Friday, September 25, 2015

Employees' Entrance

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

Employees’ Entrance (WB, 1933) – Director: Roy Del Ruth. Writer: Robert Presnell, Sr. Cast: Warren William, Loretta Young, Wallace Ford, Alice Whiter, Hale Hamilton, Albert Gran, Allen Jenkins, Ruth Donnelly, Frank Reicher, Charles Sellon, & Marjorie Gateson. B&W, 75 minutes.

Department Store Girls – This is your picture, about your lives and your problems! See what happens in department store aisles and offices after closing hours! Girls who couldn't have been touched with a 100-ft yacht – ready to do anything to get a job! Beautiful models who whisper their dread of the "Boss" who can "make" or break more women than a sultan!

 – Ad copy for the film.

About seven months after MGM released Skyscraper Souls with Warren William, Warner Bros. released this similarly themed flick also starring William. The MGM film was concerned with the behind-the-scenes doings in a huge skyscraper; Employees’ Entrance is concerned with the behind-the scenes doings is a huge department store. William was the ruthless boss behind the shenanigans in Skyscraper Souls, as he is here. In Souls, Maureen O’Sullivan plays the young naïve worker deemed by Williams as just ripe for the plucking. In Employees’ Entrance, Loretta Young is the young, naïve object of William’s lust. Of the two films, Employees’ Entrance is the far better of the two, as Warner’s was much more comfortable dealing with the problems of the working class.

William is his usual villainous self as Kurt Anderson, the hard-driving general manager of the Franklin Monroe Department Store. The film opens as we see sales rise through the 1920’s and we quickly led to infer it’s because of the dynamic leadership of Anderson. A corporate hot shot brought in as general manager, his strict adherence to his philosophy of profit over people makes him the hated target of all. He’s also introduced among a montage of complaints from both employees and suppliers, while superimposed over those complaints is the story of the store’s rise, from $10 million in annual sales to $25 million in 1925, and $100 million in 1929. We see the store’s namesake and top executive, Franklin Monroe (Hamilton) issue lame apologies with the explanation that Mr. Anderson makes all the decisions.

However, the Depression has come and it’s hit not only the store, but also the entire industry quite hard. We meet the directors at a board meeting where Monroe is more concerned about chairing the Mayor’s Welcoming Committee. His cousin and toady, Denton Ross (Gran), dutifully seconds his every word. Anderson sits there sneering before demanding his salary be doubled along with total control. But the directors are in a panic, telling Anderson that he can stay, but only under supervision. He scoffs at the offer, replying that he and he alone is responsible for the store’s growth, and if his terms are not met, he’ll leave and sign a contract with their biggest competitor. With that Monroe walks out to welcome some Trans-Atlantic flyers, and the directors, now alone, buckle and agree to his terms.

And if we think he’s tough with the board of directors, wait until we see him with the suppliers. The new clothing supplier, Garfinkle (Reicher) informs him that part of the large first order of swagger coats the store was counting on for a big sale will be delayed three days because of labor strife, and he can supply only a fraction of the order for now. He pleads that he has $30,000 invested in the deal and is already taking a loss to insure future business. Anderson is angered and cancels the entire order, telling his secretary to sue for damages. Garfinkle continues to plead, telling Anderson, “It’s my life.” “Merchandise is the life of this store,” Anderson retorts. “When you promise to deliver on a certain day and don’t do it, you threaten our life!” But, Garfinkle continues, “It only happened once. It can’t happen again.” No soap. “It can’t happen once!” Anderson screams. “Now get out of here!”

Interestingly, when Anderson is later walking the floor, he notices a new employee – none other than Garfinkle himself, who has taken an entry-level position at the store. Garfinkle tells him, “It’s men like you who crush that succeed.” But if he was expecting Anderson to fire him for the remark, he was dead wrong. Instead, Anderson is so flattered that he pulls out his checkbook and begins to write Garfinkle a check for $5,000 in return for a half interest in any business he goes into. The broken man refuses the help, though, tearing up the check. Anderson is still impressed and orders Garfinkle’s salary to be doubled. “You’ve got the right idea now,” he tells him.

However, all work and no play males Kurt a very dull boy indeed. One evening as he is leaving, he meets Madeline Walters (Young), beautiful young woman who he discovers hiding in the store’s model house. She tells him that she’s broke and unemployed, and that hiding in the store can ensure she’s first in line the next morning for a job. He offers to take her to dinner and she agrees, later spending the night at his place. The next morning, she’s the store’s new model.

