Wednesday, November 2, 2016


Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

Politics (MGM, 1931) – Director: Charles Reisner. Writers: Zelda Sears & Malcolm Stuart Boylan (story), Wells Root (adaptation), Robert E. Hopkins (dialogue). Stars: Marie Dressler, Polly Moran, Roscoe Ates, Karen Morley, William Bakewell, John Miljan, Tom McGuire, Kane Richmond, Mary Alden, & DeWitt Jennings. B&W, 73 minutes.

"This story is dedicated to women – who have been fighting for their rights ever since Adam and Eve started the loose-leaf system.” – Introduction.

Though largely forgotten today, the team of Marie Dressler and Polly Moran was one of the most popular during the early ‘30s. They made seven films together and the team was only broken up by MGM when the studio determined that Dressler was deserving of bigger and better movies, especially after she came off so well in Dinner at Eight.

Politics was one of the programmers MGM made to take advantage of their popularity, especially that of Dressler's. The film takes place in the small town of Lake City where music teacher Ivy Higgins (Moran), and her husband Peter (Ates), the town’s barber, share a house with widow Hattie Burns (Dressler) and her daughter Myrtle (Morley). Though a rather scenic town, Lake City is far from idyllic, due to the presence of racketeer Jim Curango (Miljan), who has Mayor Tom Collins (McGuire) in his pocket and is able to operate at will. 

One night, Myrtle’s friend Daisy Evans (Marsh) is accidentally shot and killed at Curango’s speakeasy, The Little Club, by Nifty (Richmond) with a bullet intended for Benny Emerson (Bakewell). We later discover that Benny is Myrtle’s secret sweetheart. It seems that Curango is worried about Benny (who wants out) turning rat and spilling the beans about Curango’s illegal operations. Benny, however, is also wounded in the ambush, and as he is afraid to go to the hospital (because Curango is hanging the killing on him), he hides out in Myrtle’s attic while she nurses him. 

At a rally of women voters, where Ivy holds the office of Sergeant-at-Arms, Mayor Tom Collins (what a great name for a politician during Prohibition) is holding a Q&A session. Hattie steps up and wants to know what the mayor is going to do about Daisy’s death and the town’s growing crime problem. Collins attempts to slough her off, but Hattie is persistent; she wants an answer. When she forcibly accuses the mayor of being in cahoots with the racketeers, the resulting cheers from the audience drown out any attempt by the mayor to answer and he is hooted off the stage (to the consternation of Curango and his cronies who are listening to the rally over the radio).

The rally’s leader, Mrs. Evans (an uncredited Claire Du Brey), calls for new leadership, noting that there is a perfect woman candidate for the job right here in the room. Ivy, thinking Mrs. Evans is referring to her, begins congratulating herself. Hattie joins in as well, patting Ivy on the back, until Mrs. Evans finishes her thought by saying that Hattie is that candidate. Ivy’s reaction is priceless, but she quickly recovers and joins the call for Hattie, who reluctantly accepts their nomination. 

A concerned Curango visits Hattie and attempts to bribe her. When she refuses, he then tries to blackmail her into entering into partnership with him. But Hattie holds firm and throws the gangster out of her house.

The men in Lake City, after hearing the news, are up in arms over the possibility that a woman could become their next mayor and are determined to assert themselves and put the women in their place. After a protest torchlight parade commences through the streets of Lake City, in which the local women demand the ouster of Collins and the election of Hattie to office, the men begin to take action.

Following the march, a women's rally is held in the local park. But the men intervene and collectively threaten to get drunk and spend all their money if the women persist in promoting Hattie for mayor. Ivy’s husband Peter is selected to be the first to get his wife off the stage because of her prior belligerence in stating her opinions. After fortifying himself with some “liquid courage” at the speakeasy, he leads the parade of angry husbands who pull their wives away from the rally. Hattie starts to protest, but the clouds open up a heavy rain and chases everyone away except for Hattie. 

The next meeting is held in Hattie’s home where she urges the women to go on strike, denying the men everything in the "parlor, bedroom, and bath” Through this strike they can sway the election and unseat the incumbent mayor.

