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.
Carry On Constable
By Ed Garea
Carry On Constable (Anglo-Amalgamated, 1960) – Director: Gerald Thomas. Writers: Norman Hudis (s/p), Brock Williams (idea). Cast: Sidney James, Kenneth Williams, Eric Barker, Kenneth Connor, Charles Hawtrey, Leslie Phillips, Joan Sims, Hattie Jacques, Cyril Chamberlain, Shirley Eaton, Jill Adams, & Joan Hickson. B&W, 86 minutes.
In 1958, tiny Anglo-Amalgamated studio released Carry On Sergeant, a comedy starring William Hartnell as the soon-to-retire Sergeant Grimshawe. What the sergeant would like more than anything before he call it quits is to win the Star Squad prize with his very last platoon of newly called-up National Servicemen, and he has made a rather extravagant bet to that effect. Unfortunately for Grimshawe, he is stuck with a group of complete no-hopers. His struggle to shape them up into a prize-winning platoon helped make this film an unexpected hit. But it was also the supporting cast that viewers went to see, and four of them (Kenneth Connor, Charles Hawtrey, Hattie Jacques, and Kenneth Williams) would form the nucleus of what would become a franchise of 30 films, remembered affectionately by the British public as the “Carry On” series.
The four would play a version of their characters in the rest of the “Carry On” films: Connor was the neurotic one, Jacques the stable, out-upon one, Williams the pompous one, and Hawtrey the flighty one. Joan Sims, playing the over-zealous character, joined the cast in their next film, Carry On Nurse, and Sidney James, in the film we are reviewing. Eric Barker, Leslie Phillips, and Jim Dale were among those who also appeared in the films from time to time. The series was one of gentle comedy; among its many fans were the Beatles (John Lennon mentioned Charles Hawtrey in his introduction to “Dig a Pony” from the Let it Be album), the Pythons, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Rowan Atkinson, and virtually every other famed comic and comic writer in England. The series even spawned a TV movie in 2011 for England’s Channel 5 Television titled Greatest Ever Carry On Films.
Carry On Constable was the fourth film in the series and, as previously mentioned, marked the debut of James. James is Sergeant Wilkins a put-upon police officer serving under the incompetent and bullying Inspector Mills (Barker). Wilkins relies on the support of Sergeant Laura Moon (Jacques), who is secretly in love with him. When a flu epidemic decimates the police station, Wilkins receives three rookie replacements: Tom Potter (Phillips), an ex-playboy trying to make good in an honest line of work; Stanley Benson (Williams), as high-and-mighty pompous type who is certain that normal police methods are inadequate and prefers his methods of observation; and Charlie Constable (Connor), highly nervous and superstitious man who won’t do anything before checking with the stars. Special Officer Timothy Gorse (Hawtrey), an effeminate, harmless type, and Gloria Passworthy (Sims), a zealously efficient police officer, are also on hand for patrol.
Unfortunately, the rookies are not the best of the lot. While on their way to the station, they run into two jewel thieves making their escape. Potter and the others are oblivious and not only help the duo into their car, but also ask for directions to the station. This sets the stage for the rest of the movie, which is a thinly disguised series of gags and situations: Gorse get tangled midair on a bell tower rope while chasing a cat; Benson attempts to arrest a man entering his car because he thinks the man looks like the criminal type. The man turns out to be a detective sergeant. Potter, investigating a noise, bursts in on Sally Barry (Eaton) while she’s in her underwear ironing her dress for work. Benson forces an old lady back across a street she has spent 10 minutes crossing. And in the film’s funniest scene, Benson and Gorse meeting with a store manager experiencing a rash of shoplifting, disguise themselves as women, and are so inept that they manage to get themselves arrested as shoplifters.