At the next day’s meeting with the department heads, Anderson notes that because the Depression is cutting into business, he is cutting executives' salaries (including his own) by 10% and is looking for new ideas from his staff. His second-in-command is an older man named Higgins (Sellon). Higgins has been with the company since 1906, but makes the error of voicing his preference of retrenchment. Anderson, disgusted with what he’s heard, turns to Martin West (Ford), an employee in the men’s clothing department and the youngest man in the room, for suggestions. West suggests selling men’s drawers to women. Anderson is intrigued and asks Higgins what he thinks. Higgins replies, “Fantastic. Not at all in line with the policy of the store, and I’ve been 30 years in this business.” It’s a fatal error. Anderson turns to him. “Higgins, get out,” he explodes. Higgins begs him not to do it like this; that is, publicly. “Publicly or privately, you’re through. You’re too old,” Anderson retorts, calling Higgins dead wood and throwing him out the door. Anderson now promotes West as his assistant, but with the caveat that he stay single – this is no job for a married man and he must devote himself solely to business if he’s to get ahead.

But – wouldn’t you know it – Martin and Madeline fall in love and secretly marry, which later places a strain on their relationship because Martin is always at Anderson’s beck and call. They can’t let Anderson find out about their situation, lest they both lose their jobs. When it comes to women, Anderson is a complete cynic, believing that the only thing women are after is financial security. Not that they don’t have their uses. Being as Monroe Franklin is away once again, Anderson doubles the salary of employee Polly Dale (White) to keep Franklin’s interim executive, Ross, occupied and out of Anderson’s hair.

Meanwhile, Higgins has been desperately trying to get in to see Anderson in hopes of getting his job back. But Anderson has written him off and won’t see him. Despondent, Higgins goes up to the ninth floor and jumps out the window to his death. Informed of Higgins’ death, Anderson can only say, “When a man outlives his usefulness, he ought to jump out a window!”

The strain on the Wests grows to the point where they quarrel at the company party, with Martin drinking himself into oblivion with the boys and passing out. This leaves Madeline vulnerable to Anderson’s entreaties. But this time he gets her drunk and invites her to rest awhile and clear her head at his hotel suite. She passes out on the bed and we seen him enter later. The next day, Madeline again rebuffs him in his office, telling him that she feels “like someone you’d pick up on the street.” She asks why he chose her. Anderson answers that he finds her attractive, adding that she also has an exemplary sales record. What a charmer. During their argument, she lets slip that she’s married to West, which surprises and angers Anderson. They both betrayed him. She then begs him not to tell Martin. All Anderson can do is spit out, “I’ll take care of it.”

And does he take care of it. First, he tries to get Polly to seduce Martin, but Polly won’t hear of it. Angered, he wants to fire Polly, but is stopped by Ross, who is totally infatuated with her. So it’s on to Plan B: He has Martin sitting at an intercom in an adjoining office while he calls Madeline back in. During their conversation he manages to coax the information about their two nights together from Madeline, telling her that, “You women think an affair with you is the most important thing in the world.” Then – clearly for Martin’s benefit – he adds, “A man’s work and his success is.” He dismisses her, “You women make me sick.”

Both Martin and Madeline are emotionally crushed. She leaves her husband a farewell note, saying that she has failed him as a wife. Later, Martin learns that she took poison in an unsuccessful attempt as suicide. Martin is fit to be tied and is itching for a confrontation with Anderson.

However, Kurt Anderson has bigger problems. Despite his efforts to get things moving again, sales at the store are still plummeting and Commodore Monroe is way from the store on a yacht. This leaves the voting interest of the company in the hands of the bankers, who have turned on Anderson. They want to replace him with someone who will cut back and retrench in these hard times. This forces Anderson into an alliance with the dimwitted Ross – he needs Ross to get Monroe to grant him proxy if he’s to defeat the bankers.

Martin finally confronts Anderson, threatening to kill him. Anderson, already under pressure facing dismissal if the proxy voters don’t come through, dares Martin to do it, even tossing him a gun. Martin fires, but only manages to inflict a minor wound on Anderson. Other employees, hearing the shooting, burst into the office, but Anderson assures them that nothing really happened. Martin quits and leaves.

Meanwhile, Ross has managed to contact Commodore Monroe, and get his proxy just in time for the vote of the board of directors. Anderson keeps his job. Martin and Madeline reconcile and decide to look for new jobs away from the Monroe Franklin Department Store. As for Anderson, having survived the vote, he resumes his job with his new assistant. It’s none other than Garfinkle, embittered and now just as ruthless as his new boss. 

Employees Entrance is a pretty shocking Pre-Code movie with a surprising relevance to today.
 Although based on a play, it has the feel of the typical Warner Bros. “ripped from the headlines” movie. According to Brian Cady, writing for TCM, Variety speculated that the story referred to Klein's department store in New York, which had enjoyed an unaccountable success during the Depression. Monroe Franklin, Hale Hamilton's character, with his many political connections, was thought to be based a politico who was dubbed “Mr. New York” and served as its "official greeter," Grover Whalen.

