The Last of Mrs. Cheyney possesses all the touchstones of a quintessential screwball comedy skewed slightly. As opposed to a flighty heiress being paired up with a nebbish slice of Americana male, we have a brazen rich widow trying to pull the wool over a whole group of crusty English high society. If we were talking in Hollywood terms, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney is My Man Godfrey meets Trouble in Paradise and that’s good company!
Mrs. Fay Cheyney (Joan Crawford) is a wealthy American widow holding an auction for her rich society friends. Fay struggles to remain composed, even as two men are fighting for her hand in marriage. What no one knows is Mrs. Cheyney is really preparing to steal an expensive necklace with the help of her trusted butler, Charles (William Powell).
The Last of Mrs. Cheyney had already received the film treatment before, in 1929 with Norma Shearer (which Warner Archive released to MOD this week). This remake is also the first appearance of a film directed by Dorothy Arzner reviewed on the site! Arzner was the lone female director working on films in the Golden Era and overhauled the feature despite being uncredited. Arzner was known for working well with Joan Crawford, and Crawford proves she excels as much in comedy as she did in drama. Within the first twenty seconds of the movie beginning we’re treated with a bare shouldered Joan magically ending up in the wrong suite of befuddled millionaire, Lord Kelton (Frank Morgan).
The poster lists Crawford amongst strong leads Powell and Robert Montgomery, but this is Crawford’s picture. With a wink and a smile Crawford pulls the wool over everyone’s eyes, and they end up applauding her for it! There’s a reason why she’s the leader of the gang and Powell’s Charles is the valet. She’s able to command respect due to her aloof nature and her ability to hold her own in sticky situations. When she’s hit on by the “charming” Arthur (Montgomery) she’s always waiting with a retort. Arthur: “Are you traveling alone?” Fay: “I hope so.” She plays the part of a society dame and easily admittance into the top-tier of society. There’s a very thin veneer of social commentary within the script, as the various roles of women are defined (set pieces, philanthropic hostesses) but are so vague any common person can easily fake an elevated status. Conversely, the way Lord Kelton seeks to “warn” Fay about Arthur goes towards his own ambitions of winning the woman, but also the dangers of a woman ruining her reputation on a scoundrel whose just as accepted by the same society as the woman.
Fay Cheyney is the schemer, setting up the dominoes that fall by story’s end, so if makes sense for the rest of the cast to feel watered down by comparison. Robert Montgomery, father to the famed Bewitched star, Elizabeth, plays Arthur the cad whose personality doesn’t age well for modern audiences. He’s a man who playfully pulls pranks on Lord Kelton, such as calling him to tell him his house is on fire so as to secure impressing Fay, but also reiterates to Fay “you must like me!” If she told him she wasn’t interested we wouldn’t have a movie, I understand, but there’s coming on strong and then there’s forcing your company on another person. The one marginalized is William Powell as Charles, coming off the one-two punch of The Thin Man and My Man Godfrey. Powell plays the smooth criminal well; a man who loves Fay in his own way, but really is there to look out for her and others. However, he’s unmemorable because he spends almost half the movie on the sidelines directing Fay. He’s a welcome sight, particularly for those who dream of him walking away with Fay (and ultimately proving his love for her by turning himself in), but this isn’t the best movie for fans of Powell.
The Last of Mrs. Cheyney is a sly drawing-room screwball comedy with a bit of sex farce through in here and there. Joan Crawford lays on the lead with a huge grin and gives the movie the bite it needs. An elegant comedy with high stakes and hijinks!
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