William Powell, already a major star thanks in large part to his polished performances as Philo Vance in a series of popular detective films at Paramount, was a year away from his Thin Man triumph at MGM when Warner Bros., then his home studio, lent him to RKO for Double Harness. According to Powell biographer Charles Francisco, "The Hollywood trade press and movie insiders were agog that Warners would loan out a star of Powell's magnitude to a lesser studio such as RKO." Two years into his Warners contract, Powell was thought by some to be in danger of prematurely becoming a has-been.
Never one to fret unnecessarily about career matters, Powell moved confidently ahead, trusting his agent Myron Selznick (brother of David) to protect his interests at RKO. Powell liked the script for Double Harness and was pleased with the choice of Ann Harding, a New York actress whose abilities he had respected since her days as a stage actress in the 1920s, as his leading lady. The film turned out to be one of Harding's most attractive showcases, marking one of the few times when this aristocratic, accomplished actress was allowed to look glamorous and take on a saucy character - one formerly recommended for Irene Dunne.
Double Harness is based on a play by Edward Poor Montgomery, inspired in turn by a novel by Anthony Hope. The play, set in London but relocated to San Francisco in its film version, was described in a report to RKO as "a story that cuts across the grain of American morals and marriage concept. With delicate handling could be made into a rather brilliant picture, proving that love is the thing no matter how arrived at."
Harding plays Joan Colby, a lovely, warm-blooded young schemer who explains to her engaged sister (Lucile Browne) that "Marriage is a woman's business," and therefore emotions should be allowed to interfere. Accordingly, she sets her cap for wealthy playboy John Fletcher (Powell) and tricks him into marriage by contriving to have her father (Henry Stephenson) pop into John's apartment and find the couple in a compromising situation.
During the film's TCM restoration, it was discovered that for its television showings and some international screenings, two and one-half minutes had been taken out of the seduction scene. In the TV print, after promising to slip into "something cooler," Harding later reappears wearing the same dress. Now we see the uncensored version, with an interlude in which Joan is dressed in sexy pajamas for the "business" of seducing John. In pre-Code days, it was acceptable to acknowledge that she was not above granting pre-marital favors to get what she wants.
Joan's ploy works, but backfires when John catches on, becomes resentful and takes up with a pretty brunette (Lilian Bond). As a divorce looms, Joan sets out to win her husband's love honestly. She even helps him turn his business around and become profitable again. Matters are resolved with a screwball dinner scene in which the guests withdraw because of drunkenness or other emergencies, the cook and butler get into a fight, and the couple manages to iron out its differences.
Jean Malin, who had gained fame as a female impersonator in the 1920s and was part of the so-called "pansy craze" of the early 1930s, was originally cast as dress-shop owner Bruno in the opening scenes. He filmed the sequence and can still be seen in some publicity stills. But the scenes were reshot with Fredric Santley, at the then-sizeable cost of $1,669, after RKO executives ruled that Malin was too flamboyant a presence even for those liberal times. Studio president B.B. Kahane wrote in an inter-studio memo that "I do not think we ought to have this man on the lot on any picture -- shorts or features."
Powell and Harding, in their only teaming, share a strong chemistry. Double Harness justified Powell's faith by becoming a critical and financial success, with one reviewer commenting that "This delightful marital drama is intelligent stuff." Another wrote, "It has long been a source of wonderment to me as to why these two fine stage veterans, Ann Harding and William Powell, have not blended their seasoned talent and sparklingly individualistic personalities long before this." Seen today, the movie seems at once modern and nostalgic, offering a vivid reflection of a sophisticated era in filmmaking.
Double Harness is sleekly directed by John Cromwell (1887-1979), who encountered censorship problems with two of his other RKO films of the pre-Code period, Ann Vickers (1933) and Of Human Bondage (1934). Among his other directorial credits is Since You Went Away, nominated for an Oscar® as Best Picture of 1944. Considered a gifted and proficient "studio director," Cromwell also had numerous credits as an actor on Broadway and, later, in the films of Robert Altman. He was blacklisted in Hollywood as a Communist from 1951 to 1958.
The director's adopted son, James Cromwell, was an Oscar® nominee for his performance in Babe (1995) and has recently been seen as Prince Philip in The Queen (2006) and as the sinister father in TV's 24. The younger Cromwell introduced Double Harness when it was screened in its restored version at Film Forum in New York City in February 2007. "I've not only never seen it, but I never knew it existed," he told The New York Post. "I recognize a lot of bits of business from my dad that he's given to the actors."
Producer: Merian C. Cooper (Executive Producer), Kenneth Macgowan (Associate)
Director: John Cromwell
Screenplay: Jane Murfin from play by Edward Poor Montgomery and novel by Anthony Hope
Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Film Editing: George Nichols, Jr.
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase, Chick Kirk
Costume Design: Walter Plunkett (uncredited)
Cast: Ann Harding (Joan Colby), William Powell (John Fletcher), Lucile Browne (Valerie Colby), Henry Stephenson (Col. Sam Colby), Lilian Bond (Monica Paige), George Meeker (Dennis Moore), Reginald Owen (Freeman), Kay Hammond (Eleanor Weston).
BW-69m. Closed captioning.
by Roger Fristoe