British Agent (1934)

Leslie Howard … Stephen ‘Steve’ Locke
Kay Francis … Elena Moura
William Gargan … Bob Medill
Phillip Reed … Gaston LeFarge
Irving Pichel … Sergei Pavlov
Ivan F. Simpson … ‘Poohbah’ Evans
Halliwell Hobbes … Sir Walter Carrister
J. Carrol Naish … Commissioner of War Trotsky
Walter Byron … Under Secretary Stanley
Cesar Romero … Tito Del Val
Arthur Aylesworth … Mr. Henry Farmer
Alphonse Ethier … Paul DeVigney
Frank Reicher … Mr. X
Tenen Holtz … Lenin
Doris Lloyd … Lady Carrister

Directed by Michael Curtiz.
Based on the novel by R.H. Bruce Lockhart.
Screenplay by Laird Doyle.
Art Direction by Anton Grot.
Musical Direction by Leo F. Forbstein.
Music by Bernhard Haun & Heinz Roemheld.
Camera by Al Roberts.
Editing by Thomas Richards.
Gowns by Orry-Kelly.
Still Photography by Homer Van Pelt.

Released September 20, 1934.
A Warner Bros. Picture.

Box Office Information:
Cost of Production: $475,000
Domestic Gross: $532,000
Foreign Gross: $390,000
Total Gross: $922,000

See the Box Office Page for more info.

Background Information:

Aside from what was really a cameo appearance in Wonder Bar,1934 proved to be one of Kay Francis’ most successful years in Hollywood. As a star of the first magnitude, her first film of that year was Mandalay, one of her most famous projects, costarring Ricardo Cortez and directed by Michael Curtiz. She followed Mandalay with her much useless appearance in Wonder Bar, a movie which she shouldn’t have had to make, and then Dr. Monica, a good soapy drama with Warren William which mirrored the ideal type of bizarre scenario which Kay became most identified with.

British Agent brought Kay back into the real world. Well, sort of…

R.H. Lockhart was a real-life man sent to Russia in 1917 to prevent the new Soviet (at the time, Bolshevik) from coming into agreement on a peace deal with Germany. Lockhart published his experiences in Russia into his very popular autobiography, Memoirs of a British Agent, in 1932. Warner Bros. purchased the movie rights shortly afterward with Barbara Stanwyck in mind for the female lead. She turned the property down.

Leslie Howard, one-time lover of Kay’s, was selected to portray Lockhart. A perfect choice, and Warner Bros. chose Kay for the female lead and hyped the film as “two great Warner Bros. stars teamed together for the first time!” The production values were generous by all means, and Jack Warner was rumored to have wanted to even go as far to send a crew to Russia to film authentic scenes.

But don’t be mistaken, despite billing and advertising, this is Leslie Howard’s movie. Kay was likely thrown in the mix for box office attraction, though she was probably the most believable of any of the top female stars of the time as a Russian spy. It was still a very good dramatic picture for her to appear in, especially since another part she was up for that year was the box office bomb and critically dismissed failure Madame Du Barry, which went to Dolores Del Rio.

On a darker note, Kay attempted suicide during the production of the film, and had to wear gloves in certain scenes to hide the deep scars on her wrists. The reason for her attempt still remains a mystery among biographers Lynn Kear, Scott O’Brien and John Rossman.

British Agent was released to positive reviews and seemed to be popular enough with audiences to be mentioned over ten years later in one of Kay’s post-Hollywood theater ads as “one of her most memorable films.”

More information on Lockhart.

Webmaster’s Review:

In 1917 Russia was on the break of a political revolution. Steven Locke, an unknown British diplomat, is at a party at the British embassy as tension fills the streets. During the party, shots are fired through the glass windows and a large gathering of Russian protesters take to the streets, fighting the soldiers who were against the German services in the First World War. American and English servicemen are stationed in Moscow and St. Petersburg to keep an eye on the situation. If the Russian revolt should overthrow the government, it could mean that the Germans could have an enormous boost in man power against the allies fighting in Europe.

As the party at the embassy is shot up during the protest, Elena, a young Russian woman fighting with the Red army, fires a shot at an officer who’s beating a young mother with her child in her arms. As he turns and makes his way to kill Elena, she runs onto the embassy property, where she is saved by Locke. The two exchange brief words, and she thanks him for saving her life, but that she is opposed to the current conditions of Russia and is firm on being a part in a help to overthrow the government.

Steven and Elena meet up again at a Russian tavern. She attends with Pavlov, one of the higher ups in the resistance. That night, Steven and Elena leave for his residence where they make love. During the course of the night they come to terms that they are on two very different political grounds. He is working to keep the White Army in power while she’s working to overthrow it, believing that it will better Russia and its people in return.

Everything comes to a head when Lenin, one of the most important men in the revolution, has been shot and remains in critical condition. The revolutionists want to frame Locke as the shooter.

As the story goes on, Elena begins to break Steven’s trust. While she’s honest, straightforward and he agrees she’s never lied to him, certain pieces of information which he has told her in confidence have been used to build a case against him. As a result, the revolutionists want Locke to be arrested and either deported or executed.

As gunfire ensues between both parties, several of Locke’s assistants are murdered and his home is raided. Hiding in an attic, his friend Bob Mendill is arrested and tortured for information leading to Locke’s arrest. Using Elena, they find out the location of Locke, and plan to execute him by firing up the building, which Elena has told them contains enough ammunition to blow the entire thing to pieces.

Still in love with Steven, Elena goes to the flat to die with him. While waiting for the final moments of her life to take place, there is a big demonstration in the streets. Lenin has survived and the people arrested and jailed as possible suspects have been released.

