October 24, 2017
Ronald Colman signed as a contract player with the Samuel Goldwyn Company in 1924, cranking out heart-tugging romances all the way through the transition to sound, as in the 1932 production Cynara. A particularly “adult” pre-code drama, it frankly discusses extramarital affairs and suicide in a tone of disarming directness. Adapted from a hit play, Goldwyn wanted faithfulness to the material, though director King Vidor and writer Frances Marion sought ways to make this stagebound scenario more cinematic. The resulting film leads one to think that Goldwyn won most of the battles, as it is ends up as a very well-acted filmed play, though Vidor does find ways to be inventive at the edges. Ronald Colman, in his penultimate performance for Goldwyn, plays against type as a boring barrister who falls into an affair with a young shopgirl. He is no great lover, as he portrayed in a series of hit silents with Vilma Banky, but a nervous, guilt-ridden, self-flagellating one. Colman wasn’t happy with the film because it clashed with his established persona, but that is what makes the film so fascinating today.
Cynara originated in Robert Gore-Brown’s 1928 novel An Imperfect Lover, which was adapted into the play Cynara, a stage success in 1930. Goldwyn was in a perpetual search for quality material to funnel Colman into, wanting to build off of John Ford’s Arrowsmith (1931), which was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. The search lasted for months, and was so consuming that one evening, according to Harpo Marx, he visited the Goldwyn home to find their son Sammy reading the funny pages. Harpo asked what he was doing, and Sammy responded, “I’m looking for a Ronald Colman story, Mr. Marx.” With its suggestive subject matter and stage pedigree, Goldwyn eventually settled on Cynara as Colman’s next film, and lined up Vidor and Marion as his directing and writing time, fresh off of their triumph The Champ (1931). Marion agreed to do the job on one condition – that Goldwyn hire Lois Weber to assist in the adaptation. Weber, one of the pioneering female directors of the silent era, had fallen on hard times, and hadn’t worked on a film in five years, taking on a job as an apartment manager to make a living. Goldwyn agreed to the arrangement, both respecting Weber’s accomplishments and wanting Marion on the job.
Told in flashback as a confession from the misleadingly named barrister Jim Warlock (Ronald Colman) to his wife Clemency (Kay Francis), Cynara is an apologia for male infidelity. Jim is a homebody whose horny old bachelor pal John Tring (Henry Stephenson) is always encouraging to join him on extra-curricular outings. So when Clemency goes on an impromptu trip to Venice with her sister, Tring encourages Jim to explore the London nightlife, specifically its females. One night at an Italian restaurant, they run into two shopgirls named Doris (Phyllis Barry) and Milly (Viva Tattersall). Milly uses the flirtation as an excuse to enjoy Tring’s money, but Doris falls for Jim’s awkward sincerity, and concocts a plan to meet up with him again at a swimming exhibition that Jim would be judging. Jim tears up a note with Dori’s address, and in a beautiful transition, Vidor dissolves from the bits of torn-up note to pigeons flying in Venice, connecting Jim’s two loves in a poetic bit of montage. Despite his seemingly abiding love for Clemency, Jim begins a whirlwind affair with Doris, which ends just as abruptly when Clemency arrives home early. The whole affair ends in tragedy, threatening Jim’s marriage and the entire life he had built up until that point.
Though the film is centrally focused on Jim and Clemency’s marriage, it finds time to give the shopgirl’s perspective – showing how Doris doesn’t have the same societal protections as Jim’s upper class bubble. Milly repeatedly warns her about how working class girls are tossed away by men like Jim, but Doris refuses to hear it. She is in love, and pays the price. It is unclear how much influence Weber had on the script, but she dealt with the double-standard between married men and single women in the fallout of an affair in films like What Do Men Want? (1921) and Shoes (1916). That double standard definitely applies in Cynara, as while Jim’s reputation is tarnished, he is still free to make a new life wherever he’d like, while Doris is jobless and spiraling in depression.
The most thrilling scenes in the film occurs when Jim and Tring deign to visit the blue collar district – there is a remarkable sequence set inside a movie theater showing Chaplin’s A Dog’s Life (1918). Vidor has a camera boom swoop from the back of the theater down to the front, capturing the full-body laughter of a theater audience losing its mind to Chaplin. In a clumsy if effective visual metaphor, Chaplin shoves a dog down his pants to sneak into a dancehall, and the animal pokes through Chaplin’s pants, causing some awkward encounters. It is after this that Doris takes Jim’s hand in hers, and for the first time Jim exhibits what looks like lust. The sequence presents a Chaplin short as an erotic experience, both for the other revelers laughing their heads off in full body convulsions, and Jim and Doris, who find the film’s loosening of social codes a way to free themselves from their guilt, and towards their disastrous affair.