It’s also a film that can’t be made today. Not because of the subject matter, but because of the locale. At the time Employees’ Entrance was made, department stores occupied a much more exalted position in the American outlook. They were early versions of fantasylands that appealed to those who believed in the American Dream. The common perception was that anyone could get a job and rise up the economic ladder on hard work and dedication. It was also a place where aisles of luxury goods stood next to those of necessities; shopping wasn’t simply an activity, but an experience that could take hours – even the entire day – as people dressed up and strolled the aisles languishing over the latest necessities and moving over an aisle of two to gaze at luxury items they could only dream of affording.

There were roughly 40 movies made in the ‘20s and ‘30s where the plot revolved around a department store. The best known include It with Clara Bow as the girl who steals; Safety Last, starring Harold Lloyd; and Our Blushing Brides, where working girl Joan Crawford wins the heart of the store owner’s son, played by Robert Montgomery. Employees’ Entrance changed things a bit by making William’s Kurt Anderson, the general manager, and not the owner, of the store, his power resting not in his wealth, but his ability to control his employees’ wealth.

Anderson fit the ideal for the Depression times – a strong man who could take change and get things moving. Make no mistake the man is a monster, perhaps the embodiment of capitalism in his ruthlessness. Everything he does is based on exploitation; even his relationships are exploitative. And if he has to destroy someone he does so willfully, for the goal is to make money. But even though the film showed the damage a dictator like an Anderson might do, his persona takes on the quality of an anti-hero when compared to the owner and the board of directors. The owner, when he’s not absent, is a cold fish whose idea of leadership is to send telegrams to the store’s employees quoting such platitudes as Thomas Paine’s “these are the times that try men’s souls.” His cousin, who is second-in-command, is a fat toady, unable to think for himself. And the board is composed of bankers who are only satisfied when there are plenty of profits.

Anderson, on the other hand, despises them. In his words, they are not producers. He, on the other hand, is a self-made man who rose through the ranks on ability and merit alone, as he alludes to Martin West in what passes for a tender scene between them. There was a girl he loved back in Minnesota, but there was no way he was going to settle down with a wife and bring a child into the sort of poverty he experienced. Now that he has money, he is determined not to lose it. And one of the ways to lose it is through romance and marriage, hence his misogyny. Women are for play only; they are there to be exploited.

Exploitation is the right word for the relationship between Anderson and Madeline, and it exists on both sides. When he discovers her hiding in the store’s home display, she is at first hesitant to speak with him until she discovers who he is. Then and only then will she allow him to buy her dinner and then go back to his apartment for the night. Once she falls for Martin, she tries to avoid Anderson any way she can until the night of the office party. After Martin deserts her for a night of inebriation with the boys, Anderson spots her and they have drinks. While she is getting more and more soused with each sip, he, as always, keeps his head about him. Finally, drunk and confused, she accepts his invitation to take the key to the room he’s reserved and lie down for spell while he waits back at the party. But before we see Madeline collapsing on the bed, Anderson is already sauntering down the hall and letting himself into the room. As she’s lying on the bed, clearly passed out, he closes the door and spends the night. We can only second the view of Mick LaSalle in his book, Dangerous Men: “It’s tantamount to rape. She’s practically in a coma.”

However, there is another side to Anderson that, despite all his villainy, endears him to the audience, especially an audience during the Depression. Anderson saves jobs. The bankers on the board want to cut jobs and retrench. Anderson, on the other hand, realizes the lifeblood of the store rests with its workforce. When the board tries to force him out for not cutting back on the workforce his answer is to find the wandering owner rather than back one millimeter on his stand. He tells the board to their faces that they “make him sick.” “You’re a banker, not a producer, “ he tells one. “All you have is dignity and today you can’t get one thin dime for it.”

While he will brook no nonsense from the executives or suppliers, he takes a slightly softer line with his employees. When his secretary, Miss Hall (Donnelly), is caught spending her salary on a dress from one of the store’s competitors, Anderson is fit to be tied. “Whose money?” he asks. “Who pays that to you?” He’ll make an example and embarrass her, but he will not take her livelihood away. It’s the same with store detective Sweeney (Jenkins). He catches one of the customers, Mrs. Hickox (Gateson), supposedly in the act of stealing a purse, but it's her own purse. Taken to his office, Anderson tries to charm her, but to no avail, especially when she informs him that her husband is the editor of one of the city’s larger newspapers. At a loss, Anderson asks her if there might be some item in the store she would like to have as a token of apology and to keep the story out of the papers. There is, she says: a grand piano, which he lets her have. After she leaves, he turns his wrath on Sweeney, telling him that the piano is coming out of his salary at the rate of $10 a week. When Sweeney protests that it will take him the rest of his life to pay the debt, Anderson answers, “I doubt if you’ll live that long. Get out.” But he doesn’t fire Sweeney. Anderson is the example of the perfect Depression manager: a ruthless businessman who will fight for each and every dollar, without recourse to any sort of emotion, be it sentimentality, tenderness, or pity. It’s exploit or be exploited, the perfect person for these Social Darwinian times.