There are also precious bits with Wilkins, getting a whiff of Benson’s superior attitude and assigning him to walk the stations K-9 officer, Lady, who always manages to drag him about. Kenneth Connors is funny as the phobia-possessed Constable Constable, walking around in the mornings in zodiac-printed pajamas, and fearing every superstitious things, such as inadvertently walking under a ladder while on patrol and spending minutes rubbing his rabbit’s foot before proceeding. There is also a great scene between him and Sgt. Moon: it seems Constable is in love with Policewoman Passworthy. Moon tells him to just tell her; she think Passworthy feels the same. But Constable tells Moon that he has to know if she’s a Virgo before he proceeds. “I beg your pardon?” Moon asks incredulously. “I just have to know what sign she was born under,” he answers, to her obvious relief. Playing the matchmaker, she checks Passworthy’s personnel records and tells him she was born late in August, which is a load off his mind. Connors and Jacques play beautifully off each other and what could simply be dismissed as an attempt at bawdy humor resonates with the human factor. And Phillips, having already broken in on Sally (Eaton), discovers the cause of her problem with her boyfriend and is now giving her advice to the lovelorn.
Amidst it all is the figure of Sgt. Wilkins, fighting his superior on one hand and trying to get the replacements into shape on the other. For us, this is a new side of James, who previously played joking troublemakers and crooks. He seems to be born into the role of the harried straight man, and his scenes with Jacques are both funny and touching, for both are in love with the other, but never thought of saying it.
There is also another very funny scene when Benson, working the desk, is confronted with a criminal recently arrested. By reading his face, Benson knows that he is really an honest man and can be helped to the right path. The man agrees and compliments Benson on his insight, but tells him he need 50 quid for a course to get him on the right path. Benson agrees to take his last 50 out of the post office and give it to the man when Wilkins comes to take the man away, telling Benson he’s one of the smoothest con-men he’s ever caught. The look on Benson’s face is precious as he realized that he was totally duped.
In the end we know the replacements, for all their bumbling, must be redeemed. And so they are. They find the car the jewel thieves escaped in and call it in to the station. But they stay behind, for Benson has a feeling the crooks are still in the area. So they search. After going through a lot of addresses with no luck they’re about to call it quits until Gorse points out a house that has been abandoned and is on the list to be torn down. He’s right, the crooks are in the house, and after much fighting, they capture the thieves.
Inspector Mills tries to grab the credit, but HQ bumps him upstairs to training and promoted Wilkins to inspector and appoints him in charge of the station. He and Sgt. Moon declare their love. Constable tells Passworthy he wasn’t sure until he found out she was born in August, to which she answers that she was born earlier. Constable tells Sgt. Moon that she lied to him, to which Moon replies, that all that astrology stuff really doesn’t matter anyway. Thus, we get a happy ending.
While Carry On, Constable isn’t fall-over laughing funny, it is nevertheless an excellent example of a gentle humor that isn’t seen that often these days. One blogger compared it to English comfort food: “Carry On's (sic) are the comfort-food of the British film-viewing public: they know what's on offer, and they know they will enjoy.”
Carry On Constable marked the point where Hawtrey, Williams, Connor, Jacques, Sims, and James solidified their characters. Never again would they deviate from their basic stereotype.
James was a last-minute replacement for Ted Ray, who was penciled in for the role of Sgt. Wilkins. However, Ray was under contract to rival company ABC, who distributed the Carry On films. ABC wasn’t too pleased about seeing one of their employees working for the competition and threatened to stop distribution, so producer Peter Rogers reluctantly droped Ray from the film and signed James to take his place.
By Ed Garea
Miss Pinkerton (WB, 1932) – Director: Lloyd Bacon. Writers: Niven Busch & Lillie Hayward (adaptation), Robert Tasker (additional dialogue), Mary Roberts Rinehart. Cast: Joan Blondell, George Brent, Ruth Hall, John Wray, Elizabeth Patterson, C. Henry Gordon, Holmes Herbert, Mary Doran, Blanche Friderici, Mae Madison, Allan Lane, Nigel De Brulier Don Dillaway, & Eulalie Jensen. B&W, 66 minutes.
Miss Pinkerton is an attempt by Warner Bros. at the “old dark house” mystery genre. Done correctly, it’s both thrilling and entertaining. Unfortunately, the movie was not done correctly, and today is really only of interest because of the bravura performance of its star, Joan Blondell.
