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On April 1, 1946, The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther wrote: "A certain young lady named Amber -- or, at least, her cinematic sponsors in Hollywood -- must be awfully burned at Paramount's Kitty for beating her to the screen."
Crowther was referring to the heroine of Forever Amber, a scandalous and extremely popular novel that was still in the works as a movie from Twentieth Century Fox. Kitty, released by Paramount, was a similar story with a similar tone, and not by accident; Paramount had originally owned the rights to Forever Amber but lost them to Fox. An adaptation of the novel Kitty, by Rosamond Marshall, seemed like a good substitute.
Even though Forever Amber takes place in the seventeenth century and Kitty is set in the eighteenth, the two characters, Crowther aptly noted, "are sisters under their coiffures," with both using sex and cunning to make their way up from nothing to the top tiers of London society. Kitty (Paulette Goddard) is a cockney girl who is discovered and painted by artist Thomas Gainsborough (Cecil Kellaway). She marries a man (Dennis Hoey) for his money, then after his death marries a duke (Reginald Owen), before finally winding up with the lord she's loved all along (Ray Milland).
Kitty showcases Paulette Goddard at the peak of her beauty and ability. To transform in the film from street urchin to refined duchess required Goddard, a native Long Islander, to master two distinct British accents. She worked intensely with a dialogue coach, Phyllis Loughton, but that wasn't all. Director Mitchell Leisen, a stickler for authenticity, had Ida Lupino's cockney mother Connie Emerald move in with Goddard so that the actress could have someone to converse with in cockney literally all day long, every day. Once shooting began, Leisen ordered other actors to speak to Goddard only in cockney even when the cameras weren't rolling. (Leisen did so as well.)
When it came time for Goddard to speak in the more posh accent, "we moved Connie Emerald out and [actress] Constance Collier in," Leisen later recalled. Collier has a role in the film herself, with her character teaching Goddard proper diction and etiquette, Pygmalion-style. Leisen figured having Collier do this off-screen as well would be a good idea.
Of working with Goddard, voice coach Loughton later said: "She is one of the most intelligent women I've ever worked with, but she has never projected her intelligence on screen the way it projects when she is sitting talking in a living room. Her problem was to shift over from the pantomime techniques Chaplin taught her to the kind of dialogue comedy we did at Paramount."
Goddard had earlier been married to, and co-starred with, Charles Chaplin, but at the time of Kitty's production she had just gotten remarried, to Burgess Meredith. In fact, she was pregnant during shooting and suffered a miscarriage shortly afterward.
While Goddard shows off her skills well here, Kitty is even more of a showcase for Mitchell Leisen. The director of such classics as Easy Living (1937) and Midnight (1939) had started his career as an art director and costume designer, and his attention to décor remained his defining stylistic trait even as director. With Kitty, Leisen was able to indulge his obsession to an unusual degree. As biographer David Chierichetti later wrote: "With its opportunity for exact historical reproduction, it was precisely the kind of picture Leisen could do better than anybody else, and its mixture of mannered comedy and gutsy drama suited him perfectly, too. Many critics consider Kitty Leisen's best picture."
Leisen went to great lengths to ensure accuracy. For the sequences in which Gainsborough paints Kitty's portrait, Leisen recalled, "I spent two years researching Gainsborough and the way he painted. We determined that the picture took place in 1659, and there's nothing in the picture that was painted by him after that year. He painted by candlelight. Don't know why; he had his canvases laced on frames with leather thongs and he used a six-foot brush to paint. When it came to paint the faces, he relaced the canvas so that the face was right at the edge, and then he painted with very small brushes and very fine detail. These things are very interesting to me, and so we used them in the picture." When Leisen was unable to borrow real Gainsborough paintings to display in the film, he had high-quality copies made. He claimed to have rejected 13 copies of "Blue Boy" before he was satisfied.
Leisen also related how during the period setting for Kitty, wood-paneled rooms existed in their natural wood color. Soon afterward, a method for painting wood was perfected, and it became fashionable to paint the wood paneling over in white. Consequently, there remained in the 1940s extremely few real-life examples of unpainted, paneled rooms. Leisen, however, had personally bought one such room for his own art collection a few years earlier, from the Hearst estate, and he rented it to Paramount for use in Kitty. (Afterward, he donated it to the Huntington Museum in Pasadena.)
Beyond the amazingly accurate and exquisite sets, Leisen went to great pains to make the costumes, wigs, and even undergarments all faithful to the time period. When Ray Milland teaches Goddard how to hold her fan, it's based on actual literature of the time. Leisen's overall sense of historical accuracy was so great that he was lauded by British historical groups "who felt that Kitty was the most accurate film ever made about the Britain of an earlier day." The film was also nominated for an Oscar® for Best Black-and-White Art Direction, though it lost to Anna and the King of Siam (1946).
Kitty is sometimes referenced as being a 1945 film. In fact, while it had its premiere in 1945, it didn't open commercially until early 1946. It was a big hit and led to a new contract with a massive pay hike for Goddard: she went from $132,000 per year to $100,000 per picture.
Ray Milland, who co-starred with Goddard in four features (plus appearances together in two others), later said he "always liked working with Paulette. She was not a brilliant actress, she had no sense of timing and everything about her playing was mechanical and contrived, but nobody knew it better than she did, and she was completely honest about it. She is the most honest actress I ever knew."
Producer: Mitchell Leisen
Director: Mitchell Leisen
Screenplay: Karl Tunberg, Darrell Ware; Rosamond Marshall (novel "Kitty")
Cinematography: Daniel L. Fapp
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Walter Tyler
Music: Victor Young
Film Editing: Alma Macrorie
Cast: Paulette Goddard (Kitty), Ray Milland (Sir Hugh Marcy), Patric Knowles (Brett, Earl of Carstairs), Reginald Owen (Duke of Malmunster), Cecil Kellaway (Thomas Gainsborough), Constance Collier (Lady Susan Dowitt), Dennis Hoey (Jonathan Selby), Sara Allgood (Old Meg), Eric Blore (Dobson), Gordon Richards (Sir Joshua Reynolds), Michael Dyne (Prince of Wales), Edward Norton (Earl of Campton).
by Jeremy Arnold
Julie Gilbert, Opposite Attraction: The Lives of Erich Maria Remarque and Paulette Goddard
David Chierichetti, Hollywood Director