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Based on a play by Welsh writer-actor-producer Ivor Novello, But the Flesh Is Weak (1932) is one of many films from the early part of Robert Montgomery's career in which he plays a charming playboy. Max Clement and his equally charming father, Florian, played by C. Aubrey Smith, are English gents on their uppers, determined to snag rich heiresses. Max succeeds, but his plans are foiled when he falls for a beautiful but poor widow.
Montgomery was one of many stage actors who left Broadway for Hollywood during the early days of sound films. Unlike most of them, whose declamatory style doomed their film careers, Montgomery's breezy, unaffected acting made him a natural for films. Signed to a contract at MGM, he quickly established himself as an appealing leading man. Then he marched into studio head Louis B. Mayer's office, and demanded the raise he'd been promised when he signed his contract. Mayer claimed he'd made no such promise, and Montgomery replied, "If you were a younger man, Mr. Mayer, I'd give you a beating." By the time Montgomery's contract was up for renewal in 1934, he had become so valuable to the studio that he got the hefty raise he'd asked for. Nevertheless, Montgomery continued to chafe at being typecast as a lightweight, and had to fight for roles like his Oscar-nominated one as the psychotic killer in Night Must Fall (1937), which turned out to be one of his best performances.
For C. Aubrey Smith, who plays Montgomery's father - a lovable rogue addicted to gambling and with an eye for the ladies -- But the Flesh Is Weak was a rare break from typecasting. Smith usually played stiff-upper-lip Englishmen, those aristocratic Victorian gentlemen who embody and uphold the values of Queen and country. In fact, that's very much who Smith was in real life. A Cambridge graduate and member of England's national cricket team, Smith didn't begin acting until the age of 30, and appeared in his first film at age 50. But it was not until the advent of talking films, when he was in his late 60s, that Smith's career really took off. In the 1930s, Smith was a stalwart of the British colony in Hollywood, and was the founding captain of the Hollywood Cricket Club. Knighted in 1944, Smith worked right up to his death in 1948, at the age of 85. His final film appearance was as the crusty Mr. Laurence in Little Women (1949).
Author Ivor Novello wrote the screenplay for But the Flesh Is Weak, based on his play, The Truth Game. The multi-talented Novello was a matinee idol in his native Britain, both onstage and in films. One of his most memorable roles was in Alfred Hitchcock's silent version of The Lodger (1927). However, Novello never had much success in American films as a performer, although several of the plays he authored were made into films. He also wrote dialogue for Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932). Novello gave up films in the mid-1930s to devote himself to writing, composing and acting in stage musicals.
According to Variety's review of But the Flesh Is Weak, the leading lady, Austrian actress Nora Gregor, who was brought to Hollywood by producer-director Max Reinhardt, "didn't pan out for MGM." (Mordaunt Hall, in the New York Times, however, found her "captivating.") Gregor returned to Europe soon after. Her most memorable film was Jean Renoir's classic The Rules of the Game (1939). Heather Thatcher, who played the quirky and appealing Lady Joan, was more successful in both American and British films, usually in supporting roles as aristocratic Englishwomen.
But the Flesh Is Weak was remade as Free and Easy (1941), starring Robert Cummings as Max, and one of C. Aubrey Smith's compatriots on the Hollywood Cricket Club, Nigel Bruce, as Florian. Smith himself played a supporting role as the father of Lady Joan, Max's wealthy prey. Playing Lady Joan was Judith Anderson, in a rare sympathetic role. It was one of Anderson's earliest films, and quite a change of pace from the menacing Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (1940), which had recently earned her an Oscar® nomination.
Director: Jack Conway
Screenplay: Ivor Novello, from his play, "The Truth Game"
Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Editor: Tom Held
Costume Design: Adrian
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Cast: Robert Montgomery (Max Clement), Nora Gregor (Rosine), Heather Thatcher (Lady Joan), Edward Everett Horton (Sir George), C. Aubrey Smith (Florian Clement), Nils Asther (Prince Paul).
by Margarita Landazuri