Films in Focus
By Ed Garea
Under 18 (WB, 1931) – Director: Archie Mayo. Writers: Charles Kenyon (s/p), Maude Fulton (s/p), Frank Mitchell Dazey (Story, “Sky Life”), Agnes Christine Johnston (Story, “Sky Life”). Cast: Marian Marsh, Anita Page, Regis Toomey, Warren William, Norman Foster, Joyce Compton, J. Farrell MacDonald, Claire Dodd, Paul Porcasi, Maude Eburne, Murray Kinnell, Emma Dunn, Dorothy Appleby, Edward Van Sloan, & Clarence Wilson. B&W, 80 minutes.
What a great title for a Pre-Code picture! One can only imagine the lurid images going through a prospective viewer’s mind as he lines up at the local theater to see this masterpiece of celluloid. It’s a nice little Depression programmer about a virtuous girl whose whole world is leading her headlong towards sin. In the end the film never quite lives up to the title, but not for a lack of trying. What it does have going for it, though, are the excellent performances of doll-faced Marian Marsh and the great Warren William.
Teenager Margie Evans (Marsh), who works as a seamstress to help support her mother (Dunn) and father (MacDonald), is head over heels in love with grocery truck driver Jimmie Slocum (Toomey). Yet, she’s worried their love will not survive the reality of poverty in the Depression. She envies the models she sees at work – they are always receiving expensive gifts from wealthy lovers.
As the film opens, Marge is busy helping sister Sophie (Page) prepare for her wedding to billiards shark Alf (Foster). Sophie is excited because Alf has just won a couple of tournaments and is going to take her for a honeymoon to Atlantic City. Margie herself, head over heels with excitement, can’t wait for her turn at the altar. After the ceremony, Sophie’s father breaks out the beer for the celebration. (This is a working class family, after all; Prohibition be damned.)
Cut to the present day. Dad has passed and life is now tougher for Margie and Mom. Adding to the gloom is Sophie and Alf, who arrive at the already cramped tenement with their baby, one suitcase, and Alf’s pool cue and trophies. Alf tells Margie and Mom that they’ve given Newark “the air,” but Sophie quickly sets things straight: “We might as well tell you the truth. Can you put up a bum and his family for a couple of nights?” According to Alf, he had to let his pool hall go. “Yeah – to the sheriff!” Sophie interjects. She goes on to say that Alf has been unable to find a job and that they’ve been evicted from their home. She adds that things might have worked out if he had the gumption to take a job offered to him at a local soda fountain in their neighborhood, but Alf thought it was beneath him. Margie calls a halt to the bickering, suggesting things would look better if they got a good night’s sleep. She suggests to Sophie that she bunk with her mother, Alf take the couch, and she’ll sleep on the fire escape, but big sister nixes the plan: “Stick Alf out there,” she says, pointing to the fire escape. But Margie insists and leads Sophie to the bedroom while Alf tends to his trophies. In one of the film’s great lines, he calls out to his mother-in-law, asking if she has any silver polish. “I’ll find you some if you promise to eat it!” Sophie shouts from the bedroom.
The disintegrating relationship between Alf and Sophie dominates the early part of the film. At the breakfast table, Alf begins to read the morning paper when Sophie snatches it from him and turns the pages to the want ads. “Listen here, you,” she says, “I’ll show you the pages we’re interested in. There it is – now read it!” Things would be better if Alf were even to look for a job, but despite Sophie’s continual nagging he refuses, instead staking what little money he has on pool games in search of the big cash prize. Margie, witnessing the daily battles between her sister and brother-in-law, is seriously beginning to question whether marriage is indeed an option given the grinding poverty of the times.
She discusses the problem with Jimmie (Toomey) on her front stoop after their date. He thinks they have enough to get married on, while she doesn’t. He tells her he’s saved up, but she knows it’s not enough to satisfy the desires that are running through her head. Another reason for her reluctance is Jimmie’s seeming lack of ambition. If they marry, she’ll have to continue to work and they’ll be poor forever. Her conviction is further strengthened when she and Jimmie see Margie’s neighbor, Elsie (Appleby), run down the front stoop and into a waiting limousine. Margie asks Elsie where she’s going. “Bermuda!” answers Elsie. Margie explains to Jimmie that Elsie has a wealthy lover and she’s doing quite well. Jimmie is adamant, however. “Going into everyone’s backdoors, you see there’s so much grief in the world. Everyone gets their fair share,” he tells her.
