Fashions of 1934 (William Dieterle, 1934)
In his penultimate film with Warner Brothers, William Powell played con man again, this time opposite Bette Davis for the first and only time. She plays practically the same role as she did opposite James Cagney in Jimmy the Gent that year, as the disapproving, scolding, and yet secretly adoring assistant. Here, she reluctantly follows Powell and the ubiquitous Frank McHugh as their original con to copy expensive clothes by Paris fashion designers evolves into more and more elaborate schemes until somehow, implausibly, Powell becomes the producer of an elaborate stage show inevitably choreographed by Busby Berkeley. Berkeley’s lengthy sequence, featuring barely-dressed pre-Code chorines reaches its climax with the appearance of human harps.
It’s a marvelous spectacle, of course, but the shoehorned sequence underlines the central problem with the film. While Powell, McHugh and Davis make a game trio, they’re soon lost among the spectacle since none of them participate in any of the song and dance. Powell shows some great energy when he’s at the height of his con, but once the extravagance takes over, he’s lost. Bette Davis at this time was rightly frustrated with these thankless roles, and she glumly makes her way through the film. A lame love triangle results when Phillip Reed’s Jimmy falls in love with Davis, and implores her to give up Powell and join him on a trip to Berlin, a plot point which gave me the biggest laugh of the film. Berlin? In 1934? Really, Bette Davis, I think staying in Paris with William Powell might suit you better. But, no, she somehow struggles with the decision.
The film, which is available on DVD with the Warner Archive Collection, is still worth seeing, of course, if only to witness how these charismatic stars overcome their material. It’s a shame Powell and Davis weren’t teamed up together in later years when their screen personas were well established.