In the final analysis, Brent seems to have come to terms with her fall from grace well and taken a balanced view… Unlike Brooks she kept working into her middle years and made ends meet playing a succession of the “lady crook” roles that came to define her. And yet, she was capable of so much more as her sure-footed performance in the comedy drama Love ‘em and Leave ‘em showed as well as her conflicted revolutionary in The Last Command.
|William Powell and Evelyn Bren|
She listed Interference as her favourite film alongside Underworld and it’s not hard to see why. Made a few months after her final von Sternberg feature – the lost film The Dragnet – Interference was Paramount’s first talkie.
Starring Clive Brook, Doris Kenyon and William Powell it was based on the stage play written by Harold Dearden and Roland Pertwee – a good idea for the fledgling medium for which dialogue suddenly had to be naturalistic in a way not always found on title cards.
|Evelyn Brent... hatching a plot!|
Powell is caught here struggling with an English accent and frequently intoning “Deb-or-rah!”. Overall he does well, which is more than can be said for Doris Kenyon who possibly needed stronger direction… she’s far too cautious and halting and you really struggle to understand just why Powell’s character might consider leaving Brent’s for her?
|William Powell and Clive Brook|
Interestingly, the seven minute sequence following the murder at Deborah’s apartment, features fast-flowing, silent film direction and succeeds in telling the story with far more eloquence than the talking sections… film was 30 but sound was just a newborn, still toddling around carefully placed microphones… There are quick entries and exits of Philip followed by Dr John who attempts to cover up for Faith who he thinks is the killer…
Lothar Mendes, listed as “Co-director”, was actually the director of the silent version and it is from him that many of these more deft touches came.
|"...every morning Sir John will get a postcard and they’ll be blank… just as long as you behave…”|
The two have history and Deborah has always resented the woman Philip left her for, Faith (Kenyon) who is now happily married to an up and coming surgeon, Sir John (did they do that on purpose?!) Marlay. As a way of exacting revenge Deborah decides to blackmail Fiona knowing that any scandal might burst Sir John’s career bubble. She confronts Faith and threatens to release love letters sent from Faith to Philip to the press. She takes great pleasure in telling her that she is only asking for payment as a way of showing who has the upper hand. It’s cruel... but Brent is so much the superior actor you find yourself trying to excuse her behaviour.
“Oh, Faith… sui-cide is such a foolish way out!”
Faith leaves and her husband tells Philip that he has very little long-term future. His aorta has been fatally weakened and unless he curbs his lifestyle and takes it very easy then he could die at any moment. He resolves to use his time well…
Brent wears a succession of stunning outfits and is frequently seen draped over chez lounges with intent… she acts the others off the screen and obviously had no problem with the transition from silent to sound.
Years in theatre both in the UK as well as the US no doubt helped but she also had the timing and subtlety that screen acting required… She was intelligent enough to listen and learn from the likes of John Barrymore (with whom she worked on Raffles the Amateur Cracksman in 1917) who told her to smile with her eyes and not to be too expressive.
Here she plays another anti-hero but one who has depth: she genuinely loves Philip and her revenge is tempered by the desire to make her peace and her life with him. As with her twists and turns in The Last Command she handles these emotional transitions really well… those determined eyes, the unmistakable intelligence, the sad realisation that she may never get these chances again…
And, sadly, in career terms she wasn’t able to sustain this kind of platform for her talent. But, what she left us is more than enough to prove that she was one of the very finest actors of the age. She made it and was able to come through the other side with grace and humility, finding friendship and happiness in the end.
|Betty and Bill|
Post script: I've recently completed Evelyn Brent: the Life and Times of Hollywood's Lady Crook by Lynn Kear with James King (foreward by Mr Kevin Brownlow).
It is excellently researched with an especially impressive filmography, covering all of Eveyn's movies from 1914 to 1950.
They have done a good job of telling the tale of this talented and courageous woman, steering an objective course through the conflicting contemporary PR. In spite of a disastrous husband or two, studio incompetence, bigotry and plain bad luck, you get the feeling that her career would always have been fitful... she just wasn't made for those times... But enough film-makers of quality were around to give her the chance to shine brightly.
It's available from Amazon. A recommended read paying tribute to one of the best actresses in Hollywood: ever!