Grabbing a movie you are not familiar with and firing it up on your favorite device can be exhilarating or extremely frustrating. Selecting 1937’s Confession, a relatively unknown picture- to me anyway, was driven by desire to see another Basil Rathbone film – sadly but perhaps unsurprisingly, the presence of Kay Francis didn’t really enter into it. See, for me as well as most others, Kay Francis is among the most famous of all forgotten stars.
Confession is almost a complete scene remake for scene of an earlier film, 1935’s Mazurka. Confession‘s director Joe May was so enamored with Mazurka that for some scenes he actually compared his creation to its progenitor using a stopwatch.
The film is quite well done and a true forgotten gem. With two second choice leads it is hard to imagine the originally proposed pairing of Bette Davis and Fredric March here – though Fredric March could well have done well at the ivories. Somehow that visual seems to work.
We have in their stead – and again probably surpassing what those other two greats would have lent the project- Kay Francis as Vera Kowalska and Basil Rathbone as Michael Michailow. Basil Rathbone is the suave but devious composer and pianist, who has met a lovely young lady (Jane Bryan as Lisa Koslov) and starts to court her – or at least attempt to take advantage of her.
During their first and only date Basil Rathbone makes eye contact with the lounge singer (Kay Francis), a tawdry blonde perhaps on her last professional legs. After a glimmer of recognition-between old Basil (well, he’s young here) and Kay- Rathbone and his young love interest depart, but are caught on the stairs by an angry Kay Francis, who shoots and kills Rathbone.
This scene in the lounge – which takes place about twenty-five minutes in, is Kay Francis’ first on screen appearance, but from that point on she battles with Basil Rathbone for the spotlight in the balance of the picture. Strangely you do not realize her absence until she appears- making an already strong presentation even stronger.
This cuts to a trial scene- the run time to Basil Rathbone’s killing has all been in flashback, conjured up from trial testimony. Francis, while on the stand, isn’t overly cooperative, but via flashback (most of the film is in flashback actually) we hear the balance of the story.
The story of Kay Francis’ relationship with Basil Rathbone starts many years prior in Poland. In a drunken evening, Francis, a wife and new mother, ruins herself in a fling in a forgettable night with the young and irascible Rathbone, who shortly thereafter departs her life. Or so she thinks.
The fallout of the affair for Francis is horrible as her husband leaves her and takes the child with him, never to be seen again. Her career as an opera singer, now sullied by her indiscretion, is reduced to making the circuit at lesser venues such as the lounge where Basil Rathbone encounters her.
Towards the film’s end, the dramatic confession of Confession (and hence the title of the picture) takes place as Kay Francis finally opens up in closed court. Granted, especially by today’s standards, the confession is nothing ‘confessionable,’ but perhaps then it was.
Confession is a truly well produced and directed film that Joe May brings us. A colleague of Fritz Lang, May has much the same style but somehow the career Lang built escaped May. Atmospheric shots abound and there’s even some early special effects as well.
Sadly Confession would be one of the last “A” films Kay Francis would star in as, after being labeled “box office poison,” and as a result of her frequent squabbling with them, Warners began downgrading her opportunities and soon she was left with “B” pictures, her presumed role in many films being taken by Bette Davis.
To be honest, I am not familiar enough with her work to say if this is among her finest roles, but many who (at least claim to be) would.
Great film. TCM is about the only way you’ll find this- surprisingly not even out on Warner Archives.