12 November 2013 | wmorrow59
Something unexpected from Howard Hawks
If a crew of film buffs arrived at a screening of this movie just after the opening credits, and then tried to guess the identity of the director based on content and stylistic clues, they could be forgiven for deciding Paid to Love must be the work of Ernst Lubitsch. After all, consider the evidence: this is a romantic comedy set largely in a mythical kingdom called San Savon—and partly in a mythical-looking Paris—which concerns a handsome young Crown Prince's love life, or lack thereof. It would appear the Prince doesn't care much for girls, but he's obsessed with automobiles, and likes to roll up his sleeves to work on engines and fan-belts and such, and get his hands dirty. His father, King Haakon, is a little worried about the boy, so he conspires with a wealthy American businessman named Roberts to teach his son the facts of life, so to speak, by arranging for him to get intimately involved with a woman brought from France for this purpose, all expenses paid. Roberts has his own reasons for participating in the scheme: he represents a firm with a financial interest in San Savon, and believes his board of directors would feel better about their investment in the kingdom if the Prince showed some interest in the ladies. (Although it's never bluntly stated, the idea seems to be that if the Prince demonstrates he's a regular guy, and might actually sire royal offspring someday, the firm's directors will be reassured about the future of San Savon.) So, the two older gents go to Paris and find a suitably sexy young cabaret performer named Gaby to stir the young man's passions. Their plan backfires, in a rather predictable but amusing way, when the Prince falls in love with her.
Paid to Love was an early assignment for Howard Hawks, made long before he'd established his directorial style or settled on the kind of material he would come to favor. In later years Hawks was dismissive of the project, declaring simply "It isn't my type of stuff." That may be, but viewed objectively Paid to Love holds up quite well today. It's smoothly made, funny and very typical of its time. George O'Brien, cast somewhat against type, makes an appealing Crown Prince. His introductory scene sets a lighthearted note, when he comes to the aid of the crusty businessman Roberts, who has car trouble and assumes that the Prince is a lowly mechanic. Roberts is played by estimable character actor J. Farrell MacDonald, who has so much screen time in the film's opening scenes you'd think this was designed to be his show. But soon the emphasis properly shifts to O'Brien and leading lady Virginia Valli, who plays Gaby. Their "meet cute" is unusual, and surprisingly erotic. Gaby collapses in a storm outside the cottage where the Prince is staying; he finds her, carries her inside and puts her to bed, off camera. When she awakens the next morning, she discovers that she's naked. For a guy who's shy with women, the Prince works fast! (The sequence is something of a precursor to a similar one involving Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak in Vertigo, made many years later.) Needless to add, romance quickly blossoms between the two. Valli and O'Brien make an attractive couple, and both actors are adept in navigating the story's shift from comedy to drama in the later scenes. Until recently Valli was unknown to me, but now that I've seen her in several silent features I've come to feel she's unjustly forgotten. Perhaps her strongest claim to fame is that she was the first leading lady of Alfred Hitchcock—speaking of Hitch—in his directorial debut, The Pleasure Garden.
Several other characters make an impression, such as King Haakon, played by a dignified old actor who happened to be named Thomas Jefferson. I also enjoyed seeing prolific comedian Hank Mann nicely underplay his part as a servant. But the most notable, striking performance of all is given by William Powell, who plays the Crown Prince's raffish cousin Eric. At this point in his career Powell was often cast as bad eggs, and his Prince Eric is a prime example: he's haughty and mean-spirited, a playboy who is a rotter to women, Gaby in particular. The film's most dramatic sequence is a tense confrontation between Eric and Gaby in her boudoir. Viewers familiar with Powell's urbane Nick Charles from the Thin Man series are likely to be surprised, even shocked, to see his dark side on full display here.
This film was believed to be lost for many years. It re-emerged in the early 1970s, when interest in Howard Hawks' career was growing markedly among critics and buffs. Happily, surviving prints look very good: the cinematography of William O'Connell is first-rate, and the film itself is complete, without the choppy continuity or visible decomposition scars that mar so many silent films. Perhaps because the material held little importance for the director, or because he was still honing his style, Hawks felt free to experiment with the kind of tracking shots and swooping camera movements he would later avoid. According to film historian William K. Everson, however, the director was not especially pleased to learn that Paid to Love had been recovered, and he refused to watch it after its rediscovery. While it may not be "Hawksian," Paid to Love is nonetheless a clever, well-acted, amusing romantic comedy in the Lubitsch vein, a sophisticated late silent feature that's well worth a look. Even Hawks might have liked it.