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Onscreen, the film In Name Only (1939) depicts a frustrating love triangle between a desperate man, his scheming wife, and the woman he truly loves. Off screen, the film provided three very different opportunities for its leading cast. For Cary Grant, the role was another stepping-stone for a rising star. It was the chance of a much-needed comeback for Kay Francis. And for Carole Lombard, the film acted as a post-wedding project for the restless newlywed. Lombard was eager to fill her time while her new husband, Clark Gable, was filming a little picture called Gone with the Wind (1939). She had read about the project, based on a novel entitled Memory of Love by Bessie Breuer, in one of the trades and was interested. Originally purchased by RKO as a vehicle for Katharine Hepburn, the property was shelved when Hepburn's popularity at the box office began to fade. When she heard that the studio wanted Grant and director John Cromwell aboard, she decided to make it happen. In her biography, Screwball: The Life of Carole Lombard by Larry Swindell, the genesis of the production is explained: "So she telephoned Cromwell, who said he hadn't agreed to the assignment, and besides, getting Cary Grant was really a doubtful prospect. Carole said, 'If I played the girl, would you direct?' Cromwell's reply was, "Oh my, yes . . . then I'm sure we could also get Cary."
That same year, Cromwell and Lombard had worked together on Made for Each Other (1939), and Lombard had worked with Grant twice before, most notably in The Eagle and the Hawk (1933). Lombard's star was flying high ever since Twentieth Century (1934), her breakthrough film that established her as "The Queen of Screwball Comedy." She successfully negotiated the terms of her contract for In Name Only with RKO by herself, cutting out her agent Myron Selznick. Smart move: she secured a four-picture deal over two years, earning $150k per pic, but more importantly, a percentage of the earnings - standard practice today, but very novel then. Grant, hired in at half her salary, also displayed his prowess for negotiation and got a raise to $100k based on the success of Gunga Din and Only Angels Have Wings (both 1939).
Kay Francis, who soared to the ranks of leading lady at Paramount beginning with her debut alongside the Marx Brothers in The Cocoanuts (1920), was grateful just to have the opportunity to work with such high caliber talent. Once the star of films like Street of Chance and Raffles (both 1930), her star had considerably dimmed. Industry insiders proclaimed it career sabotage by her next studio, Warner Bros.--with Bette Davis as the new kid on the block, Francis was increasingly relegated to B-level flicks--but as she declared defiantly, "You can put me in B's, C's or Z's." Cromwell had directed Kay in four other films--including Street of Chance and For the Defense (1930)--and always envisioned her for the role of Grant's cruel wife. With the strain of a failing career over several years, however, Francis brought some problems with her.
From James Robert Parish's book Loretta, Ginger and Irene Who?: "Life increasingly assumed soap opera overtones. An unhappy Kay, retreated into eating and drinking binges, and her slim 112-pound figure of 1930 ballooned to 142 by 1939. She resolved to get in shape for In Name Only but only got tight and belligerent. In her cups she insulted her old friend Andy Devine and Jack Warner in a single evening. 'So what?' she asked her diary. But when she saw her wardrobe tests, she recorded that she looked 'frightening' and thereafter controlled herself long enough to lose twenty pounds." Ultimately, she was able to mount an effective comeback; the reviews for her performance were good, with New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther praising her as "the model cat, suave, superior and relentless." The Variety review, however, focused on her physical appearance, noting that "She does not photograph as well here.....unless the idea was to make her less glamorous than she has been in the past." Yowch! The review also panned the debut of child star Peggy Ann Garner, who plays Lombard's child in the film, declaring, "She has some sweetness but lacks polish, doing her lines very deliberately and suggesting that air of unnatural action which too frequently is the fault of kids following adult coaching." Garner would go on to star in the classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), a film for which she received considerably better reviews!
In Name Only followed an extremely aggressive schedule according to the book, Screwball, "...begun in April, completed in June, edited in July, previewed in August, released in September: RKO was nothing if not expeditious." Gone with the Wind was also finishing up around the same time (albeit with three years of preparation under its belt), so young marrieds Lombard and Gable looked forward to a nice break on their own. Unfortunately, Carole was stricken with appendicitis and narrowly avoided serious complications. Tragically, she would die in a plane crash just three years later. Grant, of course, would go on to attain superstar status in the 1950s and 60s with films like To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959).
Producer: George Haight
Director: John Cromwell
Screenplay: Richard Sherman, Bessie Breuer (novel)
Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Film Editing: William Hamilton
Art Direction: Perry Ferguson, Van Nest Polglase
Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Carole Lombard (Julie Eden), Cary Grant (Alec Walker), Kay Francis (Maida Walker), Charles Coburn (Mr. Richard Walker), Katharine Alexander (Laura Morton), Helen Vinson (Suzanne Duress).
BW-95m. Closed captioning.
by Eleanor Quin