Editor’s Note: Evelyn Prentice was recently released on made-on-demand DVD.
Evelyn Prentice was the third of what would be 14 films starring the legendary romantic comedy duo Myrna Loy and William Powell. Based on a best-selling novel, Evelyn Prentice was no romantic comedy but rather a melodrama based on the infidelities of the rich and fabulous. Rushed into production to capitalize on the smash Loy-Powell hit The Thin Man, the studio clearly cut a few corners, but at least had the good sense to ease the audience into the drama with a first act providing plenty of comedy and cocktails.
John Prentice (Powell) is a high-powered defense attorney involved in a scandalous case of murder by one Mrs. Harrison (Rosalind Russell), the beautiful widow of a murdered man. Prentice is always in the office, the in courtroom or on the front page of the paper of record, but very rarely at home. The lovely and neglected Evelyn Prentice (Loy) invites her close friend Amy (Una Merkel) to stay for a while for company, but Amy also encourages Evelyn to allow herself to be pursued by the poet Lawrence Kennard (Harvey Stephens). She does, innocently enough at first, until she discovers her husband John and Mrs. Harrison are more than just lawyer and client. Unfortunately, Lawrence is more than just a poet, he’s a cad and a scoundrel, complete with a nasty blackmail plot and jealous girlfriend. A little murder soon brings the situation to a head, and John must defend an innocent woman.
Evelyn Prentice, fun and well-paced in its first half, begins to slowdown at the halfway point when the melodrama hits full force. Arguably the greatest romantic pairing to grace the silver screen, Loy and Powell are, individually, terrific in dramas, but not as terrific in dramas with each other. What they are is they’re sweet together, funny together, with far more appealing chemistry in humorous situations than dramatic ones. And a plot that hinges on Powell neglecting and cheating on Loy? Why, that was practically cinematic blasphemy, especially in 1934.
It probably didn’t help that the love thief, to borrow a favorite phrase from The Women, was played by newcomer Rosalind Russell, who does well here but displays almost none of the strength and charm she would become known for later in her career. She’s beautiful and sophisticated but a bit simpering, and there’s nothing about her that makes her as irresistible as she needs to be.
But Mrs. Harrison is just a plot device anyway. The film is about Evelyn, after all, and the big question seems to be whether Evelyn and Larry actually slept together. A truncated scene midway through the movie provides some evidence that, at one point, her infidelity was made clear, and a rather clumsy edit was made at a later date to add ambiguity — and probably to appease some censors who, according to historian Ruth Vasey, were already irritated at the implications of a fade-out during a kiss. Publicity stills hint at the same treatment of Powell’s and Russell’s scenes together, her in a lovely satin dress drowning in sexy fringe, welcoming John into her hotel room in a scene that never made it to the final print.
William H. Mooney writes in Dashiell Hammett and the Movies that Loy insisted on renegotiating her contract after Evelyn Prentice, but studio head Louis B. Mayer refused. Loy went on semi-permanent vacation in Europe while her lawyers worked on Mayer, who became increasingly frustrated at her absence, knowing she was a box-office draw on her own and absolute gold in the Thin Man series. He eventually gave in and she went back to work in classics like Libeled Lady, The Great Ziegfeld and Wife vs. Secretary, the latter of which capitalized on her popular turn in Manhattan Melodrama two years prior, not just by pairing her again with Clark Gable, but by directly imitating the same poses used in publicity stills for Manhattan Melodrama.
If it all sounds like a complicated jumble of actors and plots meant to produce profits rather than quality stories, that’s because it was. The big studios could get away with this most of the time because of their stable of solid writers, directors and stars, and Evelyn Prentice very much benefits from a terrific cast. Una Merkel is a real standout here, full of wit and dressed to the nines, as is Thin Man alumnus Edward Brophy, praised by the New York Times as “reasonably priceless.” Yet another co-star from Thin Man, Henry Wadsworth, is delightful but shamelessly underused. Another point in favor of Evelyn Prentice is its surprise ending, a clever twist that somehow calls back to the lurid Story of Temple Drake, only this time the overheated testimony is tempered by a strict adherence to the Production Code.
Released on DVD a decade ago but long out of print, Warner Archive has re-released Evelyn Prentice in a made-on-demand DVD utilizing the same print. This release also includes two shorts, “Goofy Movies #3” and “Discontented Canary,” the theatrical trailer, and subtitles in English and French.