The strategy is working fine until Peter discovers Benny in the attic and calls the police. When they arrive to arrest Benny, Myrtle becomes hysterical and admits that she was Benny's mysterious girlfriend. Hattie, afraid that the resulting scandal will effectively end her election bid, pulls out of the race. However, when Nifty is arrested for Daisy's murder, he confesses that Benny went straight in order to marry Myrtle and that Curango ordered him to kill Benny. 

That the truth is finally out, another march is held to show support for Hattie, who now has the endorsement of the chief of police (an uncredited DeWitt Jennings). She wins the mayoral election easily. Hattie's first duty as mayor is to marry Myrtle and Benny at a ceremony in which Ivy, the newly appointed commissioner of garbage, acts as matron of honor. 


Politics is a very loose adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, a comic account of one woman, Lysistrata, and her extraordinary mission to end the Peloponnesian War by persuading the women of Greece to withhold sexual privileges  from their husbands and lovers in order to force the men to negotiate peace. The strategy, however, only serves to inflame the ongoing battle between the sexes. Writers Zelda Sears, Malcolm Boylan, Wells Root, and Robert Hopkins simply moved the action to the present day Prohibition America and fashioned the story to fit the stars.

We need to keep in mind that when this movie was made, the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote, was only slightly over a decade old. Having the film deal with the growing power of women as voters and shapers of public policy was still a novel idea at the time, as women were supposed to stay in the background and let the men handle things. And in 1931, one of the main issues for women was the continuation of Prohibition and the accompanying closing of speakeasies. 

Polly Moran was the perfect foil for Marie Dressler. Acid-tongued and brash, she was also kept busy by the studio, appearing in a number of movies without her partner. In their films together, Polly was the explosive one, quick to react, while Marie was the passive one, slow to react, but usually right by the movie’s end.

Roscoe Ates, whose gimmick was his stuttering (he became the model for Porky Pig, which testifies to his popularity at the time), plays Polly’s husband, caught between her forcefulness and the opinions of his male buddies, on whom he is dependent for business as the town’s barber. He is the weakest character in the movie, partially because his shtick is already running thin.

Beautiful Karen Morely is Marie’s duplicitous daughter and William Bakewell is her somewhat shady boyfriend. Although they give competent performances, they’re relegated to the background in order to let the leading ladies manage the stage, but programmers such as this were good testing grounds for young actors at the time. Later the testing ground would shift to the B-movies. John Miljan is excellent in a small role as the racketeer, and Kane Richmond, who is practically invisible as hitman Nifty Morgan, later became a solid supporting player, mainly in the B’s. He is probably best known for the 1942 Republic serial Spy Smasher, which became something of a cult item in the ‘70s.

Unfortunately, although the public lined up to see Marie and Polly’s latest film, the critics weren’t too kind, many fearing that the ongoing formula of their films was already getting too thin for further adventures. Variety noted the following, according to the TCM essay on the film: “the very evidence of lack of real action by the two principal characters in the cast, Dressler and Moran, is a weakness Metro may not be able to afford if another movie is planned for the pair. It's taking a long chance with the earned drawing power of these two.”

And that’s the trouble with Politics: it sounds much better than it is. The humor is weak and the mixture of slapstick and deadly shootings is put together rather clumsily. Charles F. Riesner directed the film in a straightforward manner, relying on frequent cuts to move the story along. Cinematographer Clyde DeVinna handled everything in a workmanlike manner, as did art director Cedric Gibbons, who does a good job of recreating small-town America. Politics is an entertaining diversion, as it’s always fun to see Dressler and Moran together, but don’t look for too much; take it for what it is, a simple programmer.


Dressler and Moran would be teamed for the last time in 1932’s Prosperity. In the meantime, Dressler earned her second Best Actress nomination for her performance in the uber-soaper Emma, also in 1932.

As usual, MGM was able to call on its vast roster of actors to fill the uncredited parts. Besides DeWitt Jennings as the police chief, look for Henry Hall as a police sergeant, Kenneth McDonald as a policeman/driver, Ethan Laidlaw as a policeman in the park, Dorothy Granger as a newlywed, and Robert Dudley as a husband receiving a haircut from Roscoe Ates.

And don’t blink during the rally in the park or you’ll miss Ann Dvorak, an extra in the crowd.

In the scene where Daisy (March) enters the speakeasy she looks at a poster for the 1931 MGM comedy short The Stolen Jools, a two-reeler done for charity featuring over 50 Hollywood stars, including Polly Moran.

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