Happy birthday, Warren William! The Woman from Monte Carlo is one of five movies Turner Classic Movies shows daytime Tuesday to celebrate Warren’s December 2 date of birth. Reviews of the other four were already on the site and I’ve linked to each of them in the schedule below. All times Eastern, Tuesday, December 2:
- 10:15 am – The Dark Horse (1932)
- 11:45 am Under Eighteen (1932)
- 1:15 pm – The Woman from Monte Carlo (1932)
- 2:30 pm – Don’t Bet on Blondes (1935) – Plus Immortal Ephemera post
- 3:30 pm – Fear (1946)
The Woman from Monte Carlo
Many unheralded movies from this era take me by pleasant surprise when their sum is greater then the whole. Usually it’s a poor story eclipsed by fascinating characters or unexpected performances, roller coaster pacing, jaw-dropping moments, or beautiful visuals. “Bad” Warren William movies that fit this mold include Bedside (1934), which is lightning paced and packed with many wild moments, and Satan Met a Lady (1936), which shares those traits with the added benefit of some very strong work from Alison Skipworth. I always cringe when I see a two-star or lower review for The Mind Reader (1933), a movie filled by beautiful images of tawdry and fantastic elements, often revealed from the crooked viewpoint of our man Warren, playing in a story that I consider far from poor at any rate.
The Woman from Monte Carlo includes several fine performances, an intriguing historical setting that includes an exciting battle at sea, and such an obsession with circular imagery that I couldn’t help thinking about Hitchcock’s Psycho as the circles mount—portholes, mirrors, binoculars—on the way to the dizzying moment that sends the lead character spiraling back to where she came from. The Woman from Monte Carlo has a lot going for it, but it’s an effort to watch. It’s a slow 65 minutes filled with a lot of talk, most of that dialogue delivered by its male cast with awkward intonations that seem designed to make them seem as foreign as both the setting and their leading lady. Warren William is rewarded with the best of the male supporting roles, a fine prize in a film including Walter Huston, but he adds a softness to his stilted delivery that I suppose is meant to convey his lovestruck mood, but actually makes him sound somewhat insincere.
The movie is a remake of First National’s Night Watch, a 1928 silent with sound effects, said at the time to be a strong vehicle for Billie Dove. The cast of that earlier movie also included Paul Lukas as the Captain and Donald Reed in the part of the younger Lieutenant, played by Warren William in the 1932 film. Alexander Korda directed the first film during his time in the U.S. The story originated more than a decade before that as La veille d’Armes, a play by Claude Farrere and Lucien Nepoty that premiered in France right in the midst of the Great War, in January 1917. It came to Broadway’s Century Theater as In the Night Watch by Michael Morton in 1921 with the legendary Jeanne Eagels starring. I suspect all three of those productions topped this 1932 effort, which was selected to launch the legendary German actress Lil Dagover in Hollywood as Warner Bros. answer to the Garbos and the Dietrichs found at competing studios.
Thanks to the international language of silent film, Lil Dagover was familiar to U.S. audiences from her work in European titles such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Fritz Lang classics like Destiny (1921) and Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922). In addition to screen stardom, Dagover debuted on the stage in 1925 for none other than Max Reinhardt. By the time of her Summer 1931 arrival in America for The Woman from Monte Carlo, Lil Dagover was a major international star and Warner Bros.-First National rightly felt confident that they did have their answer to Garbo. Dagover was the entire focus of their marketing for The Woman from Monte Carlo, her image and the typeface of her name dwarfing her leading men, who again included Walter Huston, a major star in his own right at this time. The most surprising thing about the failure of The Woman from Monte Carlo is that it is not Dagover’s fault. It’s impossible not to compare her to Garbo, especially when Dagover moans, “I want to be alone” (with her husband), and the actress largely lives up to expectations with a performance that is part playful, part petulant, and peppered with several little slices of German that seem very natural given the background of her character.
She has been alone for a long time. Four months when the battle cruiser Lafayette sounds its horn on its return to base at Toulon. Dagover is Deanna Corlaix, a woman whose past gives title to the film, but now the young wife of the Lafayette’s Commandant (Huston), filled with excitement in anticipation of her husband’s return. It is 1914.
The Lafayette drops its anchor and Commandant Corlaix informs his men that no one is to leave the ship. He’s sorry about the order, but tells his men that wives and friends are welcome aboard for an evening of dancing and socializing. Busied by the looming threat of war, the Commandant sends Lieutenant d’Ortelles (Warren William) to shore with a message requesting his wife meet him on board.
Deanna is surprised to see d’Ortelles instead of her husband, and it’s quickly revealed that the two have had an affair. The Lieutenant had promised to request a transfer from her husband’s ship, but he stayed partly because he has a great admiration for Deanna’s husband, the Commandant. We see back on board that this is mutual, and Corlaix has no suspicion about his wife with d’Ortelles or any other man. One of the Commandant’s flag officers, Brambourg (John Wray), knows better though. He had known Deanna in Monte Carlo, when she used to take life “rather lightly.” Moreover, he knew of her past associations with other men, and of her affair with young d’Ortelles.
While d’Ortelles retrieves Deanna, the Commandant meets with his four flag officers because the secret code of recognition between ships has been modified. An approaching ship would have to respond correctly to this code to identify itself as friendly. If it cannot, then it’s considered a hostile ship. Corlaix makes such a show of passing the signals to his men, twice, that we know the secret code is bound to play a major part at some point of The Woman from Monte Carlo. After making sure each of his four men know the code, the Commandant tears up the paper it’s written on and burns it. These five are the only men on board privileged to this extremely sensitive information. Including the devious Brambourg.