Meanwhile, things are getting worse for Sophie and Alf. Sophie is relentless as she pushes Alf to get off his duff and go look for work. Margie is glad to go to work just to escape the constant fighting. As she’s adjusting a dress she overhears the models in the shop talking about meeting a rich man and the rich men they’ve already come to know. Margie gets a break of sorts when an important customer comes in while the other models are at lunch. Mr. Francois (Porcasi), the store’s owner, drafts the willing Margie, sending her out to model a fur for millionaire Raymond Harding (William), who has arrived at the store with his girlfriend Babsy (Dodd). While Babsy is in the dressing room trying on outfits, Mr. Francois has Margie model a fur for Harding. At first Harding hardly takes notice, but when Mr. Francois has her open up the coat to reveal she’s wearing nothing but her undergarments underneath, Harding suddenly takes and interest and is all over her.
When he hears that Jimmie has canceled their lunch date because of work, Harding offers to have Margie’s lunch sent in. She orders a sandwich and a Coke. “I guess you’d call it a Coca-Cola,” she tells Harding in an obvious allusion to the slang term for cocaine. Harding also tells Margie about his penthouse with its built-in swimming pool. Babsy emerges from the dressing room to find her boyfriend making time with the model and yanks him out of the store, but not before Harding whispers something to Mr. Francois.
When Margie goes out with Jimmie that night, he is outraged that she did the modeling, especially for Harding, who Jimmie describes as “girl nutty.” He decides to pop the question, telling her that he has been saving for a store of his own out on Long Island. Margie accepts the proposal, later telling her mother of her plans.
But something happens to change everything. Harding, infatuated with Margie, sends orchids to her mother. When Mom says that she really doesn’t want them, Alf grabs them to sell for pool money. Sophie follows Alf into the hall to retrieve the flowers and we hear the sound of Alf hitting Sophie. She returns to the apartment holding her hand over her eye. For Sophie, it’s the final straw, especially as she’s pregnant with her second child. She wants a divorce, telling Margie that she can get a job and leave the kids for Mom to watch during the day. Margie, seeing what her sister has gone through, is now totally soured on the idea of matrimony, and delivers the movie’s most famous line: "I've made up my mind that anytime I hand myself over to a man for life, it's cash on delivery." Unfortunately, the front door is still open and Jimmie has come to drive Margie to work. He overhears the conversation, and figuring she no longer wants him to drive her to work, slinks away despondently.
Margie agrees to help Sophie find a lawyer. They visit the office of A.J. Dietrich (Wilson). He informs Sophie that a divorce will cost $200. Margie tells Sophie she will try to find the $200 necessary for the divorce. She begins by asking the models at work, but it’s no soap. One tells her that while men give them presents, they would never gift them with cash. “They’re (the models) allowed about as much freedom as Airedales on a leash,” she tells Margie. Perhaps, she adds, Margie could get the money from Mr. Francois. He, too, turns her down. Margie swallows her pride and visits Jimmie to ask for the money. She tells him up front that she still means what she said about marriage and she’s only there as a friend. Jimmie is willing to give her the money, though, until he asks what it’s for. When she tells him, he now refuses, accusing her of butting into her sister’s affairs. Besides, he doesn’t believe in divorce, especially not with kids around. They quarrel and she leaves.
There’s one more option left for Margie: Harding. She gets up the nerve to visit his penthouse, where she finds a wild party going on. We see Harding lounging poolside in a two-piece suit with a striped top that really comes across on the screen, especially in black and white, as totally garish. Earlier we saw him bobbing up and down in the pool with a drunken female guest on an inflatable toy that looks suspiciously like as penis. Now he’s resting, telling another female guest that he’s going to have Babsy sent away on a modeling jaunt, so they’ll have plenty of time together. When Peterson (Kinnell), his butler, tells him discreetly of Margie’s arrival, Harding softly replies, “Serve it here.”
