The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937)
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Joan Crawford began 1937 by being declared First Queen of the Movies by Motion Picture Herald, based on her ranking as one of the top ten box office stars of the previous year. She began 1938 as box office poison, and films like The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937) was one of the reasons. Not that it was bad, or even unsuccessful - it wasn't, but it also wasn't the type of film that had made Crawford a star. Through a series of bad choices, bad judgment, and bad luck, Crawford had begun a five-year slide that would end with her departure from her home for 18 years, M-G-M.
Even though she was still popular, Crawford's two films released in 1936 had been departures for her -- The Gorgeous Hussy was a historical drama, and Love on the Run was a screwball comedy - and had not done as well as her earlier films, which were dubbed "Shopgirls' Delights" because Crawford played ambitious working class heroines much like herself. But instead of heeding the warning signs, M-G-M again cast her against type in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, a drawing room comedy in which Crawford played a glamorous jewel thief. Based on British playwright Frederick Lonsdale's 1925 play, it had first been filmed in 1929 as an early talkie starring Norma Shearer and Basil Rathbone. Fay Cheyney passes herself off as a society lady, and pulls off her heists at aristocratic house parties with her accomplice (William Powell), who poses as a butler. The story takes place at a weekend gathering, where she's wooed by a titled gentleman (Robert Montgomery), and schemes to steal a necklace belonging to her good-natured hostess (Jessie Ralph).
In late 1936, Crawford had been cast - or, more accurately, miscast - as Clark Gable's love interest in the historical drama, Parnell (1937), but she balked at doing the film. So she traded roles with Myrna Loy, who had originally been slated to star in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney. Russian director Richard Boleslawski, who had studied at the famed Moscow Art Theater with Stanislavsky, had been an actor and teacher of Stanislavsky's Method in New York, would direct The Last of Mrs. Cheyney. He had been in Hollywood since 1929, and had directed everything from melodramas to screwball comedies. A few weeks before the end of production on The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, Boleslawski died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 47. George Fitzmaurice was assigned to finish the film, but he became ill, and Dorothy Arzner ended up with the assignment.
The Last of Mrs. Cheyney was the only film that co-starred Crawford and Powell. They were not well matched. While Powell was at ease with the film's brittle comedy, Crawford wasn't, and the two stars did not have chemistry together. Montgomery's breezy All-American comedy style was also not quite right for his role as a British aristocrat. According to Time magazine, "The acting required for this kind of comedy, as stylized and polished as that of Chinese tragedy, is not precisely the brand at which Montgomery, Crawford, et al, are specialists. Nonetheless...[it] retains the pleasantly dry flavor of Author Lonsdale's wit." But Time's critic still found it "one of the most refreshing comedies of the season." The Last of Mrs. Cheyney did moderately well at the box office, but not well enough to boost Crawford's sagging popularity.
Her next film, The Bride Wore Red (1937), also directed by Dorothy Arzner, was less favorably received. Still, M-G-M signed Crawford to a new contract in 1938. Over the next few years she had two great roles, as the scheming mantrap Crystal in The Women (1939), and as a bitter woman with disfiguring facial scars in A Woman's Face (1941). She had to fight for both roles, but by the early 1940s, she was tired of fighting, and there were more mediocre films than good ones. In 1943, Crawford and M-G-M studio head Louis B. Mayer agreed that it was time for her to go. The ever-resilient Crawford re-invented herself once again, moving to Warner Bros. and winning an Oscar® for her first starring role there, in Mildred Pierce (1945).
As for Mrs. Cheyney, she also had another chance. The Last of Mrs. Cheyney was remade in 1951 as The Law and the Lady with Greer Garson in the title role. But it, too, did little for the career of its fading star.
Director: Richard Boleslawski, George Fitzmaurice, Dorothy Arzner
Producer: Lawrence Weingarten
Screenplay: Leon Gordon, Samson Raphaelson, Monckton Hoffe, based on the play by Frederick Lonsdale
Cinematography: George Folsey
Editor: Frank Sullivan
Costume Design: Adrian
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: William Axt
Cast: Joan Crawford (Fay Cheyney), Robert Montgomery (Lord Arthur Dilling), William Powell (Charles), Frank Morgan (Lord Kelton), Nigel Bruce (Sir William), Jessie Ralph (Duchess), Benita Hume (Kitty), Melville Cooper (William), Ralph Forbes (John), Aileen Pringle (Marie).
BW-99m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri