It’s difficult to say why I find A Notorious Affair so enjoyable. Basil Rathbone has an abysmal Italian (I think) accent, Billie Dove isn’t terribly charismatic, and the characterisation isn’t exactly hugely well rounded for anyone.
But what I do love about this movie, is the fact that it attempts to show how complicated our desires and reasons for loving people, are. And despite the fact that his accent is horrible, Basil gives another good performance despite rather limiting subject matter. And it is indeed limiting subject matter.
A pure hearted ingenue (but of course she is) (played by Billie Dove), named Patricia (which Basil pronounces Put-tree-shah), falls in love with an impoverished violinist, Paul Gheradi (played by, you guessed it, Basil). Patricia sticks by him through poverty and disappointment, and is the perfect wife when his star begins to rise. But Paul (surprise surprise) does not stay true to Patricia as he becomes more famous and serious maniser (yes I just made up that word), Countess Olga Balakireff (played by Kay Francis), sets her man-eating sights on him.
Although Billie Dove is supposed to the female lead in the film, as she was the biggest star in the movie due to her fame during the silent era; Francis really steals the film out from under her. Our introduction to the latter is in a riding outfit that is like a second skin, and a scene in which she clearly seduces her stable boy before insulting him by calling him old. Ouch. She then moves onto her next victim, before being filmed by Lloyd Bacon in a cloud of curling cigarette smoke.
During she and Basil’s scenes together, there is far more genuine sexual chemistry than between he and Billie, who just seems like a good friend to him rather than his love interest. But this isn’t Billie’s fault, as she’s bogged down with having to play the virtuous role instead of the interesting femme fatale one. She also doesn’t have the fascinating hairstyle that Kay does.
The Times gave the film a positive review, even though they did savage poor Billie somewhat:
lending a decorative presence, her speeches pale beside a performance of one so expert as Mr. Rathbone. Kay Francis, too, as the scheming countess, puts Miss Dove somewhat in the shadeWikipedia
Although, as I’ve said, I wouldn’t quite agree that Basil’s performance is “expert”, I do like how he manages to bring quite a bit of life to a character who is largely whiney and unlikable. He does this by showing how his character, largely a cerebral rather than a worldly person, is seduced by the pleasures and heady acceptance of high society. He also redeems himself, somewhat, at the end of the film, when he finally puts Billie Dove’s happiness above his own. Although the ending is decidedly soap opera, I really like it. Probably because I like my melodrama quite heavy on the soap suds.
This isn’t a Basil film that you have to see. Those are some of the Sherlock Holmes, and many of the films that other bloggers will write about for this Blogathon. But this is a film that is fascinating for the fact that it shows Basil playing a very different character to what he would become known for later, whether the grinning villain or the super sleuth. This is a film that shows Basil’s abilities as a romantic leading man, ones he showed to better effect in The Last Mrs Chaney, but abilities that are still there to see.
And as I said earlier, it’s a film that shows Basil’s particular talent for elevating the subject material he had to work with. He would show this in the parts he was cast in opposite Errol Flynn for example, which were designed to complement Flynn’s leading man status, but which also showed how Basil was often more compelling than many of the leading men he was cast as support to. In this film, he has a nervous breakdown which renders him incapable of playing the violin any longer. While many other actors would have looked ridiculous whilst not only having to put on an Italian accent and say “Oh no, I–” a lot, and having to lie in bed and not move an inch whilst being incredibly sulky; Basil actually makes it interesting.
Whilst poor Billie is made to stand inside of a doorway like a rather bland Gibson Girl, Basil makes the scene in which he gets up and reveals that ah ha! he’s been able to walk for a lot longer than she and the doctors thought, very enjoyable. And it’s him who makes it genuine when Paul and Patricia are reunited, with his lovely, sweet way of delivering his lines and looking at his leading lady.
I think that if you like Basil, you’ll like seeing him in a film that goes against the grain. And a film in which he and Kay Francis swap the roles that they would occupy seven years later in Confession (1937).
This is my first entry for my The Suave Swordsman Blogathon dedicated to this wonderful actor. Visit the rest of my blog to read the other wonderful entries and tributes.