Transgression (1931)

Kay Francis … Elsie Maury

Paul Cavanagh … Robert Maury
Ricardo Cortez … Don Arturo de Borgus
Nance O’Neil … Honora ‘Nora’ Maury
Doris Lloyd … Paula Vrain
John St. Polis … Serafin, Arturo’s Butler
Ruth Weston … Viscountess de Longueval
Adrienne D’Ambricourt … Elsie’s Maid

Directed by Herbert Brenon.
Produced by William LeBaron.

Based on a novel by Kate Jordan.
Adapted by Elizabeth Meehan.
Dialogue by Benn Levy.
Original Music by Max Steiner.
Costumes and Sets by Max Ree.
Cinematography by Leo Trevor.

An RKO-Radio Picture.
Released June 12, 1931.

Box Office Information:
Cost of Production: $279,000
Domestic Gross: $269,000
Foreign Gross: $41,000
Total Gross: $310,000
Film Lost: $85,000

See the Box Office Page for more info.


Transgression was the second film adaptation of Kate Jordon’s 1921 novel, The Next Corner. The first had been directed by Sam Wood, and the film starred Conway Tearle, Dorothy Mackaill, Ricardo Cortez, and Lon Chaney. What makes the sound remake so notable for Kay Francis fans is that it is not only the first Kay Francis movie to just feel like a Kay Francis movie, but it gave her the first real opportunity in her entire motion picture career to be the real leading lady in a decent film.

It was a chance many didn’t seem to want to make.

A reviewer for one of Kay’s earlier pictures had stated that it was “doubtful this brunet beauty would ever achieve top stardom.” Certainly her typecasting in supporting vamp roles limited her somewhat during her first year in Hollywood, but by the time Transgression was made she was on the rebound. She had diversified her career seriously with roles in Street of Chance (1930) and Ladies’ Man (1931), two of her Paramount films which gave her a significant departure. Metro Goldwyn Mayer offered her a first top-billed role in Passion Flower (1930), a B movie in which Kay shared the spotlight with Charles Bickford and Kay Johnson. But Paramount again sentenced her to small roles in glorified programmers.

When other studios began to take interest in Paramount’s exotic beauty, she received some of her best roles that pushed her up in popularity considerably.

Though her star treatment is nothing like the way Warner Brothers pampered to Kay in her upcoming years, she’s still the center of Transgression, surrounded by a decent selection of great actors and production value. The sets are impressive, and the picture looks probably more expensive than it actually was to make. Everything is furnished with chandeliers, well designed architecture, and overly exaggerated, beautiful furniture.

Paul Cavanagh, who plays Kay’s husband, had appeared in films with Loretta Young, Myrna Loy, Constance Bennett, and Ruth Chatterton by the time he was loaned out from Fox to appear with Kay in this one. Previously, he had worked with her in The Virtuous Sin (1930), the second of three on screen parings between Kay and Walter Huston. Ricardo Cortez, who had a lengthy career in silent films, had never worked opposite Kay before, and was paired with her in three more films when she switched over to Warner Brothers.

Director Herbert Brenon’s work in such silent film classics as Sorrell and Son (1927) and Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928) had him highly regarded as one of the most interesting men in pictures. But when talkies arrived, he had trouble adjusting to the new form of movie making and eventually ended his career indefinitely a few years after Transgression’s release.

Today the film survives as an example of why he didn’t make it. Though the picture is considerably enjoyable, it doesn’t seem to be as impressive as it should when a director like Brenon was in charge.

Transgression was a popular enough hit with audiences to have other studios bidding on Kay’s services from Paramount. It was the ideal soapy melodrama that audiences loved so much at the time. After this she went to MGM to appear in the excellent Guilty Hands (1931), and finished her Paramount contract less than a year later.

Webmaster’s Review:

Elsie Maury is the young wife of Robert, a mining engineer who must go to India for over a year on an expedition. Since his older sister Honora, an old maid, constantly criticizes and belittles Elsie out of jealousy, Robert has decided to send Elsie over to Paris where she won’t be lonely.

