Thursday, March 19, 2015

Skyscraper Souls

Films in Focus
By Ed Garea

Skyscraper Souls (MGM, 1932) Director: Edgar Selwyn. Writers: C. Gardner Sullivan (adaptation), Elmer Harris (dialogue continuity), & Faith Baldwin (novel Skyscraper). Cast: Warren William, Maureen O’Sullivan, Gregory Ratoff, Anita Page, Verree Teasdale, Norman Foster, George Barbier, Jean Hersholt, Wallace Ford, Hedda Hopper, Helen Coburn, John Marston, & William Morris. B&W, 99 minutes.

When I first saw Skyscraper Souls on TV late one night, I thought it was made by Warner Brothers, and would continue to think so for quite a while afterward. The film was right out of the Warner’s playbook for the early ‘30s, featuring lots of furtive sex, its leading lady in various stages of undress, and sex dominating the subplots. And it starred Warren William, Warner’s resident cad, a man the audience could trust as far as Stevie Wonder could see.

But no, the film wasn’t from Warner’s after all. It was made by MGM, and it took me a little while to wrap my head around that fact. The thing walked like a Warner’s film, talked like a Warner’s film, and quacked like a Warner’s film. Yet, it wasn’t. Once I discovered this fact, I was intrigued and began looking into how MGM could make an almost perfect copy of a Warner’s film of the time.

I found Skyscraper Souls to be the poorer domestic cousin of Grand Hotel. Both films were based on popular novels of the day: Grand Hotel by Vicky Baum, and Skyscraper by Faith Baldwin. Like Grand Hotel, it’s a drama, bordering on soap, which takes place in one locale. But while Grand Hotel is studded with big stars like Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and the Barrymores, the biggest stars in Skyscraper Souls are Warren William and MGM’s newly signed Maureen O’Sullivan, fresh off her co-starring role in Tarzan. The studio must have figured that, since Grand Hotel did so well, perhaps a cheaper knockoff might do just as well and not bear the overhead of the previous film.

It would seem that MGM was attempting to produce a cheaper copy of Grand Hotel at the start. Baldwin’s book was serialized in William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Magazine prior to its publication in book form in 1931. When MGM purchased the screen rights in July 1931, it announced Robert Young, Una Merkel and Madge Evans as the stars with Harry Beaumont in the director’s chair.

But by the time production on the film began in May 1932, those names were scrapped. William, who had just scored a major success that year in The Mouthpiece, was borrowed from Warner’s for the lead role as banker David Dwight, with O’Sullivan and Preston Foster signed for the main supporting roles. The directorial chores were handed over to Edgar Selwyn.

The cast and director were not the only things about Skyscraper that were changed. Much of Baldwin’s novel was gutted as well, changing the emphasis from the romance of Lynn and Tom, O’Sullivan and Foster’s characters, to the financial intrigue revolving around the character of David Dwight, who in the novel was merely a successful celebrity lawyer who once dallied with Lynn’s boss some years ago.

Seeing they couldn’t match Grand Hotel in both sophistication and star power, the folks at MGM decided to go with the next big thing: sex. Sex dominates the film’s undercurrent and seems to be the motivating factor for most of the characters. By tying this to the surface events of big business, underhanded deals, and the resulting stock market crash, MGM is trying to emulate the Warner Brothers approach to film. And while some elements of the film come off, most of it is predictable, even down to the mawkish ending.

The film is centered about the Dwight Building, a 100-story art-deco wonder in New York. During the establishing scenes we notice it standing out in comparison to the Empire State Building, which looks smaller, even though the Empire State has 102 floors. The building is the brainchild of banker David Dwight (William), who cherishes it more than anything else. As head of the Seaboard Bank he made the huge, but questionable, loan that enabled him to erect this tower to himself, and when he is questioned over the legality of the loan by the bank’s board of directors, Dwight becomes determined to save his baby at any cost.

Even Sarah Dennis (Teasdale), his closest adviser and mistress of many years, doesn’t realize the extent to which he will go in order to protect his investment. As we learn, her love for him has blinded her to the fact that his in-name-only wife, Ella (Hopper) is merely an excuse not to marry Sarah, and that he ruthlessly pursues everything he wants at the moment.

His board of directors is worried, but Dwight reassures them that he has a way out. He plans a merger with Hamilton’s Interstate, but when Hamilton (Morris) tells him that while he’s willing to merge with Seacoast, Dwight is to have no part in the new company, Dwight declines saying, “Love me, love my building.”

Switching gears, Dwight’s next target is his old friend Charlie Norton (Barbier) of the Manhattan Bank. During a party held for Norton’s honor in Dwight’s penthouse, Dwight lures Sarah’s young, innocent secretary, Lynn (O’Sullivan) up to the apartment on the pretext of delivering a report. When she arrives, however, the report is the last thing on his mind as he plies her with champagne, getting her quickly drunk to the point where she passes out in Dwight’s bed. When Lynn awakens at three in the morning, Dwight propositions her, but she turns him down flat. He escorts her down to the lobby, where Tom Shepherd, a young bank teller with whom Lynn is in love, and who has been waiting for her, is hiding. He sees Dwight and Lynn and naturally assumes the worst.

