In today's world of cinema, a remake, reboot, preboot, prequel, or sequel is about as easy to find as a pregnant lady in a maternity ward. Ultimately, it's all about branding: a title (or character) studios can mercilessly milk the money of consumers out of until even the most die-hard Transformers fans say "Enough already!", less the studios lose their limited rights to the property in question. And, while it may come as something of a surprise to younger generations, Hollywood has never been terribly shy about remaking a movie in order to keep up with the times. Or at least lure the latest audiences in to make a buck or two.
A recent DVD release from the Warner Archive Collection, dubbed the Kind Lady Double Feature, presents us with two different versions of the same title, made 16 years apart.
Following the birth of the Talkies in the late 1920s, Hollywood became particularly enamored with adapting plays into films, as the stage was still a highly popular medium for storytelling. From a stage perspective, however, there was no better form of media to borrow from than that of a published piece. In the instance of Kind Lady, the tale started out as a 1932 story by Hugh Walpole entitled The Silver Mask before being transformed into a play by Edward Chodorov in '35, wherein the Edwardian Era story adopted its new name. Later that same year, moviegoers were introduced to MGM's first filmed version of the story-cum-stage play by screenwriter Bernard Schubert.
Directed by former serial pioneer (and future Andy Hardy director) George B. Seitz, 1935's Kind Lady stars forgotten stage star Aline MacMahon (The Man from Laramie) as Mary Herries, a wealthy (and rather young) old maid with a heart of gold. One fateful evening around Christmas, she notices a handsome poor artist type in front of her residence. Inviting him in to ensure he doesn't go hungry during the one time a year even the rich are supposed to care (per the ideologies they tend to be hypocritical over), Mary soon discovers the man ‒ Henry Abbott (the one and only Basil Rathbone) ‒ may not be the talented undiscovered painter she initially thought he was.
And indeed, he isn't. The cold hard truth of the matter is: Abbott is a crook, nothing more. Deviently worming his way back into her home via a sick wife and kid sob story before bringing in a group of friends, Abbott meticulously begins to take over Mary's entire house, life, and ‒ most importantly ‒ her fortune. The purpose behind it all? To confiscate all of the Kind Lady's vast fortune and abscond with it into the night. As Mary and her faithful doomed housekeeper Rose (Nola Luxford) slowly learn the horrible truth, Mary's loving nephew (Frank Albertson, Room Service) tries to figure out why his favorite auntie has suddenly taken off for America without any rhyme, reason, or notification.
Co-starring Mary Carlisle, Dudley Digges, Doris Lloyd, and the great Donald Meek, Kind Lady is ‒ for all accounts and purposes ‒ a Basil Rathbone vehicle. Still a few years away from gaining everlasting fame as both Sherlock Holmes and the antagonist to Errol Flynn's equally immortal Robin Hood, Rathbone gleefully chews up every piece of scenery as he goes from a smooth-talking, down-on-his-luck artist to a completely abhorrent slimeball. Shortly thereafter, Sir Basil would play a similarly devious ‒ and far deadlier ‒ foe in the obscured Love from a Stranger, which I heartily recommend seeing if you enjoy watching him go from bad to worse.
Moving onto the 1951 version of Kind Lady, we find something enjoyably different from the previous film. This time directed by the one and only John Sturges (Bad Day at Black Rock, The Great Escape), MGM's second and final attempt to rebrand the tale proved to be a failure at the box office, all-but sentencing the story to obscurity. Which is a pity, really, as Sturges' pacing in this 78-minute thriller is much better than it was in the 76-minute original. This time around, our Kind Lady is depicted as an elderly woman (as opposed to MacMahon's presumably middle-aged Mary), brought to life by an equally elderly Ethel Barrymore.
This time, our antagonist is portrayed by a villain boasting an entirely different sort of devilish flair, Maurice Evans. Best-known to the few contemporary audiences who still remember him as Dr. Zaius in the first two Planet of the Apes films and as Samantha's warlock father on Bewitched, Evans' portrayal of Henry Springer Elcott (as the character is named in this version) is an enjoyable contrast to Rathbone's Henry Abbott. Simultaneously sophisticated and slimy (as was Evans' method when it came to playing the bad guy), it is Elcott who makes the first move on the Kind Lady this time around, appearing at her doorstep to admire her antique knocker.
(That was singular, you knuckleheads, not plural.)
After gaining the confidence of the old hag with his knowledge of art, Elcott also pulls the "gravely-ill spouse and child" malarky before infiltrating Miss Mary's home with his own gang of crooks. But it's said crooks who pose as servants here that will surely gain the attention of any classic movie or TV buff, as they are played by the dynamic combination of Keenan Wynn and Angela Lansbury! And, even though Mr. Wynn's British accent leaves a lot to be desired (as does Maurice Evans filling in for Basil Rathbone; although, in all fairness, he did make a better substitute for Frank Gorshin than John Astin ever could on TV's Batman), he still makes for a great B-movie heavy here.
Whereas 1935's Kind Lady stayed (perhaps) truer to its stage source in regards to its setup and execution, Sturges' film certainly is the more "suspenseful" of the two. And, while you pretty much already know what to expect in the 1951 version after viewing its cinematic predecessor, it still manages to alter the course of the cruise enough to show you a few new attractions ‒ including turning a minor part (originally played by Donald Meek) from the first film into a meatier, more investigative character (this time played by John Williams) and removing Mary's boring nephew altogether. Doris Lloyd appears in this version, too, although this time as one of Barrymore's friends.
Each film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio with mono English audio, and the trailer for the '51 version is the only extra. Presented on a dual-layer MOD disc, the Warner Archive Collection's Kind Lady Double Feature is just one more excellent example of what the WAC has to offer to classic movie enthusiasts. As a fan of both Basil Rathbone and Maurice Evans (to say nothing of Keenan Wynn and Angela Lansbury), it was nothing short of sheer delight to see two entirely different actors portray the same dastardly character. It's equally fascinating to check out the future director of The Magnificent Seven honing in on his craft in the latter production.