Saturday, November 26, 2011

Look at me, I'm not Frances Dee


Anyway, because of this I haven't been very active here as of late, and is also why I missed celebrating my blog's one year anniversary yesterday. So that explains the lack of pomp and fanfare you'd normally expect (I was planning elephants. Lots of 'em). But on a serious note, thank you to all the people who have supported this little corner of the interwebs! You know who you are! All a'yous.

So instead of blah-blahing about meself (I know, I'm disappointed too), here's a tribute to Frances Dee on what would have been her....102nd birthday? Really, calculator? Wow.

When most people discuss the pantheon of great stars from the '30s and '40s, they refer to the Harlows, Gables, Hepburns, Crawfords, Davises, Lombards, Coopers, Hayworths, etc. Compared to to the actors in this intimidating list, Dee is relatively obscure, despite her steady, active presence in many of those decades' most provoking films.

Part of the reason she's maybe not as well remembered as some of her contemporaries is that we have her unfortunate Good Girl image to contend with, due to roles like Meg in Little Women, Sally in Of Human Bondage (pictured above), and Amelia in Becky Sharp. She was a welcome, understated presence that complemented the powerhouse trio of Kate Heburn, Bette Davis, and Miriam Hopkins in those films. But unfortunately, "good girl" actors are often shrugged at and passed over these days when analyzing the hardboiled dames that were more popular in that era.

But really this label is an injustice to Dee. She could do so much more. In fact, her career was incredibly versatile for someone as under the radar as she. And she played versatility well, always natural, seldom (if ever) hamming it up. She was lascivious and intense as the masochistic heiress in Blood Money, a mostly forgotten 1932 thriller. She once corrected a friend who called her character a prostitute, saying, "I played a masochistic nymphomaniacal kleptomaniac, not a prostitute."

She was a hysterical but sympathetic young fiancee to a man cowed by his mother in the freudian Silver Cord, which starred her future husband Joel McCrea. She played the grounded, thankless, and sane role of the Jane Eyre-esque nurse in the Val Lewton-produced cult classic I Walked With a Zombie (highly underrated flick). (Turns out George Sanders' brother was also dreamy). And she turned that good girl image right on its head by playing the prim lead in 1934's Finishing School. She starts out prudish and saintly, only to let loose, get pregnant, and--shock of all shocks--escapes punishment and marries her man! A rare treat for this time period, and she imbues her character with a realistic depth. No hand-wringing, thank God. This movie was also another example of her playing well opposite a feisty femme, this time Ginger Rogers. Dee's likable, laid-back vibe meshed well with a lot of the energetic fireball actresses of the '30s.

And let's not forget that Dee was a hauntingly beautiful woman. Her looks, combined with her quiet but still palpable talent, won her fans from a few perceptive critics, such as James Agee and Pauline Kael (lessee, have I mentioned her before?). Agee called Dee "one of the very few women in movies who really had a face...and always used this translucent face with delicate and exciting talent." And Kael singled out Dee's small but memorable turn as Frederic March's beloved wife in the underrated war drama So Ends Our Night. Kael recalled that a close-up of her face in one heartbreaking sequence was "so beautiful...that her image stays with one, like Garbo's at the end of Queen Christina."

Her face was long, oval, and delicately proportioned, with large deep eyes, wide, well-shaped lips, and a thin nose; maybe her ethereal looks were too aristocratically classic for people craving scrappy little blondes like Harlow and Lombard. Her beauty could be a handicap in other ways, too. For a while she was a front-runner for Melanie in Gone With The Wind, and you can tell from her other performances that she (like de Havilland) could have captured the sweetness of Melanie without becoming saccharine or saucer-eyed. However, in the end David O. Selznick decided that her beauty would have detracted even from the divinely gorgeous Vivien Leigh. And of course, because Leigh came along (not to mention several other fiery candidates) her dream of playing Scarlett came to naught, as well.

But despite career set-backs, unfair good girl stigmas, and slight overshadowing from a more famous spouse, Dee remains beloved in the hearts of a few but fervent film buffs. She has a lovely website at Remembering Frances Dee, with several heart-stoppingly beautiful stills and an interview or two with one of her sons.

Did I mention my favorite role of hers? That of Mirabel Miller in the absolutely forgotten comedy The Gay Deception, from 1935. Speaking of her versatility, Dee had the makings of a great screwball comedienne, to stand alongside Carole, Jean, Myrna, Irene, and the rest. She rises far above her material, which is somewhat too cute and tried, about a cheeky foreign prince (Francis Lederer) masquerading as a bellhop in New York, courting a poor naive girl (Dee) who decides to blow her lottery earnings at the fanciest hotel in the big city. Dee inhabits the role of Mirabel, making her a soft, adorable bundle of nerves and frantic hope. Her delivery is spaced out and delightful, her short mass of brown hair windblown as she skitters about at full speed on her wiry frame, burdened by furs and silks. Never has an actress used her big burning eyes to better use than Dee when reacting to Lederer's antics or planning her own.

Here's a scene that showcases Dee's gentle harebrained ability, which shines out from the otherwise mediocre script.

A lass worth remembering, I think.


  1. congrats on the one year! and sorry about your purse. that's awful.

    I'm only really familiar with dee because of little women which is a shame really. this post was a great eye opener.

  2. Thank you, Meredith! Hopefully someday soon Dee will have a renaissance where more people get to know her work, like a lot of her contemporaries have had.

    And I got a new phone yesterday, so things are looking up purse-wise!

  3. You know what I like about your blog? How much depth you go into! It's like a Master's Class on old film. Great stuff.

    Not sure if you do these or not, but I wanted to let people know all about your site. So I am sharing this award with you.

    Come by my blog for the image and read what I said about your blog.


  4. Tim, you flatter me in more ways than one! Thank you, kind sir! Wonderful words and wonderful award from a wonderful blogger. In other words? Wonderful.

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