When Warner Archive sent out the e-mail outlining their latest batch of releases, all it took was “Kay Francis” and “noir” to push me to request the c-level Monogram Pictures release Wife Wanted (1946). Francis, the refined beauty with a great sense of comedic timing in Trouble in Paradise (1932), was one of Warner Bros. biggest stars during the mid-1930s. However, her good fortune did not last long and she was quickly dubbed box office poison. Wife Wanted, her final film, finds the actress in the midst of her three picture deal with the poverty row studio Monogram in a role that seems partially based on her own life.
Francis stars as washed up Hollywood actress Carole Raymond. With her career on the decline, Carole is recruited into property sales by Jeffrey Caldwell (Paul Cavanagh), a criminal masquerading as a philanthropist. When Carole finds herself at the center of a murder case, she quickly begins to suspect that something isn’t quite right with her new partner. Yet, before she can say anything, she is blackmailed into assisting Caldwell in hooking other marks for his con game – including undercover newsman Bill Tyler (Robert Shayne). Bill and Carole find themselves romantically engaged and team up to try to bring Caldwell and his racket of shady businesses (including a “Friendship Club” used to blackmail unfaithful men and women) down.
If my description of the plot seems creaky, that’s because the plot is exactly that. Like the majority of Monogram’s films, this one lacks refinement with regard to both storytelling and style. For instance, the Los Angeles police are shown collaborating with the newsman as if he is on the payroll as a part-time detective. Why is the District Attorney waiting for the journalist to finish his investigation? Perhaps because he owns newspaper stock and wants to make money while serving up some justice? It doesn’t make sense. Moreover, with regard to the film’s slapdash stylistics, Caldwell is shown throwing a woman down a set of stairs towards the end of the film. Director Phil Karlson films the aftermath in a long shot: Caldwell is shown atop the stairs and a crowd of people is gathered below below. The sight lines imply that the crowd can see the perpetrator but, evidentially, the bannisters seem to provide an invisibility cloak. The film – coming in at a breezy seventy minutes – is full of oddities that even a minimal bit of care would have rectified.
Yet, despite being a complete mess, Francis’s presence does make the film watchable. She may not have the gowns that she had in the 1930s and the dramatic material she’s working with may be bargain basement, but she still looks great and does what she can with the hand she has been dealt. Essentially, Wife Wanted does not even close to being a good b-level noir (I’d suggest Monogram’s Dillinger – written by Philip Yordan, the screenwriter of one of my favorites, The Big Combo), but it serves as a bittersweet bookend for fans of the largely forgotten Francis. Finally, the disc – like most Warner Archive releases – is barebones (it doesn’t have a menu) and the AV transfer is merely serviceable. I imagine that Kay Francis completists will be drawn to this one, but few others.
Wife Wanted is available on MOD (manufactured-on-demand) DVD through Warner Archive.