Dad tells the family they aren't really broke, and everybody more or less lives happily ever after, except possibly Struthers.

A Successful Calamity is, to be honest, a fairly wispy trifle. It moves along breezily running about 70 minutes, and not all that much really happens. And yet it's a lovely little trifle. This, I think, is almost entirely down to having George Arliss in the lead. The cast around Arliss is all reasonably good, but they pale in comparion to Arliss every time he's on screen. Arliss imbues the Henry Wilton character with a vitality that makes you care what happens to him, even if you don't care all that much about the rest of the family or remember them very much after the end of the film. In fact, Arliss got put in multiple trifling movies like this one and made them a joy to watch. A Successful Calamity isn't the best plot out there, but George Arliss takes what little there is and makes a lot of entertainment value out of it.

A Successful Calamity did get a DVD release as part of a George Arliss box set that can be purchased from the TCM Shop.

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