“Paris can be just as lonely as the English countryside,” Honora insists. “Or it aught to be if one behaves oneself.”

Robert has made up his mind, he knows Elsie will be happier with their friends in Paris. One friend in particular, Paula Vrain, acts as an escort for Elsie, introducing her to the Paris lifestyle and atmosphere. At a beauty salon Elsie is remade from doughty young ingénue into sophisticated Parisian socialite.

She and Paula attend all of the fashionable parties, one of which leads Elsie to be introduced to a mutual friend of Paula’s, Don Arturo.

Elsie and Arturo innocently flirt with each other, but Elsie tries her hardest to remain loyal to Robert, whom she knows really loves her for the young, naïve ingénue she once was, not a sophisticated, stylish party girl in beautiful gowns and hats.

A year goes by, and Robert’s time in India has come to a close. He goes to Paris to see Elsie, and is taken back by her maturity, but, most importantly, her resistance of him. When he takes her in his arms she presses her hand on his chest to keep him at a distance. When he goes to kiss her, she makes it brief and pulls away.

Robert is begins to wonder if she still loves him.

They agree to meet in England in a few days, since Robert has some business to take care of, and Elsie wishes to say good-bye to the friends she’s made over there.

During those few days, Elsie visits Arturo’s villa in the Spanish countryside, where he plans to seduce her. Right before they make love, she decides that she has to write a letter to Robert, telling him that their marriage is over, then she can willingly have sex with Arturo without feeling remorse.

As soon as the letter is sent out, a suspicious man arrives. He is the father of a sixteen-year-old girl who was also seduced by Arturo, and died having his child. He warns Elsie to beat it, and when Arturo attempts to silence him, the man pulls a gun out and shoots him dead. Elsie leaves right away for the train station, hoping to catch that letter before it is mailed out.

Unfortunately, she is too late.

Taking a plane back to England, Elsie makes a way of getting the mail every day before Robert can get that letter. Honora becomes suspicious of this, and she and Robert have a final falling out over Elsie which ends in her leaving forever.

When Arturo’s servant Serafin arrives at the Maury estate to blackmail Elsie into getting Robert involved in a shady business deal. He has the letter that Elsie had written, and plans to show it to Robert if Elsie opens her mouth, but she doesn’t care. She tells Serafin that she is going to tell Robert what did and did not happen in Spain the minute he enters the room. Robert hears all of this, and when he walks in, he tells Serafin to get lost.

Because of her loyalty and devotion to Robert, Elsie insists that he read the letter, but it turns out to be a blank piece of paper. She realizes that the letter must have been burned by mistake when Arturo threw several of them into the fire, but wants to tell Robert what happened their anyway.

He refuses to listen, and they agree to continue on together.

This is one of my guilty favorite Kay Francis films, along with A Notorious Affair (1930) and Allotment Wives (1945). It’s not a good film. Her acting is not consistent. And there are so many bizarre twists and turns in this one that I can’t help but love it.

First of all, I like the way the plot and dialogue connect. Kay Francis, who could not pronounce her R’s, is married to a man named Robert and they have a dog named Rex. She stays in Paris while he is on an expedition. She has an affair with a man named Arturo. She is not liked by her sister-in-law, Honora, and surrounds herself with people with names like Serafin and Paul Vrain. Does everyone notice the consistent R pattern here? In nearly every sentence she is mispronouncing those R’s as W’s, something I always get a kick out of when I watch Kay Francis.

This is especially worthy of mention when she is at Arturo’s villa in the Spanish countryside. “That letter! I must get that letter!” She makes some odd facial expressions, bulging her eyes and making them look like they are about to pop out of her head while she lets her mouth hang open with an overly exaggerated shocked look on her face. The only scenes that top this are the opening ones where she is about as dim-witted and naive as one could possibly imagine.