He greets Margie with the line, “Why not take off your clothes and stay awhile?” Margie, for her part, is overwhelmed by all this and seems more than a bit disgusted at the goings-on. Harding has Peterson show Margie to the den where he pulls out a swimsuit and kimono for her, and sets up the champagne for Harding’s entrance. Harding saunters in wearing his own kimono and begins working his charm. They have several drinks together before she works up the nerve to ask him for the $200. When she swears to pay it all back, Harding’s only question is “How?” She replies by offering him $5 a week from her own salary, to which he asks if she wouldn’t take it as a gift. Margie may be an innocent, but she’s no fool. She knows this gift is not a “no-strings” sort of deal, but the money is important – she needs it for Sophie. “Yes,” she replies. “If it’s necessary. I suppose that’s the only way you lend money to girls like me.” “Yes, that seems to be the customary arrangement,” Harding replies back.
Slowly, though, we see a transformation beginning to take place. Up until this time Harding has been plying Margie with champagne to break her down. But now it’s he who is the one being broken down – broken down from his seduction, for the liquor has loosened Margie’s tongue and unfortunately for Harding, made her even franker. She tells him “marriage is bunk, at least for poor people.” Harding, taken aback at this display of honesty, replies that he doesn’t think she would like the high life. “I’ll learn to like it,” she says; her determination and honesty now giving him second – and third – thoughts. “I find you very interesting,” he says as he moves to the piano and begins to play.
“Gee, you play swell,” she tells him. “On the contrary,” Harding replies, “I play . . . very badly.” The wolf in him has now been replaced with the fatherly figure.
The $200 is as good as in Margie’s pocket when Jimmie bursts in. He somehow found out what she was up and now confronts the couple with accusations. Margie tells him to get out. Jimmie raises his hand to hit her when Harding blocks it. Jimmie retaliates by hitting Harding right in the stomach. “You hit me a little low,” Harding mumbles before collapsing on the floor. Margie’s reaction is one of vivid anger. She tells Jimmie off, as Jimmie assumed the only reason she visited Harding was for the sex. She tells Jimmie that Harding never made a move. “That’s the difference between him and you. Now, get out!”
Jimmie runs out as Harding’s butler comes in. He calls the doctor, who calls for an ambulance. The cops also show up to investigate. They question Margie on the assumption that she and Jimmie were there to trap Harding. They want her to accompany them to the station, but Margie asks if she can go to the bathroom to change from the swimsuit back into her dress. The cops give permission, but once in the bathroom, Margie makes her escape through a window.
So now the cops are after Margie and Jimmie. She didn’t get the money and things really look bad. And here’s where the film goes completely off the rails. As Margie is comforting Jimmie at her apartment, there’s a knock at the door. Expecting the police, she opens the door to reveal Harding’s butler. Mr. Harding is all right, he tells her. It wasn’t Jimmie, but some bad shrimp he ate earlier that sent him to the hospital. The butler gives Margie the promised $200 and leaves. Next to enter is the landlady, Mrs. McCarthy (Eburne). She informs Margie and Jimmie that Alf won $1,000 in a billiards tournament in Atlantic City plus an additional $500 betting on himself. Everything is once again hunky-dory between Alf and Sophie, as Sophie has called off the divorce. And that’s not all the good news Mrs. McCarthy is carrying. She hands Margie an envelope. It turns out that it’s a letter from Margie’s boss, Mr. Francois. Enclosed is the $200 she asked to borrow and in the accompanying letter he says that when she returns to work he will promote her to model with a raise in wages. It becomes obvious that Margie and Jimmie will marry as they make up and kiss as the movie fades out.
Under 18 is an excellent showcase for star Marian Marsh, who gives a wonderfully complex performance as the increasingly desperate Margie, a virtuous young woman whose entire world is becoming a question of choosing between a life of money and one of true happiness and pressuring her towards a life of moving on from one rich man to another. She displays both fearless determination and poignant self-doubt as she builds both suspense and tension over what lengths she will go to help sister Sophie. Marsh’s elfin appearance, combined with her gentle acting approach, changes the mood of the film from unrelentingly dark to one filled with warm moments. It would be a far harsher film if Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, or Joan Blondell were given the part. Marsh also makes the most of her relationship with boyfriend Jimmie, seeing the goodness and kindness in him that further complicates her choice. Her Margie learns that while money can buy happiness, as it seemingly does in the film, it’s love that will conquer all, even in the poor house.
