A title card reads: “Hugh Porteous was the best man at Clive Cheney’s wedding – and he still was, as far as Lady Catherine was concerned.” As such, Lady Catherine (Joan Crawford) decides to leave her husband (Derek Glynne) and run away with his pal Porteous (Frank Braidwood). She pins a note to the PJ’s of her young son Arnold (Buddy Smith) while Porteous is being entertained by Lord Clive in his trophy room—his Lairdship’s showing off a few of the guns he’s collected over the years. The couple then hauls ass and elbows off to points unknown before Clive gets the opportunity to use any of the items in his collection.
Thirty years later, Arnold (Creighton Hale) has grown to manhood and taken a wife of his own, Elizabeth (Eleanor Boardman). (This means, by the way, that she’s Liz Cheney—but let’s not confuse her for the Wyoming Congresswoman [at-large] and evil spawn of the former President Vice President.) Elizabeth invites Lady Catherine and Lord Hugh to Cheney Castle for a visit…but also for another reason. It seems that Liz, too, is entertaining thoughts of leaving her husband (a stuffy sort described by Liz’s girlfriend [Eulalie Jenson] as “a thorough old woman”) and running off with Edward “Teddy” Luton (Malcolm McGregor), her best friend and the man she truly loves. Arnold is quite nervous about being reunited with the woman who abandoned him all those years ago…but he’s also concerned that his father will learn of their reunion, and break out the weapons in response.
Tut tut and pish tosh, Liz assures him—particularly since Lord Clive (Alec B. Francis) has embarked on a hunting excursion. As it turns out, he has not…Clive returns to Casa del Cheney in time to receive the visiting Catherine (Eugenie Besserer) and Hugh (George Fawcett), and while Cleve wistfully muses about his former wife “She will probably be frail, sweet, quiet and lovely” ‘Kitty’ is anything but (she’s more like one of those comical dowagers in screwball comedies). (Husband Hugh is an old fart with ill-fitting false teeth, and he has problems with the film’s censors who keep abbreviating his mild curses as “H—l” and “d—-d.”)
“Man may select a wife–but he should be careful whose wife he selects.” That’s the central premise of The Circle (1925), an adaptation (by Kenneth B. Clarke) of a successful 1921 stage play penned by W. Somerset Maugham. (The movie would later be remade in 1930 under the title Strictly Unconventional.) Seeing Maugham’s name attached to this production made me a little leery about sitting down with it the other night (I grabbed it off The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™) because I’m just not a fan of the man’s work (I had to read Of Human Bondage in high school…and hated every page of it). But in my autumn years, I have warmed up to a few films adapted from Maugham’s novels; Rain (1932—though I like the 1928 version, Miss Sadie Thompson, more), The Letter (1940), Christmas Holiday (1944), and The Painted Veil (2006) being among those movies.
The Circle deals with themes of marital infidelity, and though it’s a comedy it has its fair share of serious moments as well. My favorite is a sequence in which Catherine, angry because of a quarrel with husband Hugh (the pair of them had a blow-up during a game of bridge), is looking through a photo album and finds a picture of herself from thirty years ago (the younger Catherine is played by twenty-year-old Joan Crawford, being groomed for larger roles after appearances in Lady of the Night [1925—as Norma Shearer’s body double] and The Merry Widow ). She’s reluctant to show it to her husband, because the only time she’s going to see twenty-one again is in a game of blackjack…but he looks at the photo and quietly remarks via title card: “You’re just as lovely as ever, Kitty.” It’s a moment that’s so sweet it even managed to crack my cynical shell (I probably had something in my eye, now that you mention it), and it’s witnessing this that spurs Elizabeth to make her decision and leave Arnold.
Overall, I don’t find The Circle too successful a movie…though I don’t regret watching it. It’s just that a happy ending in which Arnold reclaims from Teddy what’s rightfully his (by the laws of marriage anyway) seems a bit out of place because it’s all too apparent Elizabeth doesn’t love him (I don’t know why the two of them wed in the first place, to be honest). It’s clever in its execution, but it just doesn’t ring true (I suspect the sequel to Circle features Liz popping a cap in Arnold, a la The Letter). (Circle’s closing bit, with Clive and Hugh having a hearty yuk about how Arnold made Teddy look stupid, also seems a bit weak.) I watched The Circle because I’ve yet to be disappointed by any of Eleanor Boardman’s films (Tell it to the Marines, Bardelys the Magnificent, The Crowd), and the cast in the film does a splendid job with the farcical aspects (particularly Creighton Hale, whose constant sporting of a monocle made me chuckle for some odd reason). It’s available from the Warner Archive (released in 2012) if you’re curious—it just wasn’t my particular meat.
The Circle earned director Frank Borzage very positive notices from the critics…but because Borzage detested MGM’s policy (instituted by Irving Thalberg) of using other directors to shoot retakes for completed films (as well as the extensive re-editing performed after audience test showings), he decided to migrate to 20th Century-Fox, where he would enjoy even greater success (Street Angel, Lucky Star, They Had to See Paris) His work at Fox earned him two Best Director Oscars—the first for 7th Heaven (1927—which he shared with Lewis Milestone, who directed 1927’s Two Arabian Knights) and the second for 1931’s Bad Girl.