Blondell plays Nurse Adams, who we see at the beginning of the film coming out of the operating room after assisting on yet another busy day of surgery. She’s quite bored with the routine of the hospital and makes no bones about it. Entering the nurses’ quarters she finds them engaged in a game of cards and so decides to retire, which gives us a chance to see the gorgeous Blondell strip down to her underwear. One firmly ensconced in bed with a magazine, she is called to see Miss Gibbons (Jensen), the Superintendent of Nurses. Gibbons tells Adams that she will be assigned to the house of the rich and well known Mitchell family to care for the family’s elderly aunt, Julia Mitchell (Patterson), who is suffering from shock after discovering the body of her nephew, Herbert Wynne (Allan Lane, whose scenes were deleted in the final print), in the house. Gibbons asks Adams if she wouldn’t mind a change. Adams’s answers, “Mind a change? Lady, if you only knew!”
She arrives at the mansion and immediately goes to work assisting Julia’s physician, Dr. Stuart (Gordon), receiving instructions and getting herself familiar with her patient, as Aunt Julia needs around-the-clock care. She also meets the supervising detective on the case, Inspector Patten (Brent). Patten isn’t buying the current police theory that Wynne committed suicide, nor the family’s explanation of accidental death while cleaning his gun. There are no powder burns, and interviews with the family and staff have convinced him Wynne wasn’t the type to take his life. Hugo (Wray), the butler, stated that “he couldn’t kill himself, not the kind he was.” Aunt Julia puts it more succinctly, describing her nephew as a coward. When Patten learns that Wynne had recently taken out a $100,000 insurance policy, he changes his mind to suicide and speculated that perhaps Wynne shot himself through a newspaper to cover and powder burns. He asks Nurse Adams to look for the newspaper.
In addition, Patten recruits her to act as his eyes and ears when he is away and report anything suspicious that’s going on in the house. When she asks what her title would be, as all those investigating a case have titles, he suggests “Miss Pinkerton,” after the famous detective agency.
While searching the house, Adams meets Paula Brent (Hall), who was sneaking in. Brent tells Adams not only was she Wynne's fiancée, but that Wynne was killed for the insurance money and she knows who it was. However, at the inquest, Wynne's death is declared accidental. Meanwhile, Adams sees a mysterious figure creeping around. When she goes to check, the person grabs her and locks her in a closet. Her screams alert the family, who calls the police. When the police arrive, they find Charles Elliot (Dillaway) holding a newspaper with a bullet hole in it. Charles is arrested despite the protests of Adams, who tells Patten she is sure Elliot is innocent.
Aunt Juliet is very distressed about the arrest and summons her lawyer, Arthur Glenn (Herbert). Outside the room, Paula begs Adams to let her search Wynne’s room to clear Elliott. Glenn sends for Adams and his stenographer, Florence Lenz (Doran) to witness Juliet’s signature on a document, but they do not read the document before signing. As Juliet is still very upset, Dr. Stuart asks Adams to prepare a syringe of amyl nitrite for Juliet’s heart. Moments later Juliet dies because arsenic has been substituted for the amyl nitrite. Adams, before she learns of the death, washes out the hypodermic needle as per standard procedure. Dr. Stuart now suspects Adams of switching the medicine and reports her to the police.
Next, Paula is found with a marriage license that reveals her secret marriage to Wynne, a revelation that seems to give Charles motive. Under additional questioning from Patten, Charles admits that he and Paula are in love, and that on the night Wynne was murdered, Charles was with the victim in his room trying to discourage Wynne from pursuing Paula. He then heard someone coming up the stairs and exited out the window. While Charles is telling his story, police find Hugo the butler in a room, chloroformed. When he comes to, Hugo tells the police to question Florence.
Upon questioning, Florence reveals that it was lawyer Glenn who arranged a plan to cheat the insurance company out of their money by having Wynne marry Paula and fake his suicide and disappear, so that he and Paula could collect on the policy. But Wynne upset the plan by refusing to take a powder, so Glenn murdered him. Glenn later killed Juliet to prevent her from revealing that she hid the newspaper through which the shots were fired at Wynne. Juliet thought Adams and Florence were witnessing her signature on a confession, but Glenn used a blank piece of paper and destroyed the confession. With the case solved, Patten gets a phone call directing him to a new murder. He asks Adams if she wants to come along, but she declines. It seems she’d rather return to the peace and quiet of the hospital.
