‘Wife Wanted’ (1946)

At one time the suffering queen of the weepies (and occasional sparkling comedies like Trouble in Paradise), Kay Francis co-produced and starred in three items for the Monogram B-factory at the end of her film career. Curiously, the last of these casts her as a faded actress, no longer offered good parts, who finds herself in partnership with an unscrupulous businessman. That slick scoundrel (Paul Cavanagh) moves back and forth between real estate deals and a sordid sideline in a “friendship club,” a lonely-hearts racket that sets up rich suckers for blackmail.

One of these suckers is pushed off a cliffside balcony while Francis is inside making a call, and from there her life goes downhill (as it were) in a heated if none too credible fashion. By coincidence, she gives shelter to an overacting Teala Loring, who’s been embroiled in the “friendship” scam and gotten herself knocked up, although nobody says it out loud. Veda Ann Borg gets the best lines as the sharp, cynical dame in cahoots with the baddie. Robert Shayne plays a reporter who goes undercover as a millionaire sheeprancher in a ten gallon hat.

This obscurity is now available on demand from Warner Archive, taken from an excellent print that allows us to appreciate the sleek sets and the clean, economic camera moves of cinematographer Harry Neuman and director Phil Karlson, who this same year was cranking out installments in the Charlie Chan, Shadow, and Bowery Boys series. While Karlson would hit his noir highpoints a decade later with tougher movies, this early example of the genre (crossed perfunctorily with romance) generates visual interest by having the camera move discreetly around the action, even when it’s just blather. One nice scene features African-American pianist Edgar Hayes as himself, playing his own composition while his piano–just like the camera–glides mysteriously across the nightclub floor for no other purpose than to hold our attention.

The description on the DVD case oversells it by declaring that “Kay Francis goes out with a bang–and how!–in this femme noir sensation”. Like the “friendship club”, that promises more than is delivered, in the true spirit of exploitation. An original poster, not reproduced on the cover, shouted “It took a raid to disclose their shocking story!” Jeffrey Bernerd produced several films exploiting unsavory angles, and this one makes us curious to see his other two Francis vehicles, Divorce and Allotment Wives. (We suspect the DVD writer confused the latter title with this one.) Be all of that as it might, Wife Wanted shows that even an entry from Poverty Row can have its share of polished craftsmanship at the service of nothing much.

RATING 4 / 10