Here's The Whole Shocking Story Of So-Called "Friendship Clubs" That Sell Marriage, Companionship and Romance...But Deliver Shame and Extortion!
Speedy but ultimately superficial Monogram exploiter with the wavishing Kay Fwancis. Warner Bros.' fun Archive Collection line of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released Wife Wanted, the 1946 crime meller from Monogram Pictures, directed by tough guy Phil Karlson, and starring Kay Francis, Paul Cavanagh, Robert Shayne, Veda Ann Borg, Jonathan Hale, and Teala Loring. A noir-ishy expose of the corrupt "friendship clubs" in post-WWII L.A., Wife Wanted was former Warner Bros. top star Kay Francis' final feature film; it's a tacky, hurried "Poverty Row" outing, miles removed from the high-toned projects former Top Ten box office star Francis was used to over at the brothers' Warner. No extras for this okay black and white transfer.
Slumping movie star Carole Raymond (Kay Francis) is steered away from unworthy film projects and into property and land sales by her agent, Philip Conway (Jonathan Hale). Conway lets Carole know that real estate magnate Jeffrey Caldwell (Paul Cavanagh) is interested in a female investor who has potentially lucrative connections in Hollywood...and down-on-her-luck Carole neatly fits the bill. She signs with smooth operator Caldwell without realizing he's a crook who not only scams potential land buyers, but also patrons of his other going concern, the Affiliated Friendship Club, a lonelyhearts dating service that offers unadvertised specials in prostitution, extortion, and robbery. Caldwell has big plans for Carole, including using her as a front and buffer for his less savory business activities. When prospective beach house buyer Walter Desmond (Barton Yarborough), who's already been stung in one of Caldwell's phony oil deals and a blackmail scheme at Affiliated, makes it known he's not happy about Carole refusing his advances, Desmond is pushed off the rail of the cliffside beach house fall guy Carole is showing him. Blackmailed now by Caldwell, Carole's only hope is newspaperman Bill Tyler (Robert Shayne), who's working undercover to expose Caldwell's insidious racket.
Does anybody remember Kay Francis today? Whenever I hear her name, it always takes me a second or two to pull up her face...but for the life of me it's tough to identify five big movies of hers that she carried (my own personal test to distinguish an A-lister from just an ordinary "star"). Pushed back into the history books because of changing tastes for the style of acting she employed, her relatively short career as a headliner, and a somewhat dismissive reputation even back then for being a glamorous, decorative "star" in popular but ultimately forgettable fare, Kay Francis' name never seems to come up when fans or documentaries or articles discuss 1930s Hollywood. And yet...she was Warner Bros.' biggest female draw in the mid-30s, and one of the highest paid actors of the decade. However, within just a few short years, her chic, decorative "clotheshorse" roles were wearing thin with the public, which caused friction between her and production head Jack Warner. When that infamous (and studio-dictated, some said...) Independent Theatre Owners Association "box office poison" list came out in 1938 and burned Francis along with other expensive troublemakers like Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Mae West, Fred Astaire, and Katherine Hepburn, the writing was on the wall for Francis, whose pricey, now-unprofitable contract was not renewed in 1939.
Her A-list leading days over, Francis tried her hand at supporting roles in bigger stars' movies during WWII, before she signed a three picture producing/starring deal with "Poverty Row" studio Monogram Pictures in 1945--a truly ignominious turn of events for a star of her former magnitude. The action/adventure home of ultra-cheap-but-popular fare like the Mr. Wong, Charlie Chan East Side Kids/The Bowery Boys series, and scores of B oaters featuring the likes of Bob Steele, Tom Keene, Tim McCoy, Tex Ritter, John Wayne, Ray "Crash" Corrigan, Ken Maynard and Hoot Gibson, Monogram was used to hosting relatively minor stars that had fallen on tough times, but snagging Francis was a big coup, particularly since the studio was just a year or so away from initiating its Allied Artists line of higher-budgeted attractions. Still, the three movies Francis made for Monogram--Divorce, Wife Wanted, and Allotment Wives--did not receive sizeable increases to the standard cheapo Monogram budget, and subsequently, they did absolutely nothing to resuscitate her movie career. She briefly returned to the stage where she began, but failed to regain the level of success she enjoyed in motion pictures.
Quite frankly, you're likely to find as much (if not more) drama in Francis' bio than in Wife Wanted, a pulpy little exploiter that initially seems to promise at least a few of the nastier thrills of better-known post-WWII noir thrillers...before its slap-dash construction reveals how predictably routine it all is in the end. Knowing Francis' own life story, it's amusing at first to see her essentially playing herself in Wife Wanted: a washed-up star on the fringes of Hollywood, winding down her career in seedier circumstances. The set-up is intriguing, too, particularly after Monogram's editing department, courtesy of Ace Herman (The Shanghai Cobra, Torpedo Alley) serves up a coarse little montage of the Affiliated Friendship Club's criminal activities, including a short scene where one of Caldwell's torpedoes presents to an unfortunate client a mocked-up pornographic picture (we hope) of her in a compromising position with one of Affiliated's male prostitutes (squint all you want: you can't tell what in the picture...). Unfortunately, just as this sequence primes us for a tough, dirty little noir from the capable hands of director Phil Karlson (Kansas City Confidential, 99 River Street, The Phenix City Story), the rest of the movie pulls back into censor-approved territory (Francis' poor little friend Teala Loring has been knocked up by a guy...but you really have to sift through the "code" to make that assumption).
The noir elements are certainly there, but they go largely undeveloped as the pedestrian mechanics of the plot are worked out to little dramatic or visual effect. A perfect example of this is blackmailed Francis feeling guilty about stringing along "nice guy" Shayne...who's stringing her along by pretending to be a potential mark-- Wife Wanted's superficial script and hell-bent pace make nothing of this ironic, potentially rewarding subtext. Cavanagh is just right as the super-slick criminal; Shayne is okay in a stock role (a role that readily reveals the hackneyed core of the movie); and Veda Ann Borg is quite good as the snotty, distrustful second-in-command to Cavanagh's empire of evil (her hard face and harder disposition is the most recognizable noir element here). As for Francis, it isn't so much that she's out of her depth here as it is a matter of pitch: she plays her part as if she's in one of her tonier domestic dramas from Warner's, rather than a vulgar little meller from Poverty Row. There's no grit here, no smudge marks on her; she's still "Kay Fwancis," coming off as a trifle above her material when she really needed to get down and wallow in it. It's precisely because of too proper, too "correct" acting choices like this one in Wife Wanted, that she isn't remembered today.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.