Snapshot Summary: Laura La Plante plays Mary Briany, a London secretary in love with her boss (Wyndham Goldie), who barely realizes she exists. After said boss arrives late to work with the other secretary in tow, both still in evening clothes, and Mary’s demoted doing the other secretary’s grunt work…well, she’s had it. She quits on the spot. Inspired by a sensationalist account of a recent suicide whose unrequited love wept bitter tears after her death, Mary tries unsuccessfully to drown herself in the river. (“I intend to die with an expression of peace on my face that surpasses understanding!”) Under protest, she’s fished out by a passing gentleman named Tony Randall (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), who takes her home to keep her from being arrested (suicide is a crime, you know!), dry off, and straighten up. Trouble is, Mary wants no part of this rescuing business, and Tony, who is flat broke and engaged to be married in the morning to his wealthy fiancée, finds himself stuck between keeping Mary from escaping back to the river, and his fiancée from discovering that there’s a woman hiding in his spare room.
Hijinks ensue, as Mary tries to sneak away (with hilarious results); Tony’s friends throw a bachelor party; and a spectacular binge is had by all. The following morning, after a serendipitous mix-up of would-have-been suicide notes, Tony’s fiancée discovers Mary in the house. Instead of a wedding, there are tears and unused honeymoon tickets to Monte Carlo, and a despondent Tony reveals to Mary that he has only 300 pounds in the bank – scarcely enough to cover his debts. Now despondent, he makes a proposition: risk it all on one final plunge at Monte Carlo. If they win, they’ll split the proceeds; if they lose, they’ll commit suicide together in the Mediterranean. Will they finally land on fortune’s good side, or will they have to carry out their pact? Will they fall in love in the meantime? Take a wild guess.
It’s a British film, but it feels American – in large part because of the American leads, but also because it’s one of Britain’s more polished examples from that period. Heavy on the verbal zingers and physical comedy, and low on the “it could only be funny in Britain, maybe” moments.
A young Margaret Lockwood, in only her third film, makes an appearance as Fairbanks’ fiancée Vera, heiress to the Barton family fortune (“the pickle people”). As the “other woman”, there’s not much for her to do, beyond plotting to turn Fairbanks’ life upside-down and crying hysterically. (Admit it. You’d cry too, if you lost Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. to some broad he fished out of the Thames.)
Ably supporting the leads are Donald Calthrop as Tony’s butler, and Claude Hulbert as Lord Rufus Paul, an airplane-flying chap, loyal friend of Tony, and butt of many jokes.
There is a hint of dark comedy about this movie, and viewers’ tolerance levels for this will probably vary. Personally, I found it to be mostly lightheartedly comedic, with just enough pathos to make it touching and offer drama, while never actually selling the idea of suicide very hard (with a couple of notable exceptions). The film moves quickly into Laura’s despair for her future and plans for suicide, but you know she won’t be successful: it’s too early, and she’s the star. Besides, even as she’s eyeing the jump into the Thames, the movie snaps into screwball-comedy mode, and by the time Fairbanks and La Plante start mulling over the possibility again, you’re 98% sure they’ll be a very live couple by the end titles. The remaining 2% of doubt is for dramatic effect.
The film veers into darker territory when the couple hits the casino at Monte Carlo. It’s made poignantly clear that while a segment of the wealthy, holidaying visitors to Monte Carlo look on their losses as a lark, a vacation expense, for others, it’s a matter of life and death. As La Plante sits down to play her few chips at the casino, a heavily bejeweled lady makes a crack about people who make the games “a matter of life and death”, and isn’t that too funny? La Plante looks aghast, then laughs uncomfortably, unwilling to bare her desperation to the glitteringly rich crowd, even as her chips are too rapidly scooped away.
In the scene just prior, Fairbanks and La Plante are standing on a balcony overlooking the city below. The lights are dim, the view is lovely, we watch the setup for a romantic balcony scene. Suddenly, a shot rings out, and they jump and look at each other in shock. In response to their queries, a passing policeman only shrugs. That’s how it is in Monte Carlo, you know? Happens all the time. They lose at the casino, and…*mimics gun to the head*. Monte Carlo is bright and beautiful, but there’s a sorrowful undercurrent to the gilded veneer of fun.
And it’s not particularly funny when, thinking they’ve lost everything, the couple stroll along the sunny walkways of Monte Carlo, looking for just the right spot to…well, you know. They peer over the edge of a railing and look inquiringly at each other; La Plante shakes her head rather pathetically, and they walk on. It’s kind of funny because you don’t believe it’ll happen, but if you let yourself think of all the other poor unfortunates preceding them…well, maybe it’s not so funny, at that.
