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At the beginning of The Velvet Touch (1948), a murder mystery with psychological edges starring Rosalind Russell as Valerie Stanton, a Broadway leading lady of light comedies, Stanton contemplates a change: to star in a "serious" play, Hedda Gabler. Her long-time producer/director Gordon Dunning (Leon Ames) is caustic as he tries to talk her out of leaving him to act for a rival: "He thinks an audience will pay to sit and watch a smart, sophisticated comedienne like you play a tortured, neurotic woman who kills herself because true love has passed her up." While it's not exactly analogous to the career of leading lady Rosalind Russell, the comment does reverberate. A serious actress with solid stage and screen bonafides, Russell had found her greatest success in comic performances in such films as The Women (1939), Take a Letter, Darling (1942) and especially, His Girl Friday (1940).
The Velvet Touch brings her back to her Broadway roots, in a way, and to the kind of career-woman roles in which she excelled before hitting it big as a snappy, street-smart comedienne. Valerie Stanton is a confidant sophisticate in the elegant world of New York celebrity, a woman who moves through society with the deft aplomb of someone used to playing the part offstage as well as on. (The film's title may refer to the gloves she always wears in public, part of the costume of the star persona.) But behind the faade of poised contentment is a frustrated career actress anxious to challenge herself with a demanding role, and a woman who is, perhaps for the first time, in love. Dunning, her possessive producer/director (and, we can infer, her one-time lover), refuses to release her professionally or personally. "I might even kill you, if I have to," he threatens in the ferocious argument that opens the film. In her fear and fury, Stanton grabs a statuette from his desk and lashes out with a blow to Dunning's head. He's dead and she flees, almost trancelike, from the scene of the crime, maintaining her poise until she finally arrives home. The film dissolves into flashback: the offer to play Hedda Gabler, the courtship of suave, continental architect Michael Morrell (British actor Leo Genn, whose charm and manner recalls Herbert Marshall), and her battle of wills with Dunning and rival actress Marian Webster (Claire Trevor), who plays a secondary role to her both onstage and off. The story snaps back to the present with the entrance of Sydney Greenstreet as Police Captain Danbury. As he follows the clues to another suspect, Stanton is wracked with guilt and responsibility.
The Velvet Touch was the first film made by Independent Artists, a production company that Russell created with her husband, producer Frederick Brisson. Jack Gage, the dialogue director on her previous films Sister Kenny (1946) and Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), made his directorial debut with the production and acquitted himself admirably, if not all that memorably. His staging is more theatrical than cinematic, appropriate perhaps for a film so steeped in the culture of Broadway but less effective in building tension or plumbing the depths of psychological torment. His strength is in the direction of actors. Russell made her fame with larger-than-life performances ("Sometimes what you have to do is almost claw your work onto film," she explained in a 1965 interview) but limits her flamboyance to the performances within the performance, and not just on stage. She plays the part of the Broadway star in the public theater until the worldly, cultured Morrell breaks her out of her comfortable role with his attentions and affections.
The film marked one of the final performances for Sydney Greenstreet, who brings a joyful heartiness to The Velvet Touch as the amiable but cunning police investigator. He cracks jokes about his girth by way of introduction and updates the increasingly anxious Stanton with news that his investigation has found a suspect. His performance is masterfully insidious, throwing her off balance with sudden appearances and ambiguous comments without ever voicing the suspicions we just know he has. "I'm afraid there's no jury that would convict you," he responds after she spins the "theory" that she could have committed the murder, "unless you confess." That last line hangs like an invitation.
Co-star Claire Trevor simmers in her brief scene as the spurned actress Marian Webster, who loves Dunning and turns her anger toward Stanton for "stealing" the attentions of the calculating Broadway entrepreneur. The multiple Oscar® nominee made her first splash in 1937 with a small role in Dead End (for which she received her first nomination as Best Supporting Actress) and solidified her fame starring opposite John Wayne in his career-launching performance in Stagecoach (1939), but never made it big as a leading lady. Trevor finally won her Oscar® for a film she made the same year as The Velvet Touch: John Huston's Key Largo (1948) with Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Edward G. Robinson.
"The movie made a bundle, but I was beginning to ask myself a lot of questions," wrote Russell in her autobiography, Life Is a Banquet. "I was trying to move from leading lady to character acting... and I wasn't getting the kind of work I wanted." Her solution was to return to Broadway for real, where she finally found the meaty roles she desired. And she didn't even have to kill anyone to make the break.
Producer: Frederick Brisson
Director: John Gage
Screenplay: Leo Rosten; Walter Reilly (adaptation); William Mercer, Annabel Ross (story)
Cinematography: Joseph Walker
Film Editing: Roland Gross, Chandler House
Cast: Rosalind Russell (Valerie Stanton), Leo Genn (Michael Morrell), Claire Trevor (Marian Webster), Sydney Greenstreet (Capt. Danbury), Leon Ames (Gordon Dunning), Frank McHugh (Ernie Boyle), Walter Kingsford (Peter Gunther), Dan Tobin (Jeff Trent).
by Sean Axmaker