So what have we learned from all this? Well, to start, the film was based on a novel by popular author Mary Roberts Reinhart. Reinhart came to specialize in the “old dark house” mystery, with her best-known work along these lines being her play, The Bat (1920), which inspired the renowned 1926 film adaptation, as well as one in 1931, titled The Bat Whispers. She is also credited with inventing the “had I but known” school of mystery writing (with the publication of The Circular Staircase in 1908), and the phrase “the butler did it,” from her 1930 novel, The Door, although she never used that phrase in the book.
In Reinhart’s story, Hilda Adams is a visiting nurse who works for the homicide squad and poses as just a nurse at the crime scene. In the film, she’s made a nurse at a hospital, and her first name is stricken – she’s simply “Nurse Adams.” It would seem like the perfect vehicle for Blondell, giving her a platform for her usual energetic, clever, wisecracking performance. She even gets knocked on her keister a few times during the course of the picture. But both the script and director Lloyd Bacon lets her down, for while Blondell gives a strong performance, the rest of the cast seems rather unmotivated, and the plot needlessly confused. Were Michael Curtiz or Mervyn Leroy in the director’s chair, Miss Pinkerton would be a much more lively film. As it is, it’s a film with a lot of potential and a small payoff.
Being an old dark house mystery we can expect plenty of red herrings, suspicious characters, secret passages, screaming women, lights going out at the most opportune times, and mysterious shadows followed by menacing hands. In this film, there’s no shortage of suspicious characters: the dying old aunt, a maid, an eccentric butler (of course), an evil looking doctor, a shady lawyer and his equally shady looking secretary, a fiancée, and the fiancée’s lover. And they all look incredibly guilty to boot; any one of them, or all of them, could have done it. But there’s an old saying that too many cooks spoil the broth, and it’s certainly the case here. Miss Pinkerton is done in by the weight of its script. There’s just too much going on in too short a time.
Compare this film with Curtiz’s The Kennel Murder Case. Both have multiple red herrings, but in the Curtiz film, there’s a strong character with the authority to sort everything out and make sense of it all, while solving the crime. That’s just what Miss Pinkerton lacks. Blondell’s main function in the film seems to be to get terrorized throughout the film’s running time. She’s terrific in those scenes, as her big blue eyes open even wider and she screams her lovely head off. But she lacks the balancing act of authority. She’s simply a nurse snooping around, and when she does any detective work, it goes nowhere. The character with the authority is Inspector Patten, played by George Brent, and all he does is come and go, mostly go. He’s absent, except for a few walk-ons, until the end, when he rushes to Blondell’s aid after hearing her scream as she’s almost choked to death, and solves the case.
On a minor note, what about the dog to whom Adams takes such a liking? In these types of mysteries, the dog can usually point to something or someone overlooked. But here, all the dog does is eat and go outside. It’s an opportunity wasted.
Bacon tries to spice up the convoluted plot by adding some atmosphere in the form of shadows and long silences. However, without the necessary tension, all these add up to are simple conversation breaks, for the film is merely one long conversation with little to back it up. It would help if Bacon would give us some sense of the house’s layout. Half the time we don’t know where we’re supposed to be, and we aren’t helped that only a few of the scenes have any sense of bearing on the mystery. Mostly the characters are eavesdropping on each other. In fact, the biggest mystery of the film is the discrepancy between the exterior shots of the house, with the interior, which seems so much roomier than the exterior, even though everybody seems to be bumping their heads throughout.
It would have really helped the film if there were any chemistry between Adams and Patten. For any chemistry to take hold, Brent has to be there, and as we have seen, he’s mostly absent. It isn’t until the end that we see any romance bloom, as they share a tender embrace followed with some great dialogue: (Adams) “Wait, are you married?” (Patten) “No. You?” (Adams) “No.” Unfortunately, it’s right after this exchange that Patten receives his call alerting him to the new murders, giving the viewer the impression that it was added as an afterthought, which might well be the case.
