I’ve been meaning to post briefly about an early Humphrey Bogart movie I saw recently. The pre-Code romantic drama Love Affair is in fact his first lead role, although he gets second billing to Dorothy Mackaill. Bogart is one of my all-time favourites, and I’d also count myself as a fan of Mackaill after being impressed by her in Wellman’s Safe In Hell, although I still need to catch up on her silent roles. I quite enjoyed this film, because I love the period, but, although it is only just over an hour long, it feels quite slow and stilted, as with many early 1930s movies. Watching films made by lesser-known directors such as Thornton Freeland, who was at the helm for this one, makes me realise once again just how good the likes of William Wellman, John Ford, William Dieterle and Howard Hawks really were.
As someone who can’t get enough of early aviation dramas, I was excited to read that this film stars Mackaill as a woman pilot – something I haven’t as yet come across very often. Sadly, however, when I actually watched the film, the aviation theme didn’t quite live up to my hopes, as it is really something which only crops up at the start and end of the movie. Mackaill’s character, Carol Owen, is in fact a bored rich girl who decides she’d like to have a go at piloting a plane to while away some of her idle hours. She doesn’t like the look of the instructor suggested by her local flying school, and instead insists on a more handsome young aeronautical engineer, Jim Leonard (Bogart).
Jim teases Carol by some terrifying stunt flying (this may well be stock footage, but is certainly impressive anyway). However, she gets her own back by giving him a lift into the city in her car and driving like a maniac (something played for laughs, but not very funny to a modern viewer!) She then proceeds to show off by taking him to a party at her large house, where she laments the fact that she is losing money in the Depression, and pretends to auction her butler – Jim stands there looking embarrassed and walks out on the drunken festivities, but never really tells her what he thinks of this incident, as I rather hoped he might. Instead, he is soon besotted by Carol and neglecting his work as a result – though he is overawed by her wealth and privilege. “You’re from Cartiers and I’m from Woolworth’s,” he tells her, in just about the only memorable line of the film.
Mackaill has the same blend of sweetness and toughness in this which makes her so compelling to watch in Safe In Hell, even though the script, from a short story by Ursula Parrott, isn’t anywhere near the same standard. However, Bogart really hasn’t established his screen personality yet – he seems shy and disconcertingly soft-spoken, and is always smiling – a beautiful smile, which makes me realise how little we see it in many of his later and greater roles. His voice is almost unrecognisable, except for the occasional line which he suddenly snarls in his later manner, making you realise that, yes, it really is him.
This isn’t a particularly outrageous pre-Code, but does feature Jim and Carol spending the night together without being married. It also has a sexy sub-plot involving Carol’s financial adviser, Bruce Hardy (Hale Hamilton), who wants to pressurise her into marrying him – although, by an amazing coincidence, he is having an affair with Jim’s sister, showgirl Linda Lee (Astrid Allwyn).
The film is admittedly no masterpiece, though enjoyable to watch, even in the rather dodgy copy I came across. Given the casting I’d love to see it released on DVD – there must surely be scope for an early Bogart box set in the future, since, despite his fame, many of his 1930s films are still not commercially available.