Monday, April 24, 2017

The Animal Kingdom

Film In Focus

By Ed Garea

The Animal Kingdom (RKO, 1932) – Director: Edward H. Griffith, George Cukor (uncredited). Writers: Horace Jackson (s/p), Adela Rogers St. John (uncredited), Philip Barry (play). Stars: Ann Harding, Leslie Howard, Myrna Loy, William Gargan, Neil Hamilton, Ilka Chase, Henry Stephenson, Leni Stengel & Don Dillaway. B&W, 85 minutes.

In the early days of sound, when Hollywood was looking for suitable material to place before its cameras, the plays of Philip Barry proved a good source. Barry, known for his comedies of manners, had a scored a number of hits on Broadway and some of his plays were converted into movies, such as Holiday (filmed in 1930 and 1938), You and I (filmed in 1931 as The Bargain), Tomorrow and Tomorrow (1931), Who Killed Cock Robin? (1938), Spring Dance (filmed in 1938 as Spring Madness), The Philadelphia Story (1940), and Without Love (1945).

Another of Barry’s plays that was ripe for the camera was The Animal Kingdom. A hit on Broadway (it ran for 183 performances from January 12, 1932 to June 1932, exact closing date unknown), it was co-produced by its star, Leslie Howard, who was brought over to star in the film adaptation by David O. Selznick for RKO. Ann Harding, who was one of the studio’s most popular leading ladies, was given the role of Daisy Sage. The only major role left to be filled was that of Cecelia Henry. Director Edward Griffith, who had worked with Myrna Loy on the 1931 RKO drama, Rebound, pitched Selznick to borrow her from MGM to play Cecelia, but Selznick wasn’t so sure. He knew she had the requisite beauty to play the part, but he had doubts about her acting chops. Griffith, however, persisted, and Selznick gave in and borrowed her for the role. It turned out to be a good decision as Loy gave a terrific performance as the materialistic Cecelia.

Tom Collier (Howard) owns Bantam Press, a small publishing house in Connecticut. He prides himself on publishing only books of superior quality, regardless of how they sell.

Tom has been living with Daisy Sage (Harding) for the last few years. When Daisy, a commercial artist, goes off to Paris for a few weeks for an assignment, Tom suddenly falls head over heels for Cecelia Henry (Loy) and becomes engaged to her, much to the disappointment of her other beau, Owen (Hamilton), who also serves as Tom’s lawyer. Owen would love to marry Cecelia, but lacks the necessary financial resources to sustain her interest. On the night of his engagement he receives a telegram from Daisy announcing her immanent return. 

Tom reassures Cecilia that he and Daisy are only friends and leaves to break the news to Daisy. Before he can tell her the news, Daisy confesses that, since learning how to paint in Paris, that she wants to be a serious artist. She wants him to come to Mexico with her, get married and start a family. When he tells Daisy he’s become engaged she is shattered and tells him she doesn’t even want to know the other woman’s name. Tom wants Daisy to continue their friendship, but she’s too devastated to take him up on it, preferring that they simply part. Tom returns to Connecticut to marry Cecilia.

Months later Tom happens to see a poster announcing Daisy’s first gallery show. He persuades Cecelia into going with him, but on the night they are to leave she feigns a headache and announces she’s going to bed. Shortly after, she appears to Tom in a sexy nightgown and subtly seduces him into staying home that night.

Cecelia is also bothered by Tom’s butler, “Red” Regan (Gargan). Red is a washed-up fighter who Tom hired to work for him. Cecelia thinks he’s too uncouth for the job and wants Tom to fire him. To Tom’s relief, Red, who knows of Cecilia’s disapproval, tells him he is quitting to go into the gym business with an old friend.

Days later, feeling lonely and bored, Tom visits Daisy at her place and broaches the subject of rekindling their friendship. But after he leaves, Daisy, who is still in love with him, panics at the thought of getting back together and leaves for Nova Scotia on that night’s train.