One plus for Miss Pinkerton is the photography of Barney McGill, who concocts the menacing shadows and takes some of his shots from oblique angles, adding a sense of terror that is so obviously lacking throughout the rest of the film. The scene where Adams sees Patten approach in a bathroom mirror also adds to our pleasure. But in the end it was not enough, and even the bravura performance of Blondell was not enough to pull Miss Pinkerton from the mire of mediocrity to which the writers and the director have sentenced it.
To say that Warner Brothers kept star Joan Blondell busy is an understatement. She appeared in 21 films in 1931 and 1932. In fact, her schedule was so exhausting that in one take on Miss Pinkerton that required her to lay on a cot and feign sleep, she had to be shaken awake by the crew.
Look for cameos by Lyle Talbot as a newspaper editor and young Walter Brennan as a police dispatcher (both uncredited).
Nurse Adams arrives at the crime scene in a cab.
ADAMS (to the driver): Here’s a dollar. Keep the change.
DRIVER (looks at the meter): But the fare is a dollar!
ADAMS: Then we’re even.
Bette Davis' Least Favorite Film
By Ed Garea
Parachute Jumper (WB, 1933) – Director: Alfred E. Green. Writers: John Francis Larkin (s/p), Rian James (story “Some Call It Love”). Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Bette Davis, Frank McHugh, Claire Dodd, Leo Carillo, Harold Huber, & Thomas E. Jackson. B&W, 65 minutes.
Back in the days of my misspent youth, one of my television staples was late night programming, especially Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett. I would alternate between them, depending who the guests were that night. One night, Cavett was the clear winner because his only guest that night was the one and only Bette Davis. Davis was always a great interview because of her no holds barred approach to any subject. At one point in the interview she was going on about her early years at Warner’s, back when she appeared in almost anything to get experience. I remember Cavett asking what her least favorite film was. Without hesitating, Bette spat out “Parachute Jumper.” I forgot the specific reasons why that night, but it seems that she held it in low regard for quite some time. A clip from the movie was even featured in Davis’s film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? as an example of her character’s declining movie career.
But was it as dreadful as she said it was? I remember writing down the title after the Cavett show and taping it next to my television as a reminder. Every week I would scour through TV Guide, back then the indispensable resource for the Movie Nut. After weeks of searching, I finally found the film listed for a late showing. When I watched it I realized it was not nearly as bad as Davis intimated. It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t that bad; at least it was watchable. I came to realize that perhaps the reason Davis hated the film so much was because she wasn’t very good in it.
Parachute Jumper was made during Davis’s early years at Warner Bros., when they didn’t exactly know what to do with her. It wasn’t until she made Of Human Bondage in 1934 for RKO that they knew what they had. And even after she won the Oscar the next year for Dangerous, they still didn’t know what to do with her. She had to flee to England and try (unsuccessfully) to break her contract before Warner’s finally got the message.
But back in these early days, Davis usually was cast as “The Girlfriend.” In Parachute Jumper, Davis is Patricia “Alabama” Kent, an unemployed steno who runs into the duo of Bill Keller (Fairbanks) and Toodles Cooper (McHugh), two former Marine pilots looking for work as commercial pilots. Patricia is supposedly called “Alabama” because of her Southern accent, but the film is being very generous here, for it sounds as if Patricia is from southern New England rather than the Southern United States. After buying her breakfast with the remains of his money, Bill, upon hearing that Alabama is homeless, invites her to bunk with him and Toodles in their apartment. Discerning that his intentions are honorable, she agrees. Bill tries his hand at parachute jumping (hence the title) with an aerial show and is nearly killed when he lands on railroad tracks in front of an oncoming train.
After promising Alabama he will never try that stunt again, Bill overhears two chauffeurs talking about a Mrs. Newberry, who is in dire need of an elegant chauffeur. He spends the money he earned for the parachute stunt to buy a uniform and gets the job. It seems, though, that a chauffeur is to provide more services for Mrs. Newberry (Dodd) than merely driving. As she’s coming on to him in her apartment, her gangster boyfriend, Kurt Weber (Carrillo) enters, catching Keller in a most awkward position. He gets set to shoot Bill, but impressed with his pluck in the situation, boots Mrs. Newberry out of the apartment and offers Bill a job as his bodyguard, which Bill accepts.
