Billie Dove … Lady Patricia Hanley Gherardi
Basil Rathbone … Paul Gherardi
Kay Francis … Countess Olga Balakireff
Kenneth Thomson … Dr. Alan Pomeroy
Montagu Love … Sir Thomas Hanley
Philip Strange … Lord Percival Northmore
Malcolm Waite … Higgins, Olga’s Butler
Directed by Lloyd Bacon.
Produced by Robert North.
Based on the play “Fame” by Audrey and Waverly Carter.
Adapted for the screen by Anton Grot.
Set Design by Anton Grot.
Original Music by Cecil Copping.
Cinematography by Ernest Haller.
Film Editing by Frank Ware.
A First National Picture.
Released April 25, 1930.
“One of the most subtle husband-stealing vamps of the screen,” wrote Kenneth R. Porter in the Los Angeles Examiner on June 28, 1930 for his review of A Notorious Affair, “is Kay Francis. It is quite obvious that once she makes up her mind to ‘get’ a man, there is no way out.”
Notorious Affair was Kay Francis’s ninth film and the one which authors Lynn Kear and John Rossman insist made Kay Francis “unforgettable” with movie audiences. Not only does she steal the picture as the nymphomaniac “Countess Olga Balakireff,” but director Lloyd Bacon seemed to have been stolen by Kay himself. He cuts away from the beautiful Billie Dove—technically the film’s real “star”—and Basil Rathbone, Dove’s leading man, to give Kay beautiful close-ups and reaction shots.
So Kay was not only stealing the film with the strongest, most interesting character in A Notorious Affair, but she had the side of the directors and cinematographers who photographed her beautifully in her “butch” coiffure.
Billie Dove had been one of the most popular stars of the silent cinema. While the talking films had slowed down her career considerably, the real reason for her early retirement after Blondie of the Follies (1932) was to have more quality time to spend with her husband, Robert Kenaston, and children. Interestingly, though, Dove was one of the many ingénue/flapper stars of the silent screen, her “dress of beads” in Follies has gone down in Hollywood history as one of the most risque costumes ever photographed. She was the ideal combination of the good girl who knew how to get attention for herself when she knew the right people were watching.
Prior to the film, Basil Rathbone had been an actor on the stage, even appearing with Kay in “Love is Like That” (1927). One of his first major film roles was playing Lord Arthur Dilling to Norma Shearer’s Fay Cheyney in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1929), the first film adaptation of Frederick Lonsdale’s famous play which Kay would revive on the stage in the late 1940s. The success of that movie, one of the most profitable in 1929 despite the stock market crash, had helped him a great deal, scoring him the second lead in this one.
Critics weren’t too enthusiastic about A Notorious Affair outside of strong reviews for Kay Francis’ performance. It was a routine melodrama, and many pointed out that the only aspect of the film which dignified it was Kay, who provided “the most disturbing performance since Hell’s Angels” in one critic’s mind.
At the estate of Sir Thomas Hanley in Surrey, England, a group of pretentious, snobbish “aristocrats” of the “decent society” are finishing what appears to be a game of polo. We’re introduced to the Countess Olga Balakireff, costumed in mannish clothing with a top hat above her butch coiffeur to complete the outfit. They call her “London’s most daring horsewoman” for a reason; she’s up to snuff on her horses, music, and sexual activities.
Patricia Hanley is the daughter of Sir Thomas. He has ideas that she will marry one of his fellow polo players, but she marries a poor violinist at her own intentions. She loves Paul Gherardi, and he loves her, but her father is only convinced he married her for money and position. When she brings Paul back to her father’s to introduce them, there is a dinner party going on in Patricia’s honor. The Countess coldly watches, from a sofa facing a fireplace, Paul being awkwardly introduced to the snobs of England’s upper crust who make no effort to get to know him.
When Paul walks over towards the fireplace, he gently allows his fingertips to slide down the back of the sofa, unintentionally caressing the Countess’s arm. She blows out a slight bit of smoke, and eyes Paul’s tall, thin body up and down, being entranced by his ambition for music and his dark hair and eyes.
In the room with her father, Patricia is told that running off with Paul will sever her connections to her father and the rest of the upper classes. She accepts this, and tells her father she’ll give him their new address as soon as they are settled in. She turns her back on him, and slowly makes her way out the door.
In the main room she finds Paul talking with the Countess, who promises to see them again “very soon…both of you.”
Within a few months, Paul has become a major star because of his own talent, and the same group of Patricia’s who once snubbed him now embrace him and his “world of art.” With his new found fame comes a nervous energy which is taking its toll on Paul’s health. Only Patricia notices this, besides the Countess Balakireff, who uses Paul’s failing health as a way to trap him sexually.
Alone with the Countess in her London mansion, Paul plays for her while she erotically smells and nibbles on a red rose in her hand. She succeeds in sexually seducing him, leading to Paul’s nervous break down and Patricia’s leaving of him. As Paul returns home, Patricia is stunned by his condition and calls for a doctor immediately. The doctor turns out to be an old boyfriend of hers, and Paul’s whining and nagging about his milk being too cold and his room too hot have her fed up with him.
Paul and the Countess have made it to the South of France where he can recover, only the Countess has become sexually bored with Paul and is ready to leave him as soon as she gets herself another man to trap. When Paul does go in for his operation, Patricia remains at his side throughout the whole ordeal. Afterwards, he fakes being sicker than he really is to keep Patricia at his side, feeling that he has proven himself unworthy of her love.
In a not so surprising outcome, Paul’s condition becomes clear to Patricia, and she decides to stay with him anyway because he is the man she really loves.
Despite having the beautiful Billie Dove as its center attraction, Kay Francis and Basil Rathbone are the real stars of A Notorious Affair. Kay does phenomenal with her role as the Countess Olga Balakireff, and there are several incredible reaction shots and close ups of her, whether she be smoking a cigarette, eyeing up her next boy toy, or just plotting her next move in general. Bacon allows her to have private moments of thought on film—something he really doesn’t even do for Billie Dove.
Kay is sleekly gowned throughout most of the film. Her tall, slender figure is complimented by the popular bias cut of the early 1930s, popularized by Norma Shearer in The Divorcee (1930) and Joan Crawford in Our Blushing Brides (1930). Most of the costumes just seem to flow down her gorgeous physique.
Her two best scenes are when she is alone with a man named Higgins in her London mansion and when she is alone with Paul in the same location. In the first scene, she is a completely cold-hearted snake to a man who once loved her, telling him “I think I’ll send you back to the kennels where you belong, Higgins.” In the second, she just coldly stares at Rathbone with her gray eyes, drawing him into a provocative situation he can not avoid. It is that night he finally sleeps with her. Who knows what she did to him in bed, but that is the night which leads to his nervous breakdown.
Basil Rathbone is not convincing as an Italian musical genius. His accent is ridiculous. He does good with his situations, and we as the audience come to almost despise him by the end of the film, seeing him for the real mooch he really is. Dove as Patricia gives her all to him and gets nothing back in return. She could do so much better for herself; she should have married the doctor who helps save his life at the end.
A Notorious Affair is a tiny little film, but its worth a revival for fans of the “vamp” characters so popular at this time. Anyone who likes what Theda Bara or Pola Negri achieved in silents will greatly appreciate Kay’s work in this one.