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A romantic melodrama about a marriage and career threatened by infidelity, Cynara (1932) features two of the era's biggest stars, Ronald Colman and Kay Francis, as a British lawyer and his wife. Happily married Jim Warlock falls prey to the seven-year itch, and succumbs to a brief affair with a shopgirl while his wife is away. Disastrous consequences follow. Based on a play and a novel, the film's obscure title comes from the refrain of an 1896 poem by Ernest Dowson, which was popular at the time: "I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion."
Like all of Samuel Goldwyn's independent productions, Cynara was marked by the usual Goldwyn "tradition of quality," with top-notch talent both in front of and behind the camera. Frances Marion had written more than half a dozen silent films for Goldwyn; Cynara was her final film for him. It was the second of director King Vidor's four films with Goldwyn. Based on a play, Cynara could have been as static and dialogue-heavy as many early talkies were, but the master stylist of such silent classics as The Big Parade (1925) and The Crowd (1928) found ways to give the film visual interest as well. In one scene, Colman tears up a piece of paper and throws the pieces out a window, where they fly into the air. Vidor cuts to St. Mark's Square in Venice (where Francis is vacationing), with pigeons flying into the air. Vidor called such moments "pure cinema."
After three years in films, Kay Francis had become a star not because of her acting talent, which some felt was limited, but because of her glamorous and sophisticated screen presence. Francis herself claimed, "I'm not an actress, I'm a personality." She began her career at Paramount in 1929, and when the studio was slow about renewing her contract, she was snapped up by Warner Bros. in 1932. Her output that year was an astonishing six films. At least two - One Way Passage and Trouble in Paradise, the latter made on loanout to Paramount -- were superlative, and Francis was wonderful in them, giving probably the best performances of her career. Cynara, made immediately after Trouble in Paradise, was her second loanout in a row, and her last film of 1932. Francis had worked opposite Ronald Colman once before, in another Goldwyn film, Raffles (1930), which was her first starring role. Although she and Colman play well together in Cynara, her society wife is actually a supporting role. It is really Colman's film.
Goldwyn had signed Colman to a long-term contract after he made The White Sister with Lillian Gish in 1923, early in Colman's film career. He quickly became a star in silent films, and an even bigger star with the coming of sound, thanks to his beautiful speaking voice and cultured accent. Colman would stay with Goldwyn for ten years and eighteen films, but the relationship would end acrimoniously. By the time he made Cynara, Colman was typecast as the ultimate movie gentleman. His role in Cynara was within that mold. Although his character strays from his marriage, he redeems himself by protecting his mistress' reputation. Colman's performance received excellent reviews, but Cynara was only moderately successful. Audiences apparently didn't want to see Colman as an adulterer, no matter how classy. A greater threat to his gentlemanly image, both on and off screen, would come with his next film, The Masquerader (1933). The Prisoner of Zenda-like plot has Colman playing a dual role, as a degenerate politician, and as a journalist who takes his place when the politician collapses. To publicize the film, a Goldwyn press agent released a story that Colman prepared for his scenes by taking a few belts of whisky, and that he performed his love scenes better when he was loosened up by liquor. A furious Colman sued Goldwyn for libel and walked out on his contract. He never worked for Goldwyn again, but it didn't hurt his career at all. Still ahead were such critical and popular successes as A Tale of Two Cities (1935), Lost Horizon (1937), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), Random Harvest (1942), and A Double Life (1947), which won Colman an Academy Award as Best Actor.
Kay Francis remained a top star for several years, but she never again had such good scripts as she'd had in 1932. By 1936, she was the highest-paid star in Hollywood, and a top box office attraction. Yet she accepted whatever the studio gave her, and never fought for better roles. Increasingly, she became nothing more than a glamorous clotheshorse in mediocre women's pictures. After her contract with Warners ended, her freelance films became even worse, and she worked infrequently in summer stock. Once, when she was appearing in a summer stock production in Maine, her former Warner Bros. colleague and rival Bette Davis went to see her backstage, and the two commiserated about their treatment by the studio. Davis asked Francis why she had put up with it. "I didn't give a s***t, Francis said. "I wanted the money." "I didn't," Davis replied. "I wanted the career."
Director: King Vidor
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Screenplay: Lynn Starling, Frances Marion, based on the play by H.M. Harwood and Robert Gore Browne, from Browne's novel, An Imperfect Lover
Cinematography: Ray June
Editor: Hugh Bennett
Art Direction: Richard Day
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Ronald Colman (Jim Warlock), Kay Francis (Clemency Warlock), Phyllis Barry (Doris Lea), Henry Stephenson (John Tring), Viva Tattersall (Milly Miles), Florine McKinney (Garla), Clarissa Selwynne (Onslow).
by Margarita Landazuri