At first Bill’s job consists of hiding behind a curtain in Weber’s office, pistol ready in case someone tries to kill his boss. One day, he hears Alabama in Weber’s office flirting and offering her services as a secretary. Back home, Bill and Alabama argue, mainly, it seems because they’re supposed to fight about something at this juncture of the movie.
Weber is, among other nasty things, a bootlegger, and once he discovers that both Bill and Toodles are pilots, he hires them to replace his former pilots, whom he hasn’t paid, to smuggle booze in from Canada. The former pilots are whacked for their troubles in trying to collect what was owed them. So now we have it that Mr. Weber is not exactly a nice guy, which will play itself later into a stronger plot point.
During a smuggling trip to Canada, Bill and Toodles are intercepted by the Border Patrol. Bill shoots them down, believing them to be hijackers. Alabama overhears a conversation Weber is having with his enforcer about taking out Bill and Toodles. She informs Bill and convinces him to resign, which he does. But Weber asks him to do just one more job and Bill reluctantly agrees. When Bill discovers that the little packages he’s been picking up along with the hootch contain drugs, he decides he’s had enough. But Weber forces him and Toodles into the plane, planning to kill them and dispose of their bodies while airborne. Bill overpowers Weber, tells Toodles to hit the silk, and crashes his plane, making it look as though Weber had been flying with him as his captive.
The film fades out with Toodles re-upping in the Marines, and Bill, after getting Alabama’s permission, joining him as well.
Parachute Jumper is nothing more than a routine programmer, directed by Alfred E. Green, who, along with Lloyd Bacon was one of Warner’s house directors, counted upon to deliver the script as is in a pre-set amount of time with no hijinks in the artistic department. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was Warner’s answer to Clark Gable, although he was never given the sort of roles – and expense budgets – that would propel Gable into the stardom stratosphere. Fairbanks was actually a good actor saddled with an impossible legacy, being the son of Douglas Sr. and the stepson of Mary Pickford. As a star, he lacked what would be later called the indeterminable charisma to carry a picture. Later, he reinvented himself as a sort of David Niven-esque actor; a charming bon vivant. McHugh is the comic relief in the film as exemplified by the name “Toodles.” Toodles? Leo Carrillo is smoothly sinister as Weber, and Claire Dodd practically invisible as Mrs. Newberry.
As for Fairbanks and Davis, their chemistry is limited, as if they were speeding through the picture. As a matter of fact, the pacing of Parachute Jumper is rapid, with one scene melting into another no matter if there’s a logical relation or not. There's the scene with Bill joining the aerial show as a parachute jumper, then just as quickly dropping the job to become a driver and ultimately get involved with bootlegger Weber with all the fell of merely being inserted to justify the film’s title; after all, he only jumps once in the film, while the title would lead us to believe it’s about the world of those who do it for a living.
Davis herself has little to do in the film besides admiring, and later scolding, Bill’s acts of courageous stupidity. As mentioned before, it’s not one of her better performances, but it is better than some of the programmers she did in 1935 and 1936. Perhaps the reason she knocked it so much was because, for her, all the small bad roles seemed to have melded into one with the passage of time.
McHugh is McHugh – always entertaining no matter what the plot or set-up. As Comic Relief his one duty is to be a loyal sidekick to The Hero, which he does quite admirably. He has one good scene after hitting the silk at the end, landing safely, and trying to hitch a ride. When a motorist drives by without stopping, McHugh drops his thumb and flips the bird.
There are other telltale signs that this is a Pre-Code film as well. Their Marine commanders discover Bill and Toodles in a brothel in Nicaragua after being presumed lost when their plane crashed.
Despite the fact that Alabama sleeps on the couch in Bill and Toodles’ apartment while the boys share a bed, there are still some sexual goings-on between Bill and Alabama with Bill walking in on her in the middle of the night. When she calls him on it he weakly replies that he’s only checking up on her to see if she’s OK, then tells her that it won’t happen again, at least not as long as he’s sober. When Mrs. Newberry hires Bill as her chauffeur she first notices his physique and later tells him that his job will include considerable “night work.” In case he doesn’t quite get it, she goes on to tell him that her previous chauffeurs were all Frenchmen because they are much “more versatile.”