For the New York Times to give her praise for a “clear portrayal” is beyond me. She is anything but clear, and, as I mentioned before, all over the place in her characterization as Elsie Maury, but I still like this as campy fun.

When people talk about Kay Francis not being able to act, it’s the films like Transgression they are talking about. Her beautiful hairstyles and stylish costumes do make an impression, I might add.

Paul Cavanagh has a thankless role as the husband, though he is believable as a man who can see that Elsie really does love him, despite of her drastic change during her year in Paris without him.

The one who does best here is Ricardo Cortez as Arturo. This is a good one to see him in. He’s capable in his performance, and does great with his Spanish pronunciations, considering he was in fact Austrian in real life.

Kay biographer Scott O’Brien pointed out that Herbert Brenon, the man who directed Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928), among a long list of highly-regarded silent films, never master the sound picture. Transgression is perfect proof of that. While the story stays on track, his work is especially mediocre, almost as if it was directed by a newcomer, or someone with little experience in filmmaking.


Vintage Reviews:

By Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times.
Published: June 15, 1931
Herbert Brenon’s picture, “Transgression,” an offspring of a novel by Kate Jordan, is for the most part an intelligently filmed story, parts of which are directed so admirably that one wonders why some of the weak spots were overlooked. It is not endowed with any great degree of subtlety and the comings and goings of the characters are set forth a trifle too abruptly.

This production, which is at the Mayfair, is, however, quite a plausible affair and Mr. Brenon has succeeded in eliciting the spectator’s interest and the closing scenes are by no means stereotyped. There are also some compelling atmospheric effects in some of the sequences.

Kay Francis impersonates Elsie Maury, whose husband, Robert, played by Paul Cavanagh, finds it necessary to go to India for a prolonged period. No great love is lost between the two and this accounts for Elsie’s becoming infatuated with Don Arturo soon after they meet in Paris. When Maury returns from his engineering expedition to India, Elsie is somewhat loath to abandon Arturo. She tells her husband in the French capital that she will follow him to England, and he is quite satisfied.

Elsie thus has time to think over her affection for Arturo and weigh it against what affection she has for her husband. Arturo wins and she goes with him to Arturo’s villa on the fringes of Spain. Once there the first thing she does is to pen a letter to Maury informing him of her love for another man.

It is not long after this that a peasant turns up at Arturo’s villa and exposes the affair between his daughter and Arturo. The girl died and her mother passed away soon afterward. After making this announcement the peasant shoots and kills Arturo while Elsie is in the room.

It is then a matter of Elsie’s returning to her husband and trying to get there before the letter in which she confessed her love for Arturo reaches Maury. Mr. Brenon has done excellent work in those scenes where the wife anxiously awaits the letter. Her worry over the missive and the spying on her by Maury’s sister, Honora, add to the interest and impressiveness of these passages.

Toward the close there is a suggestion of blackmail by Arturo’s servant, Serafin, and Maury overhears the conversation between his wife and the Spaniard. What has gone before is to Elsie merely water under the bridge. At the moment she has decided that her husband’s love is well worth while having. And he, despite a chance to hear the full details of his wife’s adventure, refuses to listen to anything. He dismisses the blackmailer after information concerning the missing letter is revealed.

Maury has an imposing home, and therefore at one point it is rather surprising to hear him ask his wife if she has enough food in the house for an extra person. Also it strikes one as being rather careless to tell a blackmailer to get out of the room without seeing that he is escorted out of the house.

Miss Francis gives a clear portrayal. Paul Cavanagh is excellent as the husband. Another expert performance is that of Nance O’Neil, who handles the rôle of Honora Maury. Ricardo Cortez is acceptable in the part of Arturo, but he is too much given to smiling through his part. Mr. Cortez is to be seen on Broadway in three pictures. The others are “Big Business Girl” and “The Maltese Falcon.”

From Modern Screen, September, 1931:


Lobby Cards:transgressionlobby2transgressionlobby1


Theater front in New York, September 1931:uticanynewstanleytheatersept1931