Helmed by Hollywood journeyman Edward H. Griffith (and an uncredited George Cukor), Animal Kingdom is a smart, soigné, pre-code comedy of manners—if little more than that. Adapted from a play by Phillip Barry (the famed WASP chronicler who wrote Holiday and The Philadelphia Story), the film stars transatlantic leading man Leslie Howard as a dashing debauchee, caught between the precepts of nobility and a reluctance to leave the more adventuresome lifestyle of his youth.
Likewise, he is caught between two anathemic women. A pixyish Myrna Loy plays his well-bred, shrewdly manipulative wife, and the adenoidal-voiced Ann Harding portrays his more libertine ex-amour. This romantic triangle, which mostly comprises scenes of Howard shuttling back and forth between the residences of both leading ladies, embodies conflicts of class integrity. Loy is the soulless aristocrat, urging her husband to sign his tiny print shop over to a blue-chip corporate publisher.
Meanwhile, Harding’s free spirit fosters dreams of painting in Mexico and laments that the man she once loved has so blindly betrayed his principles. In the midst of all this, Howard continually imparts an air of affable agitation. With his subdued Bristol accent and refined gait, the actor was a prototype for Cary Grant. But Howard ultimately cuts a more vulnerable and melancholy figure than Grant ever could.
This proves crucial during the film’s more ostensibly intimate scenes. The Animal Kingdom may have its cultural subtext, but its raison d’ être is sexual discord. In strategically protracted close ups and medium shots, Griffith captures posh personalities charged equally with lust and discontent. Discovering her husband’s bedroom appetites, Loy’s character continually ceases their canoodling before any actual lovemaking can occur. One cannot imagine Cary Grant rejected in such a fashion. Howard, however, endures it with suave, solemn gravitas.