As for Warren William, he’s billed fourth in only his third film after departing Broadway, but the role of Raymond Harding seems as if it was written with him in mind. No actor is more appealingly sleazy than William, or more sympathetically so at that. He does a good job in the limited time he has, using everything in his power to get the image of Harding as a super lech over with the audience. Although his portrayal is weakened by a sudden attack of decency at the end, it’s nonetheless a precursor to the star-billed cads and rouges he played a little later.
The rest of the cast is also fine; there’s not a bad performance in the group. Regis Toomey provides the right balance as Jimmie, his anger toward the rich tempered by his love for Margie and his despondency over the possibility of losing her. Another surprise is the performance of Murray Kinnell as a refined butler, especially if one has seen Kinnell in his best known role – that of “Putty Face” in The Public Enemy. Anita Page and Norman Foster, however, threaten to steal the film in its early moments as the bickering couple of Alf and Sophie. Their antics in those early scenes make it even harder to accept their reconciliation in the final reel, as if we know deep inside that Alf will blow it once again, that lady luck can’t always be on his side, and being a pool shark is no dependable way to make a living.
Archie Mayo’s direction is crisp, keeping the film moving along at a good pace. Some of his camera placement is inspired, such as the scene where Margie is approaching Harding’s penthouse. Mayo uses a rather unusual angle for the building, making it seem foreboding as she approaches, and in the scene where she rides the elevator up to the penthouse makes deft use of shadows while keeping the camera on Marsh’s expressive face. The kicker is when she arrives at the top and exits to see a party scene that looks like something out of Dante’s Inferno. All the while he cuts back to Marsh, who looks on with a mixture of surprise, disgust, and wariness.
Were it not for the artificial happy ending, Under 18 would come across much better. It’s a rather unique window into the lives of the working poor during the Depression and the wolf that is always at the door. It offers a grim, realistic view of the options available for women raised in the tenements. This is no escapist fantasy, at least until the end, but rather the other side of the world depicted in such films as Gold Diggers of 1933, Gold Diggers of 1935, and Dames. During the film, the camera focuses in on the hard facts of life in the tenements: sleeping on fire escapes on hot summer nights, congested sidewalks and streets choking with traffic, and apartments with little more than paper-thin walls so that the neighbors can be heard right through them.
We also see Margie and Jimmie on a couple of their dates, which are depicted as definitely on the unglamorous side. Sometimes he takes her with him on his deliveries, while other times they sit on the front stoop next to some fresh garbage talking about love, money and marriage. We listen in on Jimmie’s hatred for the rich while Margie is swooning over the life the models lead at work.
What Under 18 has in common with the other films mentioned above, however, is the depiction of limited choices for women in the workforce. If not born into money, life is difficult for a working woman: she can be a clerk, a landlady, or a model. That’s it. Even physical violence, which occurs when Alf strikes Sophie and Jimmie goes to hit Margie (only to be stopped by Harding) goes unpunished, as if it were an inescapable fact of a woman’s life. Most of the films made during the Pre-Code years make gold digging into a sympathetic art form, while the rich are portrayed as pleasure-seeking boobs who deserve to be parted from their cash.
And while Under 18 has its share of Pre-Code friskiness, the unrealistic happy ending almost threatens to sabotage all that has gone on before. Were the film made in 1936, we could simply ascribe it to dictated changes from the Breen Office. But this was 1931, years before the Code was enforced, and it would seem that the ending was an inspiration of screenwriters Charles Kenyon and Maude Fulton for reasons known only to them.
Overall, Under 18 is an entertaining Pre-Code film with two excellent performances from leads Marsh and William that promise greater things from them in the future. But while Warren William lived up to his promise, Marian Marsh fell short, despite many excellent performances. And her fall from grace has been attributed to Under 18, or rather, the negative critical reaction accompanied by the poor box office, despite the intense ballyhoo. Marsh, disappointed and exhausted from her working schedule at Warner Bros. (five films in 1931 alone), rebelled against the studio, which retaliated by dropping her option. Her career never fully recovered, as she moved from studio to studio. While at Columbia, she turned in two great performances in The Black Room (1935), with Boris Karloff, and Crime and Punishment (also 1935), with Peter Lorre. Her movie career ended in 1942 at the age of 28, starring with Harry Langdon in House of Errors for PRC. Still, while her star burned bright in the early ‘30s, she looked to be one of the coming superstars of the film business.