As with Skyscraper Souls, the film revolves around, and is dominated by, the persona of Warren William. Ironically, William was not the studio’s first choice for the part. That was Edward G. Robinson, who turned the part down, causing a small rift between him and the studio. But William turned out to be the right choice. No one played the hard-hearted cad as well as he did, or as charmingly, which made him even more dangerous. Simply put, he’s so good at being so bad. No actor could play this part today; it’s just too cold-blooded. There would have to be some mitigating factor in place to explain why he is the way he is and give him a chance to redeem himself at the end.

It’s always interesting to compare the Pre-Code Loretta Young with the Loretta Young of the ’40s and ‘50s, when she became the poster girl for devout Catholicism. Before she became St. Loretta she was quite the Wild Child. Born Gretchen Young in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1913, she, along with her sisters, had been appearing on screen as extras since she was four. Eventually, the extra work led to small parts, which in turn led to supporting roles, such as in Laugh, Clown, Laugh (MGM, 1928) with Lon Chaney. Warner Brothers-First National signed her in 1928, and in 1929 she had her first lead role in the early talkie, The Girl in the Glass Cage. From 1928 to 1934, she made almost 50 films, most of them for Warner Bros. with titles like The Truth About YouthBig Business GirlPlay-GirlWeek-End MarriageThey Call It SinMidnight Mary, and Born to Be Bad, among others. In 1930, at the age of 17 she fell in love and eloped to Yuma, Arizona, with her co-star in The Second Floor Mystery, Grant Withers, who was 26. The marriage was a stormy one and lasted only nine months before they divorced. The next film they starred in, Broken Dishes, was due to be released after their divorce, so the studio renamed it Too Young to Marry

In 1934, she jumped ship and signed with Fox, where she went on to become one of Hollywood’s leading ladies. During the filming of The Call of the Wild (1935) with Clark Gable, the two had an on-set affair, which resulted in Loretta becoming pregnant. Because of the morality clauses in their contracts, and the fact that Gable was married, the studio fixers saw to it that the only person outside Gable and Young who knew was Loretta’s mother. Loretta and her mother left for Europe where Loretta delivered a healthy baby girl on November 6, 1935, whom she named Judith. Studio publicity said that Judith was adopted while Loretta was in Europe on vacation. If Barbara Stanwyck could be said to be the Queen of the Pre-Codes, then Loretta Young was its Princess.

Young’s work in Employees’ Entrance was in fitting with her other film work at the time – outstanding. I have never seen any actress of that time play a drunk as well or as convincingly as Young, and the chemistry between her and William was superb, making the fact that she hated him quite believable. Alice White, making a return to the screen after a nearly two-year absence, is pleasantly surprising as Polly Dale, Anderson’s “sex torpedo,” using her to destroy business rivals. Her scenes with William are priceless; the two trade barbs and circle each other like two hyneas as they are but two different examples of the same species. White was being groomed for major stardom by Warner’s in the late silent/early sound era, but her limited acting skills, combined with a full-blown case of “divadom,” led her to walking away from the studio. Sadly, just as he career was finally getting back on track, a scandal later that same year ruined any chances she had to a comeback. Wallace Ford is given more to do here than he was in Skyscraper Souls, and although his scenes with Young are nothing to write home about, his scenes with William are excellent, reflecting the intensity between the two characters. Ford was in interesting actor: during the ‘30s he was a featured player in A-pictures and a leading man in the B’s before settling down as a character actor in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Employee’s Entrance is an engrossing, yet hard movie to watch, mainly because of the character of Kurt Anderson. Yet, it’s Warren William’s performance as Anderson that makes the film so lively and fascinating. He’s a monster, and revels in being such. Nor does the movie seek to make excuses for him. No, he is a self-made monster, and Williams does a masterly job in playing the monster with a mixture of hostility and sublimated sadness. It was directed in usual assembly belt fashion by Roy Del Ruth, whose Pre-Code films always manage to find a raw nerve and focus on it, which is why his films are so interesting.


Polly Dale: Hello, Mr. Anderson.

Kurt Anderson: Oh, it’s you. I didn’t know you with all your clothes on.

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