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Kitty (DVD Review)

31 Aug, 2015 By: Mike Clark

Available via Universal Vault Series
$19.98 DVD
Not rated
Stars Ray Milland, Paulette Goddard, Cecil Kellaway, Patric Knowles.

Generally regarded as the most successful vehicle that Paulette Goddard had to carry on her shoulders without help from Cecil B. DeMille or Chaplin, this lavish historical London lark (though a lot of work was put into it) might be classified as a bodice-ripper if any bodices actually got ripped. To this end, I was half-surprised when sleuthing the AFI Catalog for the 1940s to see that this 18th-century game of musical beds didn’t duke it out with the Production Code at the time. But Goddard’s upwardly mobile Cockney (named, no surprise, Kitty) always has the benefit of matrimony when tuning her instruments. It’s kind of what they used to say about Liz Taylor: whenever she wanted to have sex, she simply married the guy.

Then again, this isn’t exactly fair to Kitty, given that her marriages are personal sacrifices to improve the fortunes of her mentor (Ray Milland as a bad-luck Sir Hugh Marcy). Worse, the men she weds are candidates for the Mayor of Gout-ville. Basically, this is a Pygmalion kind of yarn — if you can imagine a Henry Higgins with creditors on his behind and an aunt (Constance Collier, a colorful performance) who gets out of bed just long enough to take a snort. Sir Hugh had had a decent job in the Foreign Office but fell prey to politics in the form of a duke’s nephew who coveted the position. Now, he’s just one step away from debtor’s prison.

Still, he has class and that Ray Milland brand of polish — though Kitty premiered just before, and went into wide release just after, the actor’s against-type Oscar casting in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, where he eventually gets a lot seedier than he gets even at his worst here. Sir Hugh and Kitty meet each other when he and a buddy are visiting the Thomas Gainsborough at his studio (around the same time the renowned artist is creating Blue Boy). Gainsborough (Cecil Kellaway) has been captivated by Kitty’s raw looks as a potential subject, despite the latter’s guttersnipe origins that would peg her clan as good candidates for the chorus of Oliver! if they could sing. Incidentally, there’s a scene here with Gainsborough and the story’s principles at the Royal Academy of Arts, and it is very reminiscent of the one that takes place against the same backdrop in Mike Leigh’s majestic Mr. Turner.

Director Mitchell Leisen’s background was in art and costuming, which may be one of the reasons Billy Wilder balked at Leisen’s direction of his scripts and eventually turned director himself (“he was like Minnelli” Wilder once reportedly said — and not in a complimentary way). But the Wilder and Charles Brackett scripts that Leisen directed resulted in films that remain good or better, and many of even the clunkiest Leisen pictures after that period look routinely handsome and occasionally even breathtaking (see Frenchman’s Creek, which as Paramount’s most expensive production up to its point in history, deserves a major restoration). In terms of simple storytelling by just by itself, Kitty is one of Leisen’s best, though it also got an Oscar nomination for art direction/interior decoration — not that Universal’s “Vault” releases go any extra miles toward making a lot of interesting library titles (including the 1929-49 Paramounts they own) look their best. Maybe the studio, which is having a banner box office year, could take some of that booty and put it into preservation.

As it turned out, 1946 was something of a peak year for Leisen, whose fortunes soon turned — but not before he guided Olivia de Havilland to that year’s Oscar for To Each Her Own, a classic weeper never given a home release despite having what I regard as one of the most deserved Best Actress wins ever. The movie said to have really done Leisen in was another costume drama: the Borgias potboiler Bride of Vengeance (1949). I’d always been curious to see it after the damage it reputedly did to the careers of Goddard, male lead John Lund and Leisen himself, though the Leisen-Lund The Mating Season (which got Thelma Ritter an Oscar nomination) is a gem that was stilI a couple years off. I finally caught Bride a couple years ago, and it’s not that bad — or at least not that lacking in moderate fun, as can be said of any movie where Raymond Burr plays a heavy in both senses. But Kitty is solid entertainment without apology and one of the sturdier dramas from Paramount releases during the period.

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