Tom confronts Lynn the next day, which leads to an argument where Lynn decides to break off their relationship, saying she wants nothing to do with a man as jealous as he. Later, Lynn tearfully confesses all to Sarah, who decides to take Tom to lunch to repair the damage. Sarah explains what really happened to Tom and urges him to reconcile with Lynn. When Tom replies that Lynn insists they need more money to get married, Sarah gives Tom an insider tip to invest his savings in Seacoast stock.

Although Tom keeps the information secret, word soon gets out about the Seacoast-Manhattan merger, and the stock soars as people invest everything they have, buying the stock on margin with the faith that their hopes and dreams will come true. Meanwhile, Hamilton approaches Dwight with a plan: he and Dwight can become rich by inflating the stock, then selling short to enrich themselves and ruin the other investors. Dwight enthusiastically accepts the plan, and soon, when the stock reaches $350 a share, Dwight and Hamilton sell, causing the stock to plummet and wiping out everyone else, including Tom and Norton. When Norton confronts Dwight, not only does Dwight show no remorse, he revels in the fact that he now owns the Dwight building outright.

Almost everyone hates Dwight’s guts, except for Lynn, who has decided to accompany him to Europe after one of Tom’s jealous outbursts. But just before Dwight is about to leave, Sarah confronts him, begging him not to ruin Lynn’s life the way he ruined hers. When Dwight ignores her pleas and starts to leave, she whips out a pistol and shoots him. Dwight pretends it’s only a flesh wound and tells his butler to get a doctor. He wipes Sarah’s fingerprints from the gun, explaining that he had an accident. Dwight tells Sarah he will always care for her, then drops dead. Distraught, Sarah goes to the roof of the building and throws herself off in grief. Sometime later, Ella sells the building while Lynn and Tom decide to start their life together, realizing that money’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

William’s electric performance as Dwight dominates the film, providing a dynamic center for the rest of the cast to play off. A lesser performance would have sunk the film before it had a chance to gain steam. William is the perfect choice for Dwight, as no one could play a cad like he could, especially one so fixated on an object. The building, when we first see it, looks like a giant phallus, and one doesn’t have to be reading Freud at Oxford to where this is going. But even though Dwight’s machinations are motivated by his brute emotion, William pulls it off with such panache as to win our respect, if not love.

Kudos are due to screenwriter Sullivan for taking the character of David Dwight from the supporting cast of the novel and transforming it into the centerpiece of the movie. With this important change, the skyscraper itself takes on a life of its own and setting the entire film within its walls doesn’t seem like a convenience for the studio.

In Baldwin’s novel, Dwight obtains his information behind the scenes from the office staff and using said information to make his investments. By moving Dwight to the forefront, Sullivan brings out the dynamism Baldwin had hinted at when originally describing him in Skyscraper’s pages.

Sullivan also simplifies the merger, which is now seen as important, but only in terms of Tom’s character and his relationship with Lynn. In the novel, Dwight is an outsider not connected with Seacoast and the merger is between Seacoast’s Norton (Barbier in the film) and another firm. The inside information becomes important to the story because Tom is Norton’s assistant. With the character of Dwight now front and center, the merger becomes one by Dwight himself, and a large part of the main storyline, with the backstage shenanigans only adding to that luster.

O’Sullivan had come to MGM after a couple of films at Fox. After she finished Tarzan, MGM was eager to see what else she could do, and decided to cast her in this film as a sort of proving ground. If she failed, they could assuage themselves in the fact that the picture didn’t cost that much money; if she succeeded, it was the perfect launching ramp for future roles. It turned out that they had nothing to worry about. In fact, the role fit her so well one could assume it was written especially for her. As the ingénue, O’Sullivan plays Lynn with a combination of youth, innocence and naivety. But underlying it all is a set of smarts that makes for a most sympathetic and intriguing gold digger.

Not that we can blame her for being a gold digger and accepting Dwight’s offer. Her fiancé, Tom (Foster) is one of the most obnoxious characters to appear on the screen. His attempts to flirt with her when they first meet are so grating as to be genuinely creepy, coming off like a cretinous stalker with his continuous libidinous advances. That these lines actually work is even worse to contemplate, and one smells the distinct odor of fast screenwriting. Tom’s constant jealousy and attempts at controlling behavior also makes us cringe to the point that we’re actually relieved when she tells him she’s going off with Dwight. And what can one say about a slapping match between the two brought on by his jealousy and ends up with the two of them being engaged? His frequent colliding with other persons and piles of boxes are ill-considered attempts at humor that come off as forced.

Teasdale, who was a popular supporting staple of films from the early ‘30s, turns in a wonderful performance as Dwight’s mistress, Sarah, the building’s manager. She’s accomplished, smart as a whip, and the force behind Dwight as a sort of mother-confessor. Her weakness is the huge blind spot she developed towards him, brought on by love and a fear of the present, as she has a vague realization that their affair is close to burning out entirely. Yet she continues to hang on.

Sarah is a character that could have just gone by the boards as just another supporting role, but Teasdale pumps life into her, especially in her relation with Lynn as a kind of mother-mentor. She treats Lynn, who supposedly is from her own hometown, almost as a daughter.

Her relationship with Dwight is a complex one; of all the people he deals with, he shows her the most kindness and humanity, possibly from their years together as a couple. He depends on her reactions and advice; using her as his private sounding board. Yet this does not stop him from continuing to string her along when it comes to marriage. One of the best scenes in the picture is when Dwight’s wife, Ella, drops by for some more support money. After Dwight leaves for a moment to attend to business, Sarah is left alone with Ella, and the two circle each other like opponents in a prizefight. But it’s Ella who lands the knockout blow when she explains the facts of Dwight, telling Sarah that “marriage to him is just protection against other women.” Although in the next breath Ella tries to lighten the damage by comparing Dwight’s behavior to geniuses like Byron and Cellini “We adore them, but we never own them” Sarah is gobsmacked. The blinds have been lifted permanently from her eyes and she realizes she’s been living a sham. Even if Ella were to divorce him so Sarah could have her turn at the altar, she realizes that although the horses may change, the race will remain the same. We also realize at the end that if Dwight were leaving with anyone else except the young and innocent Lynn, Sarah would simply accept his gifts and bid him a fond bon voyage.

Hopper, as Ella, heads the ensemble cast. Based on her acting in this and subsequent films, it’s easy to see whey she decided to switch careers. Other minor characters inhabiting the building include the kindly jeweler Jacob, played by Jean Herscholt. He’s the only man with wealth that emerges from Dwight’s scheme with any cash. He’s also in love with model and part-time hooker Jenny (Anita Page). And then there’s Myra (Helen Coburn), who loves Slim (Wallace Ford) but is married to Bill (John Marston).

The lives and activities of the lesser characters are glossed over in the film. The story between Anita Page’s Jenny and Hersholt’s Jacob is touching, but hardly touched upon as the film progresses. No, this is the story of David Dwight, and anything that gets in the way is tossed aside, as are the characters that come between Dwight and what he wants.

As mentioned before, this is an MGM film done in the style of Warner Brothers, but with an important difference. Were Skyscraper Souls a Warner Bros. film, Dwight would have pulled off his scam, but paid for it in a business way. He would have been seen as the totally immoral cad he was. However, in the MGM film, Dwight is a cad, true, but he wins the audience’s sympathy in that he’s likeable in addition to being shrewd. He could well have forced himself on a drunken Lynn that night in the bedroom, and given his business proclivities, it’s something we well might have expected of him. Instead he plays the waiting game, knowing that sooner or later she will come to him.

All throughout the movie, Dwight is supplied with a number of defining speeches, pointing out to his co-conspirators that if he had been working with them instead of against them, they would see him as a hero, no matter how many people he drove in penury:

Listen, if I double-crossed somebody else for you I wouldn't be a double-crosser. I'd be a financial genius. You'd profit by it. You'd love it. You'd love me. I'd be your pal, your leader. But I put one over on you, so I'm a double-crosser. It's all in the point of view, gentlemen. But don't despair. There's lot of small fry that you can double-cross. Just like the good old days."

And there we have it: Social Dawrwinism, pure and simple, the survival of the fittest. Dwight is the type of person who destroys lives, the difference being in his motives: if it weren’t him, it would be someone else. That’s the way the world works, and it was a philosophy strongly embedded during the Depression. We respect Dwight because we know that what he said is true, and it takes away from any pity extended to his victims, for they were also playing the same game. Only Dwight was better at it than they were.

In the end, Dwight is punished, but not for betraying the other characters, but for a personal betrayal, compounded by Sarah’s overwrought suicide from the top of the building after she shoots Dwight. It’s the “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” plot, and brings down in only a few minutes what it took the film 95 minutes to build. It seems improvised on the spot and is something we would expect in a film from one of the many smaller studios that populated Gower Gulch, not MGM.

Right before fadeout we see Dwight’s widow, Ella, selling the building while Tom and Lynn have decided to persevere, deciding they can indeed live on Tom’s salary as a bank clerk. The moral to the working class is not to hope to rise above one’s situation by manipulating the stock market; that’s the province of the elite. No, learn to live within your means.


During the party in Dwight’s penthouse, a drunk, giggly Lynn accidentally says “shitty” rather than “silly.” Instead of a retake, the film makes a joke about it.

Co-conspirator Ham is played by William Morris, the real-life father of then leading man Chester Morris.

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