Man in Possession The (1931)

Man in Possession The (1931)

This marvelous pre-code comedy stars Robert Montgomery and Irene Purcell among others. You may not have heard of Purcell (I hadn’t) she was in barely more than a handful of films. My first thought was how much Jennifer Love Hewitt resembles her! In any case the dialogue in this film is not only pre-code risque but also devilishly clever. It was directed by Sam Wood who would later earn 4 unrewarded Academy Award nominations for his direction based on H.M. Harwood’s play and adapted by Sarah Mason (Little Women (1933)) with additional dialogue furnished by P.G. Wodehouse.

Montgomery plays Raymond Dabney the black sheep of a proper comfortable but not wealthy British family the youngest of two Cambridge educated sons who has just gotten out of prison for selling an automobile that wasn’t his. Against the protestations of his loving mother (Beryl Mercer) his father (C. Aubrey Smith) and brother Claude (Reginald Owen whose performance is noteworthy) throw Raymond out when he doesn’t accept their offer (500 pounds and passage to Australia) to leave town. The Dabneys want to save themselves from further embarrassment and avoid a scandal because Claude is practically engaged. Instead the charming Raymond finds a job as an assistant to the sloppy Sheriff (Forrester Harvey) who’s serving a writ upon Crystal Wetherby (Purcell) for failure to pay some debts. Crystal lives “high on the hog” in an audacious residence as a kept woman of the notorious playboy Sir Charles Cartwright (Alan Mowbray). Initially Raymond doesn’t know that Crystal is the woman his brother wants to marry for her money nor that she wants to marry Claude for (the security of) his money! Charlotte Greenwood who’s second billed behind Montgomery plays Crystal’s maid (& “partner in crime”) Clara. Although she’s hilarious in the role her character doesn’t make a lot of sense (e.g. she’s willing to work without pay) except to play off the leads fill in the blanks and keep the story’s intrigue alive.

Since Crystal cannot pay her debt to the Sheriff the writ gives him the right to assign Raymond as a “man in possession” – he must stay on the premises the watch over the assets. The Sheriff reads Raymond the rules of his responsibilities in this capacity which includes being pleasant and even helping with small domestic duties. Crystal’s bills have been piling up and her butler left because she couldn’t pay him so she and Clara convince Raymond to be their butler for the evening because she’s entertaining her fiancé’s and his parents that evening. Of course the big surprise is that her dinner guests are the Dabneys! Raymond learns of this just before they arrive and manages to get them into the sitting room before the Dabneys notice him. Though the subsequent supper scene doesn’t quite rival that in Alice Adams (1935) it’s still pretty funny.

By far the best sequences in the film are the ones with Montgomery and Purcell; a romance develops between Raymond and Crystal which leads to him spending the night with her. The requisite whistling by Raymond the next morning tells “us” all we need to know about what happened as the satisfied cat smile on prone Crystal’s face tells Clara. Though the end result is obvious the aftermath of their evening together and the resultant scenes between Raymond and his rivals for Crystal’s affections Sir Charles and then Claude (Owen is terrific in this scene; his character is “shocked” to learn that Crystal was ONLY interested in his money) are outstanding. The scenes work because Montgomery is so adept at playing just this kind of role. His character is able to confidently manipulate the situation with knowing looks saying more with his face than his words which are laced with double meanings while at the same time he seems insecure enough to keep the audience in suspense as to whether it will come out the way he’s planning. Purcell is able to contribute to the “mystery” of the story’s outcome as well; her character struggles with the (age old) conflict between her mind and her heart.

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