Evelyn Prentice (1934)

Evelyn Prentice follows that time-honored tradition of having a comedy team appear in a dramatic vehicle where the most drama you get is in just how bad they are when they are trying to be deadly serious. This domestic/courtroom melodrama is certainly deadly in every aspect of its execution right down to the irritating little kid who gets trotted out whenever they want to make a point about how much the dad is neglecting his family or how mommy should own up to killing the guy she started running around with just because dad was neglecting the family.

William Powell and Myrna Loy, arguably the best duo of the sophisticated comedies of the nineteen thirties (Libeled Lady, Double Wedding, The Thin Man series) look entirely disinterested in every thing that transpires here as they sluggishly shamble somnambulantly through their roles as John and Evelyn Prentice, a well heeled couple who encounters problems once they start to drift apart.

John is a criminal defense attorney who works all hours of the day in an effort to get the likes of Nancy Harrison (Rosalind Russell) off a manslaughter rap. Evelyn is his devoted (at least initially) wife whose whole life is getting ruined because John is out busting his ass trying to make a decent living so that her lazy ass can sit around all day gabbing with her friend Amy (Una Merkle) about mixed drinks and no-talent poets.

Once Nancy’s trial is finished, John is rushing off to Boston and guess who he runs into on this train? Nancy! There’s a hug and that’s all we see. I think I was supposed to assume that they were having an affair, but in a nod to one of this movie’s great failures, this plot point was underdeveloped and I wasn’t quite sure what they did.

You’ll notice this sort of thing throughout the movie – this half-baked way everything is developed. It’s like a sketch of a story. Certainly a lot of that could be chalked up to the film’s quite abbreviated 78 minute long running time, but even there the director is so inept that the film still seems to just crawl.

Proving the old adage that the only slime a woman finds attractive is the slime she isn’t currently married to, Evelyn starts having an affair with a smooth operator named Larry Kennard. Sacrificing another opportunity for dramatic conflict or something resembling interest, this guy is instantly unlikable and the only people who can’t see that are Evelyn and her buddy Amy.

He tells his friend that he’s trying to hook up with this rich woman so that she’ll come across with some money so they can put on a play. His girlfriend gets mad and tells him that if he ever thinks about leaving her she’ll shoot him and frame up some broad to take the fall. Maybe she doesn’t say those exact words, but you can practically read it in her vacant, vaguely conscious stare. (Was everyone in this movie on barbiturates?)

It isn’t long before Evelyn gets a watch in the mail that was left in her husband’s train car that clues her in that there is something going between John and Nancy.

Evelyn decides to kill time in between bouts of hating her husband by seeing this Larry fellow once or twice and writing him letters that were worded in such a way that they could suggest a deeper relationship than they really had.

A six month vacation to Europe is quickly arranged for the Prentice family, but then Larry calls up trying to blackmail Evelyn with the three letters she sent him. That’s how dated this movie is. Can you imagine anyone today being blackmailed about anything based on three letters? Shoot, we’ve had a president commit sodomy with a cigar and they couldn’t get a dime out of that guy!

Larry ends up getting himself shot and since we saw Evelyn pointing a gun at him we can only assume that somehow or other Larry’s girlfriend really did the shooting and that ironies of ironies, it will be John representing her!

Thus the completely unbelievable finale is set up that has John calling his own client to the stand, obviously without consulting her ahead of time, in an effort to unmask her as the real killer. This, after his own wife has taken the stand and admitted to killing Larry!

Did I mention that even though John knew this would exonerate his client, that he was objecting to the testimony? What would his grounds be? And why did the judge overrule the prosecutor’s motion to dismiss the charge against Larry’s girlfriend once he heard Evelyn confess?

Well, it turns out the joke was on me regarding that, because wouldn’t you know it, but once John gets done cross examining his own wife and then cross examines his own client he establishes that his wife was in fact innocent and that his client was guilty!

But then, just to show you what a great legal mind John has, he turns it up a notch in his closing and argues that his client, who he just established lied all along about her role in things is not guilty because Larry deserved it! Somehow, he shoehorns in a self-defense claim and demands that the jury find Larry guilty by finding his client not guilty!

I suppose that this funhouse mirror version of criminal law has to be seen to be adequately appreciated (or not appreciated if you care at all about attorneys behaving in an ethical fashion) and I can’t really think of any other reason you should go looking for this movie. It’s really a painful experience watching Powell and Loy slogging through this thing barely cracking a smile or a quip for the duration.

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