The House on 56th Street isn’t what you expect it to be. It starts out with a bit of a love triangle as two evidently dedicated men put themselves through multiple repeat viewings of a pretty uninspired stage show to see the same woman. One is already involved with her; the other is trying to catch her eye. The acting is very cheesy, especially from Kay Francis, who enthusiastically overdoes every line. Not helping things is the hackneyed and predictable script. You’re never in doubt that what you’re looking at is actors reciting prepared lines. It’s cheap, uninspired melodrama. Things change when the story takes an unexpected (but clearly contrived) turn in a more noirish direction, however… and quite a lot of time passes.
In later life, Kay isn’t as naïve. That familiar intelligence and worldliness many of her characters have has moved in. While her acting couldn’t be described as neutral, it does become tolerable, especially for this kind of melodrama. The script remains substandard, with implausible exposition-only conversations here and there. It is further exposed by the arrival of Ricardo Cortez, who puts in a decent performance, but one still afflicted by the lines he’s got to say.
It’s hard to recommend The House on 56th Street. It’s very much an also-ran film. Kay gives her fans something similar but far superior in Confession; William Powell is a treat in Evelyn Prentice (which came out in the following year). They all bear similarities to Madame X, but The House on 56th Street is near the bottom of that pile. Even fans of Francis who’ve seen her better films may be a little disappointed with this one. For those who do sit down to watch it, it is quite short (about 68 minutes) and it’s entertaining enough once Kay’s character grows up a little.