Bill is perfectly happy smuggling in liquor because Prohibition was treated in the movies as the national joke. It’s referred to in one scene as “What Law?” “The one we all laugh at.” But when Bill discovers that, in addition to booze, he’s also smuggling in narcotics, well, that crosses the line and Weber is not only a criminal, but a low life as well. Even though “Weber” is a somewhat generic name, Leo Carrillo, a distinctly Italian-looking actor plays him with a trace of Italian accent. Our heroes may be smugglers, bootleggers and petty thieves, but they are not dope dealers.
In the next to final scene, Bill is looking for Alabama in an office building. “I’m going to go through this building like a dose of . . .” as the elevator doors close, cutting him off (though the audience well understood what he was saying). As he runs from office to office, barging in, looking for Alabama, he comes across a rather fey individual taking notes. Fairbanks’ reaction to is put on a showgirl voice and camp it up.
The other thing Parachute Jumper has going for it is the mood and tone. Set in the midst of the Depression, it reflects the things most people had to do back then just to survive. When Bill meets Patricia on a park bench and offers to buy her breakfast, he shows her some sugar cubes he’s stolen as they left the restaurant. She replies by showing him a bottle of ketchup she heisted from the place. Comparing their respective take, they laugh about it while worrying where the next meal will come from. We’re never far from the realities of joblessness and homelessness, but we are still determined not to let it get the better of us. We may get knocked down, but we get right up again. This is the underlying message of the film. Watch Fairbanks in any of his other Warner's films and we get the same impression of Depression life. He may have to sell his body to Mrs. Newberry to keep his job, but that was accepted as part of the facts of life, as was Davis’ flirtation with Weber to land a job as his secretary. It was nothing that couldn’t be overcome with time and luck.
Parachute Jumper, while not the best picture of the Pre-Code period, is still entertaining, not only because of the snappy dialogue, but also for its aerial scenes. One sure way to entice an audience in those days was to feature airborne daredevil acrobatics, as flying was still a novelty. Given the fact that in 1933 sound itself was still in its infancy, we can understand the inclusion of the action sequences as sound was tied to the stage; a straight progression with nuances such as subtext still in the future. Best of all, Parachute Jumper clocks in at an economical 65 minutes, which makes it ideal viewing for late at night.
Leo Carrillo was a solid supporting actor who kicked around in movies until gaining a measure of fame as Pancho, the sidekick to Duncan Renaldo’s Cisco Kid in a series of films made from 1948 to 1950, and continuing as a television show for 157 episodes from 1950 to 1956.
In his autobiography, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. said that Bette Davis thought director Alfred E. Green’s sense of humor was infantile. Of his co-star, he stated that she was “not particularly pretty,” but rather quite plain. But “one didn’t easily forget her unique personality.” He also characterized her as always conscientious and serious, devoid of humor. Be this as it may, it certainly didn’t stop producer Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. from hiring Davis two decades later to star in Another Man’s Poison.
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.
My Favorite Christmas Movies
By Ed Garea
Christmas is a time of celebration, of getting together with relatives, exchanging presents, and sitting down to a sumptuous holiday meal. But for the cinephile, Christmas season also means movies - and lots of them. As one who has seen more than his fair share of Christmas movies over the years, I’ve compiled a list of my ten favorites. I was at first tempted to title this “The Twelve Best Christmas Movies,” but it’s patently absurd, not to mention preposterous, to preach to fellow cinephiles what their favorite Christmas movies should be. What I do ask of readers is to comment - tell us what your favorite Christmas movies are and in what order. We’ll publish your lists on the website.
12. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (WB, 1989): As usual, inept, disaster-prone Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) wants to celebrate in the traditional way, even though his idea of celebration is typically over-the-top. But his plans are ruined when his redneck relatives, led by Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid), decide to visit in this oft-times hilarious movie. Clark seemingly can’t do anything halfway. His Christmas lights blind the neighbors while sending the city’s electrical meters into a spin. His idea of a family Christmas tree is an oversized pine he cuts down in the forest and had trouble getting into his house. And, of course, the grand finale of disaster when Uncle Lewis (William Hickey) throws his lit cigar down a sewage drain into which Cousin Eddie had earlier dumped his port-a-potty sewage from his trailer. It explodes, sending a flaming Santa and reindeer across the sky.
11. 3 Godfathers (MGM, 1948): This poignant John Ford film is not only one of my favorite Christmas movies, but it’s also one of my favorite Westerns. John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz and Harry Carey, Jr. are outlaws who just held up the bank at Welcome, Arizona. Pursued by lawman Ward Bond, they are on the way to making their escape when they come across a dying woman (Mildred Natwick) who has just given birth. They promise her they will take care of the baby, and what begins as a standard Western soon morphs into a beautiful Christmas story, with the three bandits taking the place of the three wise men carrying the Christ child through the desert to safety in a town named Jerusalem. Though the religious parallels are there, Ford never forces them, leaving it to the three outlaws, and us in the audience, to discover them.
10. The Bishop’s Wife (Goldwyn/RKO, 1947): Cary Grant was never more debonair than as Dudley, an angel sent to help a Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven), who is too busy with fundraising for a elaborate new cathedral to tend to his family, especially wife Julia (Loretta Young). Henry is losing sight of his family and why he became a churchman. Dudley is sent to remedy the situation, and not necessarily in the way everyone would have preferred. Though everyone loves Dudley, Henry begins to think that Dudley has come to replace him, both at work and in his family’s affections. It was remade in a fashion as The Preacher’s Wife (1996), with Denzel Washington in Grant’s role.
9. A Christmas Carol (MGM, 1938): Dickens MGM style, with Reginald Owen as Scrooge, Gene Lockhart as Bob Cratchit, and wife Kathleen Lockhart as Mrs. Cratchit. Look for daughter, June, as one of the Cratchit children. Speaking of the children, one of the main flaws in the film is that Tiny Tim is none too tiny, almost as tall as Bob. Leo G. Carroll is the ghost of Jacob Marley, and Ann Rutherford shines as the Spirit of Christmas Past. Lionel Barrymore was originally penciled in a Scrooge, but illness forced him to withdraw.
8. Remember the Night (Paramount, 1940): Christmas, Preston Sturges style. Sturges wrote the screenplay for this story of Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck), a shoplifter arrested for the third time and remanded to court. Prosecutor John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) postpones the trial because it is hard to get a conviction at Christmas time. However, because this would necessitate Lee being in jail over the holiday, Sargent takes pity and arranges her bail. His first move is to take her to her mother’s for the holiday, but after witnessing the cold reception she gets, he decides to take her to his family’s Christmas gathering. Surrounded by a loving family, they fall in love, which in turn creates a new problem: how do they handle the upcoming trial? It’s typical Sturges, with periods of caustic comedy broken up with scenes of sentimentality. Stanwyck and MacMurray are terrific in their roles with great supporting work from Beulah Bondi, Elizabeth Patterson, Sterling Holloway, and Paul Guilfoyle. As for Sturges, the film "had quite a lot of schmaltz, a good dose of schmerz and just enough schmutz to make it box office."
7. Un Conte de Noel (A Christmas Tale, Why Not Productions, 2008): To say the Vuillard family is dysfunctional is putting it mildly. They hate each other, and are only getting together this one Christmas because the family matriarch, Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has a rare bone cancer and needs a marrow donor. The matches for the marrow come down to her alcoholic son and her mentally disturbed nephew, and after a day spent with them, she’s wondering if it’s even worth going to the trouble of asking one of them to donate. It’s not your usual Christmas movie, but reflective of how most families really are during the holidays, sniping at each other over long-simmering resentments, getting into jealous arguments, and just plain acting obnoxiously. All of which makes it a perfect Christmas movie.
6. Christmas in Connecticut (WB, 1945): Given her wonderful performances in dramas and noirs, it’s easy to overlook Barbara Stanwyck as a comedienne. However she shines in this movie