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One of the more famous between-the-wars scandals in France was the Stavisky Affair, the case of a high-stakes swindler who lived like a king and masked his crimes by manipulating other rich people, government ministers, police officials and newspaper owners. Stavisky was finally stopped in 1934, but part of the government came down with him. Stavisky contributed to the instability of France at a time when the Nazi threat was growing.
French director Alain Resnais made a movie of Stavisky in 1974. I've watched it three times and still haven't figured out exactly what was going on. So I was surprised to discover that much the same story had been adapted as a 1937 romantic vehicle for Warners star Kay Francis. Directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Claude Rains as a charming, wily "financier", Stolen Holiday is an undiscovered little gem. After a bold disclaimer up front that the story and the characters are all fiction, it proceeds to copy many details in the Stavisky case, right down to a rather controversial ending.
In 1931, the ambitions of fashion model Nicole Picot (Kay Francis) get a head start when she's contacted by the impoverished hustler Stefan Orloff (Claude Rains), who needs to convince a rich investor that he's a a successful financier. Nicky provides eye candy for the evening, and that combined with Stefan's rented car and clothes puts them both in business. By 1936 Nicky is the proprietress of the most profitable fashion house in Paris. She's still the best of friends and a close associate of Stefan, who has made himself one of the richest men in France. But everything changes over a holiday weekend in Geneva. Stefan invites her as camouflage for an enormous bond swindle he has in the works, that involves a web of dishonest partners in banks, pawnshops (which in France function almost like banks) newspapers and even the police. While Stefan is busy with his co-conspirators Nicky falls in love with diplomat Tony Wayne (Ian Hunter). But this is when the investigators uncover Stefan's complicated schemes, and begin arresting hisassociates. Stefan has only one fallback position: if he can get Nicky to marry him, he'll be able to hide behind the reputations of her society friends. Nicky breaks off her romance with Tony out of plain loyalty ... she knows nothing of Stefan's chicanery and is unaware that he's being totally dishonest with her.
Made in the second half of the 1930s, Stolen Holiday generates a bit of European flavor, a nice feat for director Curtiz considering that this was on a modest Warners budget as opposed to an MGM show. The Burbank Airport stands in for Orly and Big Bear above San Bernardino approximates the Swiss Alps. This reviewer can't evaluate the film's two fashion show scenes -- a requirement for women's pictures of this era -- but the dresses look impressive without the exaggeration seen in similar scenes in, say, The Women. When Kay Francis shows off what is supposed to be a fantastic, head-turning evening gown at a fancy reception, both the dress and the star are up to the challenge. Spurred on by her card-reading advisor Suzanne (Alison Skipworth), Nicky Picot has one of those fantasy flings with a new beau in a conveniently empty Swiss chalet. They make a big meal in the kitchen but can't force themselves to kill a pair of doves (awww) for the meat course. As they're both wealthy VIPs, it's assumed that the locals won't mind them breaking and entering, and helping themselves to whatever's available. It's romantic!
Meanwhile, the wonderfully charming Claude Rains has a field day with his portrait of
The conclusion manages to wrap up all the loose ends according to the Production Code rules of 1937. Nicky and Stefan have been platonic friends for five years, and the the show takes pains to insist that she's not having sex with anybody. Nicky even discusses the need not to go crazy during their hayride back to town (what kind of lousy hayride is that?). The breaking of the scandal is represented by a riot on the streets of Paris and the trashing of Nicky's fancy fashion salon. Yes, the movie suggests that financial crimes are bad because they give political radicals an excuse to destroy society -- the unspoken counter-suggestion is that the rabble otherwise has no legitimate gripes.
The real Stavisky Affair kept France in a muddle because it was suggested that Stavisky's suicide was faked, that he was in actuality murdered to shield more corrupt politicians and millionaires from exposure. The doubt and distraction of the scandal contributed to the ineffectuality of the French government right up to the start of WW2. France had a formidable army, but the Germans were able to overrun the country in a few days because everything was in political chaos. To avoid spoilers, I'll discuss Stolen Holiday's conclusion in another footnote.
There's also another contentious issue that needs to be discussed with Stolen Holiday... anti-Semitism. Stavisky was a Russian Jew, and Stefan Orloff identifies himself as Russian. As pictured by Casey Robinson's screenplay, Orloff fits a lot of bigoted notions regarding Jews and money. Orloff has no family and no real friends, only victims and partners that he's willing to sell out at a moment's notice. His wealth is based on dishonesty and the illusion of stability, when he's really (the movie's inference) a parasite sucking riches out of the French economy. Orloff sets up one scam when he sells bonds against the assets of a chain of pawnbrokers: the jewelry in the vaults are fakes and Orloff has sold the real stuff. When that scam shows signs of falling through he moves on to another, in sort of a pyramid swindle that requires bringing in "partners" to share his culpability. In Geneva we see Orloff ante up $2 million of his own money to reap $200 million when investors buy his worthless bonds. If Stavisky really pulled off scams on a scale like this, it would be easy for anti-Semitic opportunists to blame Jews for financial disasters. Fascists in both Europe and America screamed that thieving Jewish financiers were responsible for back room deals that brought about wars. This isn't irrelevant history -- the same kind of vicious scapegoating contributes to America's present dysfunctional disunity.
Stolen Holiday shows the charming Orloff in a partnership with Nicole Picot, and Nicky never dreams that Stefan's entire M.O. is an extension of the kind of tricks he was pulling when she met him. Nicky is not just a virgin, but also innocent. The movie's conclusion was acceptable to all. She drops her foolish notions of being a big business woman and becomes a housewife for the dull diplomat Tony, so the censors at the Production Code Office must have been pleased with themselves. The Production Code would only allow a movie to dissect a giant scandal, if it happened in some other country. Stolen Holiday presents a reasonably sophisticated, adult-world swindle, but insists that its characters remain within a childishly narrow range of 'morally approved' behaviors.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Stolen Holiday is a good transfer of this nicely-shot B&W show (by Sid Hickox). The titles are a bit worn but most of the rest of the film is in great shape. This was about halfway through Kay Francis' stellar movie career, and even at age 32 some of her close-ups are filmed through considerable gauze. It must have been the style of the time, sort of an alternative to cameo vignetting in the silent days, because the beautiful Ms. Francis seems entirely wrinkle-free.
The disc includes an original trailer, that sells Stolen Holiday as a Kay Francis romance. But it's really Claude Rains' movie all the way.
By the way, the principals are shown flying from Paris to Geneva in a large and ungainly four-engined passenger biplane. It's the most rickety, unsafe-looking thing I ever saw.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Stolen Holiday rates:
1. According to the IMDB, Alex D'Arcy was only 19 years old when this movie was made ... this explains why he looks so young throughout his career -- even in Roger Corman's The St. Valentine's Day Massacre thirty years later!
2. (spoiler) The movie follows the Stavisky case closely but leaves no doubt as to Stefan Orloff's fate. He hides out in a mountain retreat. When he's shot, a police official -- one of Stefan's former cronies, Dupont (Frank Conroy) -- tells Nicky that it was suicide, but we see the police staging an official photo to make it look like suicide. A previous scene shows Dupont's complicity in the swindles caught by his superior -- it's clear that Stefan's death is a murder committed to protect the public image of the police force. Disclaimer or no, this is a pretty raw slap to the French, who regularly censored American films that besmirched the character of their institutions (no matter how appropriately).
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T'was Ever Thus.