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If you notice an extra little glow emanating from Loretta Young in The Unguarded Hour (1936), there's a logical reason for it. Probably the most notable thing about this murder mystery melodrama is that it was Young's first picture after secretly giving birth to her daughter, Judy.
Almost a year earlier, on the icy location for 20th Century's The Call of the Wild (1935), Loretta Young and Clark Gable had found more than one way to keep warm. Young's biographer Joan Wester Anderson later wrote that they did not actually have a full-fledged affair; rather there was "only one night when [Young's] iron will slipped." In any case, when the 22-year-old actress realized she was pregnant, she made The Crusades (1935) for Cecil B. DeMille and then vanished from public view. Her pregnancy had to remain absolutely secret because Young had violated her contract's morals clause, and revelation of this fact could easily have led to contract termination. (The studio probably would have been happy to arrange for an off-the-record abortion, but Young's religious views did not allow for that option.)
Citing exhaustion, Young and her mother went to Europe in June 1935, so as to be away from the prying press. They quietly returned a few months later and Young slipped into a little house in Venice, Calif., that the press did not know about while she brought her baby to term. Meanwhile, there was rampant public speculation as to what exactly was wrong with Loretta Young. Theories abounded, including the accurate one that she was secretly pregnant, possibly with Clark Gable's child.
The newly formed 20th Century-Fox studio had been waiting for Young's return so that they could begin shooting Ramona (1936). But Young got a doctor to tell the studio that she was still too ill to work and needed more rest to recuperate. Then, to quell the rumor-mills, Young, her mother and her doctor arranged for a short interview with Photoplay magazine. Covered with blankets and quilts to hide her pregnant body, Young delivered an impressive performance to Photoplay's Dorothy Manners, who fell for it hook, line and sinker. In her article "Fame, Fortune and Fatigue," Manners declared "the truth about Loretta Young's mysterious illness" was that overwork had "aggravated an internal condition from which Loretta has suffered since maturity. It has weakened her, sapped her strength... and an eventual operation is the only remedy."
In November, Young gave birth, and weeks later she went back to work, on loanout to MGM for The Unguarded Hour. (Ramona would follow a few months later.) Gable was at this time also working on the MGM lot, in San Francisco. He had separated from his wife and knew about his newborn daughter, but did not marry Young. Young "adopted" Judy and denied her parentage to all, including Judy herself, for decades. Only in her posthumously-published 2000 authorized biography did she finally admit the truth to the world.
The critical establishment generally admired the cast of The Unguarded Hour but not so much the picture itself. The New York Times declared, "If you are willing to check your reasoning at the door, the picture should prove entertaining enough." Supporting actor Henry Daniell won special praise: "Daniell's performance qualifies him as another of the screen's more interesting villains," the paper said - a prescient observation, for Daniell would go on to specialize in villains, including a delicious turn as Prof. Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes movie The Woman in Green (1945).
Variety, too, liked the cast, especially Franchot Tone, and said of Loretta Young, "Miss Young lends both relief for the eyes and a telling talent for emotional limning." On the other hand, the trade paper suggested that "at least 18 minutes" could have been cut out, and complained that "without the expert cast that's been wrapped around it, this English drawing room whodunit would have made a stodgy, meandering talkfest."
Director Sam Wood had recently helmed the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera (1935) and would soon take them on again in A Day at the Races (1937). Wood liked doing dramas, however. He once said: "Comedy is the toughest job I know. You're always trying to squeeze an extra something out of every scene."
Producer: Lawrence Weingarten, Sam Wood
Director: Sam Wood
Screenplay: Ladislas Fodor, Bernard Merivale, Howard Emmett Rogers, Leon Gordon, Horace Jackson
Cinematography: James Van Trees
Film Editing: Frank E. Hull
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: William Axt
Cast: Loretta Young (Lady Helen Dudley Dearden), Franchot Tone (Sir Alan Dearden), Lewis Stone (General Lawrence), Roland Young (William Jeffers), Jessie Ralph (Lady Agatha Hathaway), Dudley Digges (Samuel Metford).
BW-87m. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold