Well, this one really was a surprise. A Cary Grant film that isn’t much about Cary Grant at all but more about the two women in his life. Grant flaps about, a likeable fool, but it’s really Carole Lombard and Kay Francis who steal the show here. By virtue of it being a Grant film it’s a lot easier to hunt down than many featuring Francis. It’s a little sad in a way to see so little of her when she’s the fulcrum around which the film revolves. By my counting it’s the first time she played a supporting role since Street of Chance in 1930. Between these two films she took the lead in a total of forty-one features. She would take lead roles again, but it seemed the beginning of a decline in her star power, probably not helped by her falling out with Warner Brothers and the termination of her contract, which occurred the same year. She had been named box office poison in an advertisement taken out by the Independent Theatre Owners Association in 1938, but was in good company (Katherine Hepburn was also named). Indeed, Francis may have been helped to get the role of Maida in In Name Only on the insistence of Carole Lombard, who had previously played support in the 1931 Powell/Francis film Ladies’ Man. So, the beginning of the end for the had-been Queen of Hollywood, a lady said to have remarked that she couldn’t wait to be forgotten. While she got her wish, it’s a little sad for the rest of the world that she did. Even though I feel Carole Lombard’s performance ultimately steals the show, she does have a lot more on-screen time. Not that space forbids it (I really could keep writing…) but it seems that this film was part of Lombard’s attempt to try her hand at more serious roles. She went back to comedy in the end, even though I can’t see how this “attempt” at serious wouldn’t be recognised as anything other than a resounding success.
In Name Only isn’t about a love triangle but there is triangulation in its dynamic. Alec Walker (Grant) and Julie Eden (Lombard) fall in love but cannot marry… because Walker already has a wife – the unloving, uncaring Manipulatrix-In-Chief, Maida Walker (Francis). Maida has pretty much everyone wrapped around her little finger, including Alec’s own mother and father, skilfully hiding her own cold, calculating heartlessness while playing the thoughtful, diplomatic, loving and long-suffering wife she most certainly isn’t. She’s literally only in it for the money when the rest of her in-laws are all stone dead. No murder plots, just insincerity, manipulation, character assassination… and patience. Maida’s is the knife so subtle and deadly that you may not even know when you are or aren’t an accessory to your own demise. Chilling stuff, but people like Maida and Othello’s Iago really do exist. It seems implausible that so many people could be fooled by such falseness and duplicity in real life but unfortunately they can and this kind of unscrupulous individual can not only thrive, but maintain the mirage of sainthood. I wouldn’t even suggest that guilt or personal unhappiness with the emptiness of their existence afflicts them. Some little birds started life pushing their siblings out of the nest and continued in this fashion, gaining satisfaction from the destruction of others.
Go watch the film. It’s far from essential but it is gripping, well-made, very well acted and one of the better ways to spend ninety-four minutes of your time. If you ever meet a Maida or Iago get the hell out of there and don’t engage with them or their mind games. I don’t believe in heaven, hell or karma but the pathological liar’s own words and deeds weave a web so thick that it may well ensnare them eventually. Failing that, perhaps I’m wrong and there is a hereafter with just the right inferno for this kind of individual to burn in.