Steven and Elena are free to leave for England to begin a new life together

This is one of the realest films Kay Francis ever appeared in. While Lothar Mendes and John Cromwell coached her how to act in movies during her years at Paramount, it can easily be argued that it was under Warner Bros. directors William Dieterlie and Michael Curtiz (who directed this film) that she gave her greatest performances and established herself as the actress and star most remember her as.

The film has a very real Russian feel to it. Not only because there is so much of the language being spoken in the film and by the rioters, but it just doesn’t feel like it was filmed on a Hollywood studio soundstage. Everything about it is realistic. The sets are not extravagant (except for the opening party at the British embassy), but the production values are still solid by the amount of people and action in the film.

While this is a great showcase for Kay Francis, this is really a Leslie Howard film. As the title character, he gets nearly all of the attention, but Kay is still showcased to a great advantage. She does hold much of the attention of the audience. With the exception of the opening ten minutes or so of the film, and the time period in which Locke is in hiding, Kay has one of her best roles as a woman torn between what her heart is telling her to do for herself and her love for Steven, and what she has to do for her country. It’s one of her best characters up until this point. She’s convincing and subtle throughout, and in her many teary-eyed scenes she conveys so much emotion without overdoing anything. Her sensitivity and dilemma garner much sympathy from viewers.

Curtiz, who had just directed her beautifully in Mandalay, would go on to direct her in equally good performances in Stolen Holiday and Another Dawn. But it’s easy to see why some of Kay’s fans don’t like British Agent. This isn’t the standard “woman’s film” that most would associate Kay with. It’s decidedly a picture geared towards male moviegoers of the mid-1930s, and clearly it didn’t miss its goal. The film was one of the more successful films for Warner Bros. of that year.

Kay doesn’t have elaborate makeup, hair, or fancy Orry-Kelly gowns. While she’s still beautifully photographed and has several great camera shots (and looks great in her leather coats), the glamour here is virtually nonexistent.

British Agent was the only film Kay made with Leslie Howard. Personally, I have never really been a big fan of his, finding him an odd combination of overly intelligent and stern yet wimpy and flamboyant at the same time. Still, this is one of the best films I have ever seen him in. Other roles I have seen him in include A Free Soul, Smilin’ Through, Of Human Bondage, the Petrified Forest, Romeo and Juliet, and Gone with the Wind. Honestly, I think British Agent was his best performance out of the entire bunch.

William Gargan, Cesar Romero, and Irving Pichel are also good.

In regards the to the story and the plot, British Agent is definitely a film which requires more than one viewing to fully understand everything that’s going on. Some of the characters appear briefly, but are referenced extensively in later scenes.

A good action and suspense film, British Agent definitely offers Kay Francis fans a major departure for her usual glamour assignments in one of her best performances.

Vintage Reviews:

By Arnold Sennwald. Published September 20, 1934 in the New York Times.

A situation richly veined with striking dramatic values has been utilized with considerable vitality in “British Agent,” which was presented at the Strand yesterday. Against the lurid backdrop of the Russian upheaval and collapse during the war, the Brothers Warner dramatize an episode from R. H. Bruce Lockhart’s autobiographical chronicle of last year. As Britain’s unofficial emissary to the revolutionary government, Leslie Howard is enormously helpful to the drama, while the momentous and delicate climaxes which crowd the story come to life on the screen in vigorous melodramatic style.

There is an unfortunate irony implicit in the structure of the photoplay which (it seems to this corner) prevents “British Agent” from conveying to its audiences the full impact of its material. Although the love of the young Briton and the fascinating Russian spy has been described with the proper tenderness and urbanity, it still fails to escape a rather furiously unimportant appearance alongside of the really great events with which the new film is concerned. The unofficial ambassador, in Mr. Howard’s excellent performance, is so passionately chauvinistic in his blind devotion to Great Britain that when his country betrays him and jeopardizes his life for the sake of diplomatic appearances, the tragedy is infinitely touching. When, thereafter, Mr. Howard and his passionate Russian begin to suffer over their personal difficulties, with an epoch-making revolution for a background, their romantic woes have a tendency to seem less than important to the spectator. In addition it is the misfortune of “British Agent” to contain in its dialogue a line in which Kay Francis boldly announces to her lover that she is a woman first and a Cheka spy second, or words to that effect.

In any event, “British Agent” immerses its hero in a first-rate dramatic situation. This is 1917, and the war-weary Russians, with Lenin at their head, are on the point of negotiating a separate peace with Germany. The situation is of the gravest importance to the Allies because such a settlement would permit the Central Powers to release new divisions from the Eastern front and hurl them against the exhausted Allied armies in the west. Great Britain, helpless to deal directly with the new government because of her failure to recognize the Bolshevist régime, commissions Stephen Locke to represent her unofficially. Unable to call upon his own country for help, in constant fear of having his unofficial promises to Russia officially rejected, the young man attempts to persuade the Russians to withhold the peace agreement. When Downing Street betrays him he finds himself alone and in disrepute. Finally he joins the counter-revolutionaries, fails in an attempted coup d’état, and in the Cheka’s reign of terror narrowly escapes with his life.

Michael Curtiz has staged the drama capably, painting in the scenes of revolution and violence with swift and convincing strokes. Mr. Howard’s performance, played in a key of high nervous tension and desperate courage, is all the more impressive after his totally different and equally fine performance in “Of Human Bondage.” He has the best of assistance from William Gargan, Ivan Simpson, Halliwell Hobbes and J. Carroll Naish, while the dark-eyed and vibrant Miss Francis makes a handsome undercover agent for the Cheka.

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