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When his work requires that he spend a year in India, British businessman Robert Maury (Paul Cavanagh) makes the disastrous decision to uproot his beautiful young bride Elsie (Kay Francis) from the peaceful English countryside (and watchful eye of his sister Honora (Nance O'Neil)) and leave her amidst the sophisticates and ne'er do wells of Paris. Honora advises against the temptations Paris will pose but Robert turns a deaf ear on his spinster sister's dire prognostications. He and his wife, naturally, pay heavily for such an error in judgment in Transgression (1931).
Parisian decadence is expressed succinctly in an early beauty shop scene where Elsie, guided by her jaded older friend Paula Vrain (Doris Lloyd) chooses from ever more absurd ointments and fashion trends including the query of whether she wants her eyebrows plucked into a "plaintive" or "penetrating" expression. Paula reminds her that this season, plaintive is all the rage.
Taken under the wing of woman-of-the-world Paula, Elsie is soon painting her face, tossing back cocktails and making the decadent Paris party scene. Her beauty attracts the roving eye of a slick, Spanish ladies man Don Arturo (Ricardo Cortez) whose fondest desire is to get Elsie alone in his remote, mountaintop Spanish villa. He is aided and abetted in this nefarious mission by Paula, who promises to act as Elsie's chaperone, and Arturo's scheming butler Serafin (John St. Polis). When Robert returns from India and sees the changes Paris has wrought, he calls Elsie back to England. Wanting one final goodbye with her friends, Elsie makes the mistake of agreeing to visit Arturo's villa where a number of disturbing surprises are waiting that threaten to destroy her marriage. In keeping with the moral strictures of the age, many acrobatic twists and turns are made to reaffirm the sanctity of marriage by the film's end despite previous lurid pre-Hays Code talk of adultery, illegitimate children, murder and blackmail.
That Romeo-for-all-seasons Ricardo Cortez played no-good Don Arturo in not only the 1931 RKO production Transgression, but in a 1924 silent Paramount version of the story, The Next Corner directed by Sam Wood and also starring Conway Tearle, Lon Chaney and Dorothy Mackaill. Kay Francis was borrowed from Paramount, and Paul Cavanagh from Fox for Transgression.
Born Katherine Edwina Gibbs, Oklahoma City native Francis was mentioned for her "clear portrayal," in a New York Times review of Transgression that also declared Cavanagh "excellent," and, "another expert performance is that of Nance O'Neil, who handles the role of Honora Maury." After a brief Broadway career, Francis made her most lasting mark in Hollywood. Her debut came with Gentlemen of the Press (1929), a role secured with the help of Walter Huston. Francis was one of the tallest leading ladies of the Thirties at almost 5'10", whose distinctive voice and elegant carriage made her the leading glamour girl of the era. Offscreen Francis was known for her fondness for men expressed in numerous affairs (directors like Rouben Mamoulian, Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger were reputed conquests) and five marriages. Director George Cukor believed that all great stars had a secret and that Francis's expressions suggested she was hiding an especially saucy one. In 1932, Francis moved from Paramount to Warner Brothers where she was promised better pay and star status. There Francis became a reliable box office draw, even despite the distinction of 1932 being one of the worst box office years in the industry. She would return to Paramount to make one of her most memorable films, the cosmopolitan Ernst Lubitsch romp, Trouble in Paradise (1932).
Writer Mick LaSalle said of Francis in his study of Pre-Code Hollywood Complicated Women, "Too warm and matter-of-fact to be a blue-blood, she played women from modest backgrounds who, all the same, were comfortable in the upper reaches of society. She was a vision of elegance, good nature and intelligence and she brought a natural authority to her roles as a professional woman." But Francis was eventually trapped within a stereotype of lavish wardrobes and sets that limited her range. Her career petered out after World War II with roles in several Poverty Row Monogram Pictures and an eventual return to Broadway.
Her premature death from cancer at age 63 came with an interesting coda. Without heirs, Francis left over $1 million to Seeing Eye, a company that trains guide dogs for the blind.
Director: Herbert Brenon
Producer: William LeBaron
Screenplay: Elizabeth Meehan and Benn W. Levy based on the novel by Kate Jordan, The Next Corner
Cinematography: Leo Tover
Production Design: Max Rée
Music: Max Steiner (uncredited)
Cast: Kay Francis (Elsie Maury), Paul Cavanagh (Robert Maury), Ricardo Cortez (Don Arturo de Borgus), Nance O'Neil (Honora Maury), Doris Lloyd (Paula Vrain), John St. Polis (Serafin).
by Felicia Feaster