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The Solitaire Man

The Solitaire Man(1933)

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teaser The Solitaire Man (1933)

Mary Boland (1882-1965) was among the legion of accomplished character actors who kept Hollywood's Golden Age golden. She deserves better than the virtual neglect she has undergone. Mary who, you may ask? Point made! She easily traveled from stage performances to silent movies, back to the Broadway stage, back to sound films, to radio and, finally, TV. She dispensed with aplomb her trademark dithery comedy, first as a flighty young thing and later as matronly types. During the course of her long career, she performed onstage opposite John Drew, Alfred Lunt and a young Humphrey Bogart, onscreen opposite Laurel and Hardy and in a popular series of comedies with Charlie Ruggles, on radio with Orson Welles and on TV in an adaptation of the Claire Booth Luce 1939 hit, The Women, in 1955, recreating her film role as a boozy countess. That and her performance as the genteelly desperate mother of five marriageable daughters in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1940) were her best known film roles. She also starred in the Cole Porter musical, Jubilee! (1935). The words versatile and durable spring to mind.

In The Solitaire Man (1933), she's understandably billed second to Herbert Marshall, the British marquee idol whose buttoned-down baritone deliveries, stoicism, and overall unflappability landed him in the top rank of '30s actors. With many another actor, Marshall's understatement might have come off as blandness. With Marshall it somehow registered as gentlemanly nobility, even when he plays an international jewel thief, as he does here. His minimalist style also included little movement. This was his way of concealing the fact that he lost his right leg in combat during World War I, replacing it with an artificial limb. Few throughout his career realized this. With his slicked-back hair and bottomless poise, he was the decade's Mr. Suave.

To see him at his best and most assured, one must turn to Ernst Lubitsch's sophisticated gem, Trouble in Paradise (1932). The Solitaire Man (referring to diamonds, not the card game) is in every way, to put it softly, a minor effort. It begins promisingly, with a stolen necklace, a room in shadow, an open safe and a murdered Scotland Yard inspector. It's a case of no good deed going unpunished. Marshall's jewel thief and his accomplices (May Robson, Elizabeth Allan, Ralph Forbes) are about to retire to a Kentish manor house he just bought with their profits. But old habits die hard, and Marshall makes one more successful haul, only to be told by Allan that she won't marry him and begin a new life on a larcenous note. He must replace the necklace he stole, or their deal is off. So he does. His reward? Facing theft and murder charges.

Most of the rest takes place in the cabin of a small passenger plane flying from Paris's Le Bourget to Croydon Airport, south of London. The plane is so small that it's the co-pilot who offers the passengers refreshments. Aboard it are the jewel heist gang, Boland's rich American tourist, and a retribution-minded, gun-wielding cop (Lionel Atwill). Although the plane does not literally crash, the film nosedives, undone by the fact that the cheap-looking cabin set is claustrophobia-inducing, and the forced confinement underlines the static, talky nature of the film's source, Sam and Bella Spewack's play. For a film that promises flight and propulsion, it stalls dramatically. When one of the characters speaks of parachuting out, you long to join him.

Nor is the mystery of who killed the Scotland Yard man at all mystifying. There is one death aboard the plane and after it there can be only one candidate for guilt. What follows is not exactly a case of Boland eclipsing Marshall. Given little to do but talk at greater and greater length, Marshall seems to fade into invisibility and Boland's liveliness and gusty comic interjections rush in to fill the vacuum. So emphatically does she rescue the film that you wonder she didn't have to join the Red Cross as well as Actors' Equity to participate. While the others wring their hands or, in Marshall's case, try to exercise such wits as he can muster to wriggle out of a very tight spot, Boland tees off on the social myopia of the woman who thinks she's an empress, based on the fact that her husband is the head of the biggest bank in Peoria.

In a role that had become a stock figure ever since Mark Twain published The Innocents Abroad (1869), Boland doesn't so much work her character's indignation as register amazement that the rest of the world doesn't share her sense of entitlement. It radiates outward from her cowed husband, who desperately follows her in another plane he hired, hoping to outrun her righteous wrath. Boland played her share of snobs, but here she benefits from the fact that her character is surrounded by snobs, and she's completely oblivious to the fact that they find her boorish and provincial. A very practiced and accomplished turn from a skilled pro!

As for the rest of the largely British cast, Marshall came from and continued on to bigger and better things - Foreign Correspondent (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), The Razor's Edge (1946), Duel in the Sun (1946). Atwill, the gun-wielding stranger, subsequently played a string of cops and doctors (mostly mad ones), before ending his career in Poverty Row horror quickies. Allan moved back to England in 1938 after suing MGM when Rosalind Russell got the lead role in The Citadel (1938) and Allan didn't. Australia's Robson became an even more prominent character actress than Boland, specializing in tough, feisty matrons from all levels of society. Still, Boland seems to be the only one enjoying her work in The Solitaire Man.

by Jay Carr

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