In 1944, Kathleen Winsor's novel Forever Amber swept the country. The tale of a lusty British wench who sleeps her way to the court of Charles II both titillated and fascinated readers. It didn't take Hollywood long to start clamouring for the rights to the story. In the end 20th Century-Fox claimed the blockbuster tale, but Paramount, not willing to be left in the dust, started production of its own Amber facsimile, Kitty, which premiered two years before its cinematic rival. Complete credit for the gorgeous period flavor of the film must go to its director Mitchell Leisen. Beginning his career as a set designer, Leisen's work as director always displayed a superb sense of style. His artistic background and eye for detail came together in a visually sumptuous setting.
Based on a novel by Rosamond Marshall, Kitty ~ played by the pert and very pretty Paulette Goddard ~ is an 18th century guttersnipe (i.e. wanton, poverty-stricken petty thief in this case) who tries to steal from famed English painter Thomas Gainsborough (Gainsborough's celebrated work is the figure The Blue Boy). When she is caught, the artist is struck by her good looks under the dirt and rags she wears. Instead of casting her into prison, he hires her to pose for him (in a better set of clothes of course) and when the portrait is exhibited, all of London is enthralled with the mysterious beauty. In on the charade is the attractive but penniless and mercenary fop, Sir Hugh Marcy (Ray Milland), who takes Kitty in as a servant for the household he shares with his aunt, Lady Susan Dowitt (Constance Collier). Seeking revenge on the Duke of Malmunster (Reginald Owen, in rare form), who is fascinated with Kitty's portrait, Sir Hugh tries to pass his ward off as a lady to the Duke, with both humorous and sinister bumps along the way.
For the plum title role, the studio cast its comely and vivacious contract star Paulette Goddard. Always a popular screen figure, Paulette was at her professional peak and most consider Kitty her best role. She goes from guttersnipe to duchess in such a charming manner, that you don't think of how improbable the situation is. Goddard relayed her own legendary charm and charisma with men to the character, with charming and charismatic results. Ray Milland, as Sir Hugh Marcy, pompously primps and preens and his Sir Hugh is one of the weaker elements in the film. There is no redeeming quality to him through the entire movie, other than his initial kindness in letting the waif live with him rather than go back to the hovel she shares with a hag named "Old Meg" and her "girls". Kitty is part Eliza Doolittle, part Amber St. Clair but Milland's Marcy hasn't the charm of Henry Higgins nor the romantic fervor of Amber's Bruce Carleton. Why Kitty falls head over hells for this lout is beyond me. Nevertheless, the story is a fine one and Leisen's handling makes it even finer.
Of course there is strong support in the way of Patrick Knowles as Kitty's aristocratic suitor, Sara Allgood as Old Meg, the snaggle toothed hag and Cecil Kellaway, who charmingly portrays the painter Gainsborough. Not to be forgotten is Constance Collier as Lady Susan. Her husky, gin soaked accent from across the pond was authentic enough that she was hired as Goddard's voice coach. For Paulette's cockney dialect, Connie Emerald, mother of Ida Lupino, was hired.
Kitty was a high point for Goddard. Her vivacity and charm lent itself very well to the distinguished good taste of Mitchell Leisen's production. Though the efforts of all involved were noble ones, it is the combination of star and director that make Kitty memorable.