EVELYN PRENTISS (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1934), directed by William K. Howard, offers William Powell top-billing over Myrna Loy who assumes the title role. Not as well-known as other titled heroines during Hollywood's Golden Age, ranging from Katharine Hepburn as ALICE ADAMS (RKO, 1935), Joan Crawford as MILDRED PIERCE (Warners, 1945), or Ann Sheridan as NORA PRENTISS (Warners, 1947), among others, EVELYN PRENTISS, in fact, is a courtroom melodrama that happens to be the least known or discussed of the 13 screen collaborations of Powell and Loy during their 13-year span. Initially teamed in MANHATTAN MELODRAMA (1934), for which they supported Clark Gable, Powell and Loy reached their peak almost immediately for their second union in THE THIN MAN (1934), a mystery-comedy that spawned five additional sequels and many imitators. Unlike THE THIN MAN, EVELYN PRENTISS is straight- forward drama, having none of the mix-comic/mystery elements one might expect from them. This time Powell plays a lawyer rather than a detective, although as a lawyer, Powell shadows his Nick Charles/"Thin Man" character at times through his methods of reasoning and getting the fact, while Loy's Evelyn may be wife, but not as perfect as one would expect.
Taken from the book by W.E. Woodward, the scripted story by Lenore Coffee opens not on the title character, but on John Prentiss (William Powell), an attorney on trial defending Nancy Harrison (Rosalind Russell) on a manslaughter charge. John is a happily married man with a beautiful wife, Evelyn (Myrna Loy), and daughter, Dorothy (Cora Sue Collins). Also living in the Prentiss home is Evelyn's best friend and loyal companion, Amy Drexel (Una Merkel). After Mrs. Harrison is acquitted through John's expert testimony, she shows how grateful she is by forcing her advances on him, first in his private chambers, then on the train bound for Boston where John is to spend a week away from his family on business. Because of John's extended stay away from home, Evelyn, Amy and Chester Wylie (Henry Wadsworth) have an evening for themselves at Barney's (Billy Gilbert) night club. While there, Evelyn attracts the attention of poet, Lawrence Kennard (Harvey Stephens). At first, Evelyn doesn't take the young man seriously, but after having some suspicions of John's rendezvous with Mrs. Harrison during his business trip does Evelyn begin to see Lawrence more frequently, much to the chagrin of Judith Wilson (Isabel Jewell), his jealous girlfriend. After Evelyn breaks off her relationship with Lawrence, he decides to blackmail her for $15,000 on her love letters he holds to expose to her husband. A gunshot is heard, with Judith found by Lawrence's body. Accused for his murder, as a favor to Evelyn, John acts as Judith's attorney, only to come to some unforeseen circumstances at the trial that could ruin his marriage. Others members of the cast include: Edward Brophy (Eddie Delaney); Jessie Ralph (Mrs. Blake); Jack Mulhall (Greg); Herman Bing (Mr. Klein); Samuel S. Hinds (Newton); Frank Conroy (District Attorney Farley) and Sam McDaniel (The Porter).
Although the character and story may have been more plausible starring MGM's top actresses as Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, or even as an introduction to Rosalind Russell making her movie debut as opposed to her flirtatious widow-client, Myrna Loy shows her diversity and skill playing a typical wife who strays away during her husband's absence in business. Unlike other top actresses who might have overplayed the character somewhat, Loy keeps her performance in low-key level until a brief moment at the trial. Aside from Loy who played Oriental vamps during her early movie years in the 1920s and beyond, and being capable of dramatic roles, she's best loved in comedy, especially those opposite William Powell outside "The Thin Man" series as LIBELED LADY (1936), LOVE CRAZY (1941) and a few others. Una Merkel, usually the "comedy relief" in many MGM productions, resumes her part as the best friend as well, while Cora Sue Collins does her bit as the Prentiss daughter who goes to her parents for guidance, especially when involving a broken vase. Let's not overlook Isabel Jewell in a fine dramatic performance that might have paved the way for her brief yet serious role of the seamstress that made A TALE OF TWO CITIES (MGM, 1935) opposite Ronald Colman so memorable.
Distributed on video cassette in the 1990s, and later available on DVD, EVELYN PRENTISS first aired on cable Turner Network Television (TNT) in 1989 before becoming a permanent fixture on Turner Classic Movies beginning since 1994. (***)