When Tom’s wealthy father, Rufus (Stephenson), comes to visit, he notes to both his and Cecilia’s disapproval that Red has returned as butler. It’s explained that his prospective business went bust and Tom, being soft-hearted, hired him back. Rufus wants Tom to give up the Connecticut life and come back to live with him in New York. Cecelia is in agreement with this. Cecelia, for her part, has also convinced Tom to accept books that are sure to be best sellers, regardless of quality.

Soon after Daisy’s return, she receives a phone call from Cecelia inviting her and two of Tom’s former New York friends, cellist Franc Schmidt (Stengel) and novelist Joe Fiske (Dillaway), one of Tom’s authors, up to Connecticut for Tom’s surprise birthday party, At first Daisy turns her down, but after thinking it over, her curiosity is such that she phones back and accepts, much to Cecelia’s dismay. 

At the party, Tom shows Daisy his latest book and asks for her criticism. She tells him the novel is trash and chides him for turning his distinguished publishing house into a factory for pulp fiction. Later in the evening, Daisy enters a room just as Cecelia and Owen are about to go into a embrace. Cecelia was in the midst of convincing Owen to handle a merger of Tom’s publishing house with the powerhouse publishing firm of Williams and Warren.

Daisy is appalled by what she sees and convinces Franc and Joe to immediately return with her to New York. Before she goes, she stops to tell Tom she pities him. He is really changed from the Tom she knew and this time it’s farewell for good.

After the guests retire for the night, Cecelia and Tom argue over his not wanting to go to New York City for the winter and his reluctance to sell his business. As punishment for not acceding to her wishes Cecelia locks Tom out of their bedroom. 

The next evening, Tom has changed his tune. He’ll sell the business and move to New York to live with his father and become a “proper” gentlemen, which is what Cecelia wants. Tom says it’s for the best in that he can settle down and start a family, but when Cecelia hears that, she demurs, saying the time isn’t yet right for a family.

Over dinner, Tom tells Cecelia that her bedroom reminds him of his days in England and a brothel he used to frequent in London. Payment for services was simple – one just left the money on the mantelpiece. Cecelia cuts him short. Tom then shows her the birthday check he received from his father. She takes one look and gasps that there can’t be that much money in the world. (A close look at the check reveals it’s for $100,000, worth over $1.8 million today. When the film was released, the average salary was $20 a week.) They have more champagne and she tells him she’ll be waiting in the bedroom.

After she leaves, Red comes in to tell Tom that he’s leaving – this time for good. Tom tells Red to fetch his hat and coat. He then takes the check and endorses it over to Cecelia. When Red returns with Tom’s hat and coat, Tom places the check on the mantelpiece and tells Red he’s going back home to his “wife.”


Leslie Howard was not the only one in the cast to reprise his Broadway role in the film. William Gargan, who played butler Red Regan, and Ilka Chase, who played Cecelia’s friend Grace, were also in the film.

RKO originally bought the film rights as a vehicle for Ann Harding, but when scheduling conflicts arose, the studio substituted Irene Dunne. However, in a twist of fate, the filming of Smilin’ Through at MGM was delayed and the studio refused to release Leslie Howard to RKO to begin filming on the scheduled date. Readjusting the starting date, RKO realized that Harding would now be available and reassigned her the role.

But there was another actress on the RKO lot who coveted a role in the film – Katharine Hepburn. She was originally fired from the Broadway cast during rehearsals by Howard in the role as co-producer. He cited as his reasons the fact that she towered over him, her mannerisms and what he called her “insufferable bossiness.” Learning that Harding was a lock for the role of Daisy she set her sights on the role of Cecelia. When Loy got the role, Hepburn was miffed. Loy noted in her autobiography that Hepburn said the reason Loy got the Cecelia role was because “she was beautiful” – as if, Loy noted, that was all she had going for her.

Still, Loy had to fight for the role of Cecelia. Selznick was on the fence, preferring MGM star Karen Morely as Cecelia. Director Griffith talked Howard into acting opposite Myrna in a screen test. Again, in her autobiography Loy mentioned that before she left for the studio, her “wonderful Mexican maid, Carolla, who always pampered me,” fixed her scrambled eggs with garlic sausage. The test went well, although Loy noticed that Howard seemed a bit distant. When she asked Griffith what Howard thought of her, the director replied that Howard thought she was very good, but wondered if she always ate so much garlic. Selznick was so impressed by the test that he immediately cast Myrna in the role.

