I must admit I'm straying into largely unfamiliar territory, at least here on Immortal Ephemera, to cover I Found Stella Parish, a Kay Francis weepie of the mid-1930's that's quite honestly not up my typical alley but held my interest through its strong performances. Francis has grown on me in recent months through first time viewings of her superior films, Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Confession (1937) to name two, but despite my own discovery of a new star for my personal canon, Stella Parish was still a bit hard to stomach.
Not that there weren't things I didn't like. It was interesting to see Francis suppress her famed lisp in the earlier scenes which find her Stella Parish a triumph of the London stage. The New York Times in a harsh period review singled out Francis' often charming quirk (think Living on Velvet especially) at the end of its review stating "it makes even more unbelievable the notion that London could regard her Stella Parish as the Duse of the day," to which I disagree. I was listening for it and while she was the Duse of the day she enunciated each and every "r" that Stella Parish delivered. She only turned them into "w's" once she returned to New York, leaving her stage career behind her. Subtle, but worth notice.
Related post: Warren William refuses I Found Stella Parish on Warren-William.com
Ian Hunter is excellent, as is Francis actually--remember, they didn't write this script (Casey Robinson did), they just performed it and they did so well enough to leave me with at least some good memories of I Found Stella Parish. The huge problem here, and maybe I'm just not sentimental enough, is that Ian Hunter's character, the reporter Keith Lockridge, is thoroughly reprehensible. I look down at my notes and see scribbles such as "I.H. is a s____!?!" Not once, but twice, though the second time is just before he begins the impossible attempt to rehabilitate his character. I found his reformation thoroughly unconvincing though it does give Francis some of her juiciest scenes in smacking him into place. Still, by the time we reach the end I'm left thinking she's quite the sucker.
Stella Parish (Francis) is the Duse of her day. The native British public waiting outside the theater so much as confirm it when one refers to American Parish the "First Lady of the English Theatre." Before the debut of her latest show, a historical piece called This Brief Hour, the director, Stephan (Paul Lukas), calls on Stella to wish her luck and offer what has become one of his routine proposals to her. When Stella declines his hand as per usual and then tries to wriggle out of an invitation to a party in her honor Stephan remarks on her phobia and refers to her as a lady hermit. He says she has a deep distrust for every living soul--even him. Stella apologizes, but the conversation is enough for the viewer to realize that Stella's hiding something big.
Stella's performance is a smash and riding the waves of applause she even agrees to attend Stephan's opening night party. Overjoyed at her reception Stella stands at the entrance to her dressing room finalizing plans while we peer at her from over the shoulder of a man's shadow. Turning to see who it is Stella is immediately shocked and upset. The Shadow, speaking in Barton MacLane's familiar voice, tells her that he saw a photo of her in the Rotogravure section of a Chicago newspaper and decided to pay a visit. The jig is up for Stella!
Meanwhile at the party Stephan can't stop talking about Stella to his pal Lockridge (Hunter), who's cynical about Stella and seemingly life in general. Lockridge's generally snide remarks are interrupted by a buzz at the door as Stephan receives a telegram from Stella apologizing not only for skipping the party, but for leaving England to return to the States. Lockridge, previously uninterested in Stella, now has the reporter in him awakened and he retraces her steps right on board a steamship headed to America. There he finagles his way into Stella's life through her daughter, the wonderful Sybil Jason as Gloria Parish, who's on board the ship with her Nana (Jessie Ralph) and Aunt (Francis made up to look older with wig and glasses).
Once docked Lockridge arranges a chance meeting on the streets of New York with little Gloria, Nana and Stella as herself, and manages a lunch date with Stella where he talks incessantly of her Aunt. And here's where I feel bad for Ian Hunter, his Lockridge, up until now a charming enough fellow, begins his relentless pursuit of Stella's past. Perhaps if Stella were not so likable, or even more if she weren't keeping her past locked up in order to protect Gloria, then Lockridge wouldn't seem so contemptible. I get the feeling that we're supposed to like Lockridge even while he's putting all the pieces of the puzzle together, but his determination is ruthless. All the while Stella is not even aware that he's a reporter. Solving the puzzle he finally receives the figurative slap across the face when Stella shocks him by confessing her love for him and voluntarily telling her whole sordid story.
Granted, Lockridge worked his tail off to redeem Stella after her fall, but his excuse of simply being a reporter too wrapped up in his story to bother noticing that Stella had fallen for him falls flat. He had sunk so low in my esteem that I considered the possibility of him slinking off to England and completely out of Stella's life more palatable than his torturing her by trying to earn her love back.
Francis meanwhile enjoys her best scenes of I Found Stella Parish once the story of her past reaches America from Lockridge's paper in England. She's like a caged animal with all of the local reporters surrounding her as she makes the decision to simply sell out to the highest bidder. While these defiant scenes are played perfectly by Francis, all her strength erupting on the screen as she then moves to reenacting her lurid past from the most lucrative stages right down to the vaudeville circuit, we're left to think less of Stella Parish the character who is prostituting her reputation to accept her fate as, as she calls it, a freak, all too gloriously. The character is supposed to be redeemed because she's doing it all for her child, I understand that, but there certainly seemed to be better ways to go about it than selling out so hard that she has to send the kid overseas to avoid hearing about either her past or present.
In a nutshell, I Found Stella Parish: poor script, excellent acting.
Paul Lukas shows up strong in the opening scene then disappears until the very end. I always expect the dastardly from Lukas, simply because he sounds so much like Bela Lugosi, but his Stephan is the kindest character in the film by far, though perhaps that's simply because of lack of camera time. Sybil Jason gets to sing a song in her first scene as Gloria and is cute as a button afterwards. She shares the screen with Hunter in what is Lockridge's sleaziest moment, which finds him peppering questions at the poor child while playing with her, continuously steering conversation towards Stella's past. Disgusting. Jessie Ralph's Nana represents the audience here, carefully watching out for Stella and Gloria and being suspicious exactly when we know she has every right to be so.
The New York Times panned I Found Stella Parish as "a sorry tale and one that has but few redeeming qualities." Both the Times and Variety praise both Hunter and Jason, while the Times rips the story as "too, too tragic" and director Mervyn LeRoy who "directed it in the cadence of a graveyard processional." Variety speaks well of Francis in general though doesn't go into her actual performance.
All that aside, despite its weaknesses, if you like Francis, and especially if you like her when she's suffering, then I Found Stella Parish is for you. If you're not a fan of films that are supposed to make you break out the hankies, well you wouldn't like this even if it were much better. If you fall somewhere in between those two camps, I'd say you can probably find a better alternative without much trouble.
Related post: Warren William refuses I Found Stella Parish on Warren-William.com