The Commandant and Deanna are joyous to see one another once she’s on board, but the Commandant is busied by one task after another, and his wife grows more frustrated by each barrier to their privacy. Finally, she returns to his cabin, where she begins to work on a bottle of champagne while waiting for him. The Commandant is sidetracked from this rendezvous when an Admiral boards the Lafayette with the message that France is now at war. The Commandant sends d’Ortelles to his cabin to see Deanna off and pass along his apologies for not being able come himself. Deanna throws a delightful little bilingual tantrum on her way through the halls and d’Ortelles quiets her by removing her to his own cabin, where he tells her he loves her.
“Oh, George, I’ve tried so hard to be good,” she says. He says he only wanted her to know that there was a man who loved her enough to sacrifice duty all for her sake. A passionate kiss seems to seal their future together.
The Commandant comes looking for d’Ortelles, who eventually catches up with him on deck, just outside his own cabin, where Deanna can overhear them. Corlaix genuinely likes d’Ortelles, leaving his young subordinate stunned and embarrassed when confiding to him about his wife. The Commandant knew of Deanna’s past and thought he was doing her a favor when he married her. He’s only recently come to realize that he wasn’t being noble, but that he was always madly in love with her. Deanna hears it all and both she and d’Ortelles realize that this changes everything. He slips away planning to secure her passage back to shore, but the anchor rises and Deanna winds up stranded on board the Lafayette. She’s stuck in d’Ortelles’ cabin as the ship heads off to war.
The conniving Brambourg visits d’Ortelles’ cabin, while Deanna hides behind a curtain obscuring d’Ortelles’ bed. Brambourg overstays his welcome long enough to spot a cigarette stained with lip rouge still smoldering on a table in the Lieutenant’s cabin. Luckily for d’Ortelles and Deanna, Brambourg is distracted by the signal of an approaching ship. This is The Woman from Monte Carlo’s most suspenseful moment, as we know the codes from earlier are about to become relevant. Brambourg confirms the ship as friendly, as does the Commandant in a separate scene from the ship’s deck. But the other ship picks up speed as it approaches, causing one soldier to remark, “She acts like an enemy ship that means to attack.”
And she is. A few wild moments of smoke and explosions, destruction, and flooding take place as the enemy ships do battle. Later, at the court-martial of Commandant Corlaix, the damages are tallied. Over 800 men were on board the Lafayette and more than 350 of them were lost, many buried in a common grave because there was not enough left of their remains to identify. The only reason the Commandant can even live with himself is because he felt sure that the enemy ship returned the proper signal code to him. Unfortunately, three of his four flag officers are among the dead. The survivor? Brambourg, who not only has an opportunity for general vengeance, but to advance into Corlaix’s position as well. Corlaix is guilty as long as Brambourg claims to be unaware of the other ship’s response. Deanna and d’Ortelles know that Brambourg did see the response, but if they come to Corlaix’s defense their infidelity would be exposed.
The Woman from Monte Carlo winds to an exciting courtroom climax that shines the spotlight brightest on Warren’s Lieutenant d’Ortelles. After a courtroom shocker comes an unexpected ending that brings the title character full circle.
This is the first of three movies featuring Warren William and directed by Michael Curtiz. Curtiz later won an Academy Award for Casablanca (1942) after having been previously nominated for titles like Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), plus appearing as a write-in candidate for Captain Blood (1935), just one of several classic Errol Flynn titles that he directed. His movies with Warren weren’t quite on that level. After The Woman from Monte Carlo they worked together on Goodbye Again (1933) and their most memorable pairing, The Case of the Curious Bride (1935), a Perry Mason entry most famous for featuring none other than Errol Flynn in his first Hollywood role, tiny though it was.
As for Warren, The Woman from Monte Carlo came before he had really begun to establish himself at Warner Bros. It was just his fourth film under contract to them since his arrival from Broadway and very distant from the parts that soon carved out his niche as filmdom’s most lovable scoundrel. He’d shown flashes of what was to come in his previous film, Under 18, but he was more affable playboy than anything darker in that title. Despite his character’s indiscretions with the Commandant’s wife in The Woman from Monte Carlo, Warren’s d’Ortelles was utmost a gentleman in the film. It’s only in his next effort, Beauty and the Boss (1932), that Warner Bros. seems to find Warren, or vice versa, with stardom awaiting him in his next offering, The Mouthpiece (1932).
The Woman from Monte Carlo is a forgettable experience for the Warren William fan, though not as much as it is for the Walter Huston backer! Warren gets almost all of the romantic scenes with Dagover and the entire climax hinges upon his appearance and actions. He and Dagover have the strongest parts in the entire film. She’s more natural before the camera than he is, no surprise as she’s far more experienced than he, even though in a different language. Warren’s polite performance seems more suited to the stage than screen, though I love what he does when he really gets to let loose near the end of the film. The soft voice is gone as his battered and confused d’Ortelles cries out with desperation. Too little, too late.
Reviews were negative. Slow, talky, and old-fashioned they said. Praise was reserved for Lil Dagover, who everyone thought deserved better, and Warren was usually cited for his performance, faring much better than Huston. Basically, the reviewers got it right back then. They seemed to agree on key points, obvious enough to have me nodding along as I read them. I was surprised not to see more praise for the battle scene, which I thought was very well done.
Lil Dagover sailed for Europe at the end of November. In their February 1932 issue Picture Play reported that she had no great love for Hollywood and would wait in Europe to see if the public responded well enough to The Woman from Monte Carlo to give her reason to return. In June 1932 she signed with Aafa Film Company in Berlin, her next release from them premiering in New York in October that year. She never returned to Hollywood.
The Woman from Monte Carlo is one of three films in the Warren William Collection, a Warner Archive manufactured-on-demand DVD-R that also includes Don’t Bet on Blondes and Times Square Playboy (1936).