Fortunately for us (and them), you can’t kill this couple that easily.
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La Plante’s scenes with Morland Graham (as Mary’s coworker Mr. Rumcorn) are not to be missed. While Mary pines after the boss, Mr. Rumcorn pines after Mary. The romance may be lacking, but the lines are zippy.
Mr. Rumcorn: Miss Briany, May I speak to you seriously for a moment?
Mary: Oh, must you? I’m feeling so happy this morning.
Mr. Rumcorn: You’ve very little cause for happiness, Miss Briany. Have you ever paused to consider what the future holds for such people as yourself and me?
Mary: Yes, I often do that.
Mr. Rumcorn: Nothing but emptiness. Your looks will fade away, your figure will expand, and the pit will yawn to receive you.
Tony’s bachelor party:
It’s at this point that La Plante, whose clothes were hung up to dry and never returned, strikes gold in the form of Fairbanks’ younger brother’s wardrobe, conveniently containing full evening dress for a young gentleman. Cue Escape Plan No. 4. Oh, the policemen searching for the suicidal young woman just showed up?
La Plante and Fairbanks’ entire conversation while she’s (sorta) trying to drown.
Tony: Excuse me, but I wouldn’t drink that water if I were you. It hasn’t been filtered.
Mary: I’m drowning myself!
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. is continually using hand motions (i.e. diving) to indicate their planned suicide. “Unless you think we ought to…*diving hand motion*…now.”
Before Man of the Moment, I’d never heard of Laura La Plante – I was watching strictly for Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. I’m not sure who I expected to see – some B-level unknown actress, maybe – but I was surprised to find a pitch-perfect comedienne with a blonde bob and a lively repertoire of expressions.
A major star at Universal during the 1920s, Man of the Moment was her last movie role*, filmed as one of a string of British-made productions from 1934-35. She’s a natural at comedy here, both physical and verbal. With her short bob and flexible face, she has a strikingly modern and fresh feel; she wouldn’t look out of place if she jumped out of a black-and-white movie reel and right into a colorful HD flat-screen – or a ’60s Technicolor movie. There’s nothing stagey or overly dramatized about her, even if the movie has a slight melodramatic flair; her persona feels real. It’s only later that you realize what an old hand she must have been to pull it off.
I now see why she was a leading star for so many years, and I’m sorry it took me so long to discover her. Unfortunately, as with so many silents and early talkies, her movies seem to be difficult to find. The Cat and the Canary (1927) is currently available to Amazon Prime members, and may also be rented; I’ll be checking that one out next.
* According to IMDb, Man of the Moment was La Plante’s last movie until a minor role in 1947’s Little Mister Jim, followed by a few TV appearances.
Here, she and Fairbanks, Jr. make a fantastic team, with well-matched comedic timing and chemistry.
Speaking of Fairbanks. There’s a marked difference between the Fairbanks of the early 1930s – of Our Modern Maidens (1929), Union Depot (1932), and Success At Any Price (1934) – and this Fairbanks of 1935. He’s lost the overly slick early-’30s hair and wardrobe, for one thing, and he’s playing with zest a character type at which he would excel: the charming, dashing, faintly aristocratic young playboy who might be insanely wealthy or in desperate need of ready cash, as the plot demanded. I haven’t seen every Fairbanks film of the ’30s, so perhaps there’s a better example, but to my eye, Man of the Moment looks very much like a transition film for him: moving on from the slightly stagey, youthful performances in often mediocre films to the dashing, well-timed, smooth turns of the late 1930s-40s.
Just two years later, he would be giving a superb performance as the dashing and dastardly Rupert of Hentzau in The Prisoner of Zenda, brimming with confidence and skill in front of the camera. That didn’t appear out of nowhere. If Errol Flynn sprang fully formed into stardom in Captain Blood, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. took some raw talent, lucky connections, and a bunch of hard work and honed it into something excellent.
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Incidentally, I never did figure out why it’s called Man of the Moment. It could refer to Fairbanks’ being on in-again, out-again terms with his wealthy fiancée and her papa, but who knows? (And really, who cares?) It’s a catchy title, and a catchy movie.
Man of the Moment isn’t currently available on DVD, but it’s been aired on TCM in the past. If you get a chance, see it – it’s fun, darker elements and all. Several preview scenes are available on TCM’s website.