Howard’s standoffishness towards Myrna melted away as soon as they began work on the film. A compulsive womanizer, Howard was taken by Myrna’s beauty and her sensitive, responsive manner. She, in turn, was mesmerized by his combination of passion with fine British manners. He pursued her hard, at one point even going to her rented house when boyfriend Arthur Hornblow was away in New York and pressing her to run away with him. Notwithstanding the fact he had a compliant wife and two children back in London, she declined the offer, wanting to stay loyal to Hornblow. She later remembered that “it could have been a real scrambola – if I had allowed it to be.”

Her work in the film impressed the critics and her bosses at MGM alike and enabled her to stop being typecast the Exotic. The Mask of Fu Manchu would be her last venture into that territory. Her Cecelia is multifaceted and very natural; overlaying the stark materialistic outlook of the character with a veneer of seductive charm. She would move on to other roles in comedies of social manners such as Topaze and When Ladies Meet. Later she performed admirably in PenthouseThe Lady and the Prizefighter and Manhattan Melodrama, which in turn led to her breakout role as Nora Charles in The Thin Man. From then on, she never had to look back.

Howard is also excellent in the film, using his passion of manners to good use with both the characters of Cecelia and Daisy. To watch him with both one would suppose they performed in the play over a long period of time. He also worked well with old friend Gargan, allowing him to steal a few scenes in the film. 

Harding, on the other hand, while good as Daisy, seems too placid at times, considering all Tom has put her through. It also seems at times as if she is channeling Linda Seton from her critically acclaimed performance in Holiday. (Note: for all those who like the 1938 version of that film, I beg you to see the 1930 version, which can be accessed via the internet. Harding’s interpretation of Linda Seton leaves Hepburn’s stilted performance in the dust.) William Gargan is also excellent as the rough-hewn butler, and Ilka Chase manages to impress in her all-too-short role as Grace. I would have liked to have seen more of her. And I know there was more because William B. Davidson, another excellent supporting actor, played her husband and was listed in the credits supplied by Mordunt Hall of The New York Times in his review. Apparently, at some time while the film was in storage, his scenes disappeared.

Griffith, aided by fine work from cinematographer George L. Fosley, keeps the action flowing and the film from becoming much too stagy. To speed up filming he built six small sets adjoining one another on a large set. However, all went for naught when star Harding became ill and delayed production by about a week. After Griffith left the film, Selznick decided some additional scenes were necessary and brought in George Cukor to film them. 

An example of the type of adult entertainment Selznick wanted RKO to pursue, it was treated as a prestige production and opened RKO’s theater in New York, the Roxy. However, the film proved more popular in the big cities than the rest of the country and wound up $100,000 in the red.

The film’s clear Pre-Code themes – cohabitation and Tom’s discussion of his brothel days with Cecelia – prevented RKO from reissuing the film in 1935 and 1937. On both occasions, the Production Code Administration told them they would not approve the film. Finally, RKO ended up selling the film and its rights to Warner Bros. sometime in the mid-1940s. In 1946, Warners’ came out with its remake, One More Tomorrow, a completely bowdlerized version, with Ann Sheridan in the Harding role as Christie Sage, Dennis Morgan as Tom Collier, Jack Carson as Regan, and Alexis Smith as Cecelia. 

In the meantime, the original film was considered lost for many years. In 1960, it officially entered the public domain in this country as its copyright registration failed to be renewed. It wasn’t until the early ‘80s, when film historian Ronald Haver was searching the Warner vaults for missing material to complete a restoration of that studio’s version of A Star is Born (1954), that he came across a forgotten print and original negative that the studio had misplaced due to faulty bookkeeping.


Daisy: “Behold, the bridegroom cometh. And no oil for my lamp, as usual. A foolish virgin me. Oh, foolish anyway.”

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