Warner Archive Review: The Robert Montgomery Collection

In 2011, Warner Archive finally gave us a box set of Robert Montgomery MGM films. Titled The Robert Montgomery Collection, the four-disc set includes eight films, all of which run under 90 minutes. The collection isn’t exactly career-spanning, but it provides a fun look at Montgomery’s career at MGM and mostly works as a lost “Forbidden Hollywood” set. That’s because the first six films in the set are all Pre-Code films.

Robert Montgomery, Warner Archive Collection, TCM, Robert Montgomery Collection

What’s most fascinating about the set to me isn’t watching Montgomery’s effortless acting in comedies, but seeing how MGM tested out various leading ladies. Going through the set felt like a trip through the MGM farm system, as if Montgomery was paired with actresses before they made it into films with Clark Gable or Robert Taylor. Most of the leading ladies in these films never amounted to much in Hollywood.

The biggest eye-opener is seeing Nora Gregor stumble through But The Flesh Is Weak (1932) seven years before she would star in Jean Renoir’s masterpiece The Rules of the Game (1939) in France. Tallulah Bankhead, long before she made Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), is the co-star of Faithless (1932). Sam Wood’s The Man in Possession (1931) might be the best film in the set, but Montgomery’s leading lady is Irene Purcell, whose film career ended the following year.

The last disc in the set includes two later films. The first is Live, Love and Learn, a light-hearted comedy co-starring a young Rosalind Russell and Robert Benchley. It’s a fun one, with a script co-written by Charles Brackett. Richard Thorpe’s The Earl of Chicago (1940) is the longest film in the set, running 87 minutes and co-stars Edward Arnold, Reginald Owen and Edmund Gwenn.

The Films

Shipmates (Harry Pollard, 1931) – This is the most forgetful film in the set, as Montgomery plays a sailor who doesn’t take the Navy seriously until he falls in love with the admiral’s daughter.

The Man in Possession (Sam Wood, 1931) – On the opposite end of the spectrum is this hilarious film, which was later remade as Private Property with Robert Taylor. Montgomery stars as a family’s black sheep who becomes a sheriff’s officer and holds a woman’s home in possession until she can pay her debts. He falls in love with the girl, who happens to be his brother’s fiance.

Faithless (Harry Beaumont, 1932) – Now, this is how you make a Pre-Code movie. It’s so delicious and nonsensical that it has to be seen to be believed. Montgomery plays a regular guy who wants to marry an in-debt socialite (Bankhead). She refuses to marry him because he wants to work for a living. After she loses everything in the Great Depression, she agrees to let him work while they marry, but he then loses his job on the same day. They split up and she is eventually forced into prostitution, even after they reconcile. Bankhead’s the star of this film and she’s great in it.

Lovers Courageous (Robert Z. Leonard, 1932) – This one finds Montgomery as a black sheep again, and falling in love with an admiral’s daughter (again). He’s also a failed playwright, who has traveled the world to see if he can live on his own. This is an enjoyable one and it’s fascinating to see how much story can unfold in just 77 minutes.

But the Flesh is Weak (Jack Conway, 1932) – Yes, this movie is as salacious as that title sounds. Montgomery and C. Aubrey Smith play father-son gigolos who refuse to marry or sleep with women who don’t have money. However, Montgomery falls in love with Nora Gregor’s character, who is a widower without any money. The moral of the story is that as long as your father can find a rich woman to marry, you can marry for love.

Made on Broadway (Harry Beaumont, 1933) – This is Sweet Smell of Success Precode style. Montgomery plays a Broadway fixer who takes on the case of a suicidal dame (Sally Eilers) and tries to make her a big star… until she shoots a man she takes home one night. In the end, he realizes that he still loves his ex-wife. (Madge Evans).

Live, Love and Learn (George Fitzmaurice, 1937) – The set jumps ahead four years to 1937 with this breezy comedy about a struggling artist (Montgomery) who marries a society girl (Rosalind Russell). She thinks they are doing perfectly fine in their dingy apartment, but when her conniving friend makes him a star of the art world, their relationship crumbles. Robert Benchley plays their friend. It’s surprisingly short and doesn’t quite stand up to co-writer Charles Brackett’s best work. Amazingly, Brackett is one of three credited writers on this movie. Keep an eye out for Mickey Rooney, who plays a bit part as a neighbor’s kid. I have to think that his role was cut down to keep the film under 80 minutes because he’s billed pretty high for such a bit part.

The Earl of Chicago (Richard Thorpe, 1940) – This is the last film in the set and finds Montgomery as a former Chicago bootlegger who learns that he’s inherited a title from a dead uncle in England.

The Extras

There are no extras on the set. The only trailer included is a beat-up one for Made on Broadway that gives up all the plot points of the film.

The Robert Montgomery Collection is an easy set to recommend for fans of the actor’s work and MGM films of the 1930s. It might have been nice to see some of Montgomery’s films from the late ’30s instead of being so heavy on the short pre-codes, but these are movies that we’d never see on home video otherwise. Honestly, the set is worth it just for The Man in Posession and Faithless alone.

Thanks to Warner Archive for providing this DVD set to review. It is only available to purchase through WBshop.com.

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