Five and Ten
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Leslie Howard was just establishing himself as a film star when Marion Davies requested he play opposite her in Five and Ten (1931), a romance about a dime-store heiress who falls for a society architect despite the fact that he's engaged to another woman. Howard had already acted in another production for her company, Cosmopolitan Pictures, which operated out of MGM, but had yet to work with their star. Though Davies' films often lost money, the chance to work with Davies brought a level of prestige, particularly because she was the mistress of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, whose papers always gave her films preferential treatment. In addition, Davies was Hearst's frequent hostess entertaining the greatest of not just Hollywood, but the political and artistic worlds. A friendship with her provided an entrée to society.
Their single film together Five and Ten, was atypical for Davies. It was neither a comedy, the genre in which she usually fared best, nor a costume picture, the type of film in which Hearst preferred to cast her. Instead it was an adaptation of a 1929 novel by romance specialist Fannie Hurst, one of the most popular writers of the day even before the publication of such major hits as Back Street and Imitation of Life. Her ability to fuse social issues, high society and scandal into often turgid love stories kept fans clamoring for more. For this story, she had drawn on gossip surrounding Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton for the story of a family torn apart by success. Thrift-store tycoon John Rarick (Richard Bennett) moves his family from Kansas City to Manhattan to buy their way into society, but he's so busy he doesn't notice that his wife (Irene Rich) has taken up with a gigolo and his son (Douglass Montgomery) has developed a drinking problem. Only his daughter, Davies, is thriving, despite repeated snubs from the real upper crust. When she falls for Howard, she contrives to get him hired to design her father's new corporate headquarters and even, in the days before Production Code enforcement, manages to spend the night there with him when they're locked in together. Even so, she has to navigate a sea of misunderstandings and personal tragedies if she's ever to land her man.
Davies had decided she had to work with Howard after seeing him in one of his biggest stage hits, Berkeley Square. In fact, she insisted on casting him in Five and Ten even though MGM production head Irving G. Thalberg wanted her to cast another rising young actor, Clark Gable. When she saw Gable's test, however, she insisted he was all wrong for the sophisticated role, ignoring Thalberg's predictions that Gable would be a major star some day.
Davies was so star struck by Howard that when she finally met him during rehearsals for Five and Ten at Hearst's mansion, San Simeon, she didn't recognize him. Having watched him on-stage from the first row, she was also disappointed that he seemed shorter in real life and insisted he play the role wearing lifts shoes. They rehearsed for a few weeks at San Simeon, following each day's work with a dip in the pool. When Howard's wife railed at him to stay out of the water, he would jump in anyway and deliberately lose his trunks -- unless Hearst was present. Soon after, rumors spread that the two stars were romantically involved.
Whatever their off-screen relationship, on-screen the two actors clicked. Davies was amazed at how little ego Howard had. Throughout filming, she felt that he did everything he could to throw their scenes to her. Far from wiping him out on screen, however, his relaxed performance style drew the eye almost effortlessly. Davies found herself working hard to seem as natural as he. The result was a performance hailed by many of her fans as one of her best. One highlight is a long take in which the two grow closer, all the while fighting their mutual attraction, as he sketches pigs and cows for her.
After filming had completed on Five and Ten, Davies was astonished to realize that cameraman George Barnes had photographed her poorly, particularly in scenes with her romantic rival, played by Mary Duncan. Davies then learned that Barnes had fallen in love with Duncan, so he had given her the best angles and lighting. The star had to shoot additional close-ups at night with another cameraman.
Davies could hardly blame Duncan for the cameraman's slight. She knew the actress was totally unaware of the situation since they had become friends while filming their on-screen duels over Howard. In fact, Davies had introduced her to carpeting magnate Stephen "Laddie" Sanford, whom Duncan would eventually marry. The actress would retire from the screen to devote her life to their marriage and charity work.
Five and Ten cost $594,000 to make but brought in only $550,000 at the box office. With the cost of prints and advertising, that amounted to a loss of $274,000, though that would be offset by the intangible assets Davies's production companies brought MGM in the form of publicity for all the studio's films in Hearst's newspapers. Nonetheless, the continuing extravagance of her productions and their poor box office performance, would lead the studio to refuse her requests for certain major properties, prompting Hearst to move Cosmopolitan Pictures to Warner Bros. in 1934.
Producer: Marion Davies, Robert Z. Leonard
Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Screenplay: A.P. Younger, Edith Fitzgerald
Based on the novel by Fannie Hurst
Cinematography: George Barnes
Cast: Marion Davies (Jennifer Rarick), Leslie Howard (Berry Rhodes), Richard Bennett (John G. Rarick), Irene Rich (Jenny Rarick), Douglass Montgomery (Avery Rarick), Mary Duncan (Muriel Preston), Henry Armetta (Taxi Driver), Halliwell Hobbes (Hopkins), George Irving (Mr. Brooks), Theodore von Eltz (Ramon).
by Frank Miller