I watched in anticipation of youth struggling against Depression-era Manhattan. There was some struggle and several shots of city streets and elevated trains, but Change of Heart was much more about its characters. I found myself surprised to fall in love with a scene featuring leading man Charles Farrell flat on his back in bed while his very familiar costar Janet Gaynor shaved him.
In a movie that could otherwise be labeled enjoyable, but nothing special, these five-plus minutes of innocent intimacy elevate Change of Heart to memorable. Farrell coos sweet nothings as Gaynor lovingly twists her features to prompt him into maneuvering his own mouth, nose, and cheeks into proper position for her to safely scrape his whiskers away. “Please shut up,” she says more than once when his silly romantic talk causes her to flush. “Oh, I love you,” he says—finally—to which she replies, “You imbecile,” unable to mask her joy. Given their history, on-screen and off, we feel like we’re spying, as Gaynor comes closer to accepting him, a finger brushing sensually over his lip, practically inside his mouth, as she shapes his face to better receive the blade. Finally, “It was always you, Chris,” she tells the Farrell character. “You’re my first love, and my only love, and will be till I die.”
Director John G. Blystone was considered competent at best, but thank goodness he allowed this scene to play out, regardless of length. It’s more sweet than sexy, but that’s what the people would expect from Gaynor and Farrell, and apparently Blystone. A newspaper clipping about the workhorse director that predates this film relates that “Blystone is noted for his clean pictures, never having filmed a scene that was barred by the censors as too risque” (“Blystone Makes”).
A May 1934 release, Change of Heart slips in under the gun to qualify as a pre-Code release, but that’s not at all a selling point in its case. “Right into the very middle of the seething cauldron of the Church's ire against the movies, is flung this pristine purifier,” wrote columnist Florence Fisher Parry in her June 1934 syndicated newspaper review of Change of Heart. Parry called it, “the kind of picture these ‘Legion of Decency’ propagandists should be MADE to see. It is as pure as a May morning, and as sunny as a Song of Spring," though she then concluded, “that it is not up to the usual Gaynor-Farrell standard is beside the point involved.”
Chris loves Madge, but Madge loves Mack, and Mack loves Catherine. After she’s finished shaving him Catherine scolds Chris, “You never asked who’s there for Catherine to love.” Why it’s Chris, of course.
Putting faces to the names, Change of Heart stars Janet Gaynor as Catherine “Kay/Fiery” Furness, aspiring writer; Charles Farrell as Chris Thring, aspiring lawyer; James Dunn as Mack McGowan, aspiring radio crooner; and Ginger Rogers as Madge Rountree, aspiring actress.
Aspirations are all they have at the beginning of the film, which finds the four stars outfitted in caps and gowns at their college graduation. The characters are quickly defined around the campus with Mack (Dunn) begging his father’s permission to go with the others to New York and being met with mock (Irish) comic outrage. Madge’s mother tries to get her to stay and join a local stock company, but Madge (Rogers) insists, “I’m not going to be poor, I’ll tell you that. That’s another reason I’m going to New York.” Quiet Chris (Farrell) holds a letter from his parents who’ve decided to forgo the trip to see his graduation because he can make better use of the cash it would have cost. He wishes they’d come instead. And orphan girl Catherine (Gaynor) flinches as Chris calls her a pal.
“That makes me a sort of momma,” Catherine says, “But not exactly what you’d call a hot momma.”
When she asks Chris what would be his idea of the latter, he eyes up Madge and tells Catherine, “Here she comes.”
After overcoming some parental conflict and financial shortcomings the quartet are soon on a TWA flight from the west coast to Manhattan to embark on life and fulfill the title of the Kathleen Norris novel that the film is based upon, Manhattan Love Song (Not to be confused with the Cornell Woolrich novel of the same title that Monogram released as Manhattan Love Song a few weeks ahead of Change of Heart). Also on board the plane is Shirley Temple in a brief non-speaking role that sees Farrell build her a paper airplane before sending her on her way. This was Temple’s final bit role. Only a couple of weeks after the May 18 opening of Change of Heart, Temple could be seen in Paramount’s Little Miss Marker (1934), her breakthrough performance that led to huge things on her home lot at Fox.
During that same flight Catherine is further tormented by Madge’s confused feelings for the fellas: “Of course, I’m crazy about Chris, but it’s Mack I love.” Catherine further flinches at Chris’s preoccupation with Madge.
“I wonder what New York will do to us,” Chris says to Catherine.
Initial excitement over the big city is quickly tempered by the realities of survival. Dodging the landlady at the dump where they all live—Chris and Mack share one apartment, while Catherine and Madge share another, safely on a different floor—their solidarity is shaken when Madge jumps ship. All at once the rest of the gang find jobs: Mack is on his way to celebrity singing Irish ballads on the Abraham Lincoln Kosher Meats Hour at forty dollars per week; Chris has found law work at eighteen dollars per week; and even Catherine has used her ingenuity to find work at a salvage shop at ten dollars per week.
Excitement runs high as Chris breezes past Catherine to tell disinterested Madge his big news. While they talk Mack arrives and proposes to Catherine, who tactfully turns him down. When Madge announces that she’s moving out to stay with her friend Phyllis (Barbara Bardondess), Mack suggests her interests really lie with Mr. Jackson (Kenneth Thomson), a wealthy man about town who Phyllis had introduced them to. Madge confirms Mack’s accusation and the gang all begin to bicker, cooling themselves as Madge walks out on them. Chris follows. Mack begs off dinner, and Catherine soon leaves to take a room with Harriet Hawkins (Beryl Mercer), proprietress of a salvage shop.
There’s more to Harriet’s salvage shop than meets the eye. “The rich folk come in with the clothes, and I try to make them go out with a baby,” Harriet tells Catherine.
Catherine met Harriet in Dr. Kurtzman’s (Gustav von Seyffertitz) office, where the salvage shop owner takes charge of one of a dozen orphans the doctor is trying to place. Back at her shop Harriet mends donated clothes and donates the ensuing proceeds to a doctor’s nursery, but she always operates with her charitable ulterior motive of placing orphans in good homes. We witness one such instance in a humorous scene that comes off a bit grotesque today.
When Mrs. Mockby (Nella Walker) and her daughter-in-law, also Mrs. Mockby (Drue Leyton), enter Harriet’s shop, Harriet alerts Catherine to emerge with their orphan toddler on cue. Mack is also on hand and begs Catherine to let him play a part in their good deed. Mercer, Gaynor, and Dunn each take on this scene as amateur actors, overacting their bits on purpose and somehow selling the Mockbys on the child while providing viewers with the funniest scene in Change of Heart. Of course, this routine may not be to everyone's taste as the story they concoct to sell the wealthy woman on adopting the baby involves Mack trying to claim the same orphan because his previous adoptee smothered to death in his vaudeville trunk. Oh, you dark, dark Depression!
After Madge runs off with Mr. Jackson, Chris is forlorn. Mack reports to Catherine that he’s unable to locate their friend, but has heard that Chris has quit his job, become ill, and moved to an undisclosed location. Catherine tracks Chris down through a laundry he’s frequented, rescues him, and eventually shaves him in the scene described earlier. After she nurses him back to health they marry, but Change of Heart isn’t without one last complication: Madge returns.
Madge has split from Jackson and takes Chris on as her lawyer, a position that gives her plenty of opportunity to try and steal him from Catherine. The Mockbys resurface as Chris’s employers, and a clock is set when Chris and Catherine have to catch a train to the Mockbys’ Scarsdale residence. As time ticks towards departure we’re treated to Catherine’s confrontation with Madge, and Madge’s last ditch effort to keep Chris from making his train. In the end, Mack shows up one more time and everybody winds up with who they belonged with from the start.
Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell had previously appeared in eleven movies together between 1927-1932. This began with a trio of Frank Borzage classics: 7th Heaven (1927), Street Angel (1928), and Lucky Star (1929). Gaynor was awarded the first Academy Award for Best Actress in 1929 for her work in the first of those two movies (and F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise , which paired her with George O’Brien). The Gaynor-Farrell pairing survived the transition to talkies, though it was impossible for their early talking films to measure up to the high quality of the classics they appeared in together at the end of the silent era. Sarah Baker, author of the excellent dual biography Lucky Stars, writes that Farrell believed his Boston accent hurt him in the talkies, but seems more apt to believe the Farrell family’s theory that “Charlie left Fox because of his relationship with Janet Gaynor” (159-160).Baker writes: “Whether Charlie left because Janet was hurting his career or hurting his marriage (or both) is open to some question, but she clearly played a part in his final decision” (160).
Farrell returned from freelancing to appear in Change of Heart at Gaynor’s request. It was supposed to be the first of two Gaynor-Farrell films that Fox had contracted him for, but marital difficulties caused Farrell to depart Hollywood for London after Change of Heart (Baker 169-172).
As if getting Farrell and Gaynor together again weren’t enough, a Motion Picture Daily report hints that Change of Heart almost boasted a second popular romantic pairing. “Sally Eilers returns to Fox … following a long absence from the studio due to disagreements over stories. The actress goes into ‘Manhattan Love Song’ …”
Eilers rose to fame alongside James Dunn in Bad Girl, the 1931 release that earned director Frank Borzage an Academy Award. Through 1933, Eilers and Dunn had appeared in five films together and would later reunite in two more at Universal in 1936-37. A less reliable source, Modern Screen, had also named Eilers as the fourth member of the Change of Heart cast (under the title The World is Ours at that time). But Eilers either balked over the story, or perhaps the newlywed just wanted to escape Fox to work for her husband Harry Joe Brown at Paramount, which was where she appeared in her next film She Made Her Bed (1934). Not long after the Paramount film Eilers took a break from the screen to give birth to a son, born September 1, 1934. Before I get to far away from Change of Heart, my point is that this film—quite possibly—almost could have starred Gaynor and Farrell alongside Eilers and Dunn, and that would have been a big deal.
Instead of Eilers Change of Heart boasts Ginger Rogers at a most interesting point of her rising trajectory. Rogers had already danced the “Carioca” with Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio (1933), the first of their ten movies together. Moviegoers could begin calling Astaire and Rogers a screen team as of Rogers’s next release after Change of Heart, The Gay Divorcee (1934). In her autobiography Rogers wrote that she enjoyed the experience of working with Gaynor and Farrell even if her role wasn’t a great personal showcase (152).
Change of Heart marked the screen debut of Drue Leyton, who later appeared in three of Twentieth Century-Fox’s Charlie Chan entries starring Warner Oland. Director John G. Blystone is responsible for one other odd Charlie Chan connection. Blystone had directed Warner Oland in the earlier series entry Charlie Chan’s Chance (1932), but the two men had a less happy connection than that. On August 6, 1938, director Blystone had died as a result of a heart attack. His death occurred only a few hours after Warner Oland had passed.
A few other cast mentions: Dick Foran, billed here as Nick Foran, shows up singing Harry Akst’s “So What?” at the party the gang attend after first arriving in New York. Also bobbing around that same party is Mischa Auer. While the part could have been better cast, it was nice to see Gustav von Seyffertitz playing a kind and benevolent character for a change. Frank Moran, later a regular in Preston Sturges titles, has a small speaking role as a mover, whose actions initiate another cute Gaynor-Farrell scene. Joining Shirley Temple in the don’t blink, or you’ll miss them department are Jane Darwell as Mack’s mother, and James Gleason as a Coney Island hot dog vendor. Both of those actors receive a few lines, unlike little Shirley.
Change of Heart was released as a manufactured-on-demand “Cinema Archives” DVD-R from Fox Film Corporation in 2012. It's available for purchase at Amazon.com.
- Baker, Sarah, Lucky Stars: Janet Gaynor & Charles Farrell, Albany, GA: BearManor, 2009.
- “Blystone Makes Record With 46 Successive Films,” Florence Times Daily (AL), 9.
- Parry, Florence Fisher, “On With The Show,” The Pittsburgh Press, June 12, 1934, 24.
- “Jimmy Dunn and Carole Lombard,” Modern Screen, May 1934, 20.
- Rogers, Ginger, Ginger: My Story, New York: Harper, 2008. First published 1991 by HarperCollins.
- “Sally Eilers a Mother,” Reading Eagle, 2 September 1934, 1.
- “Sally Eilers Rejoins Fox,” Motion Picture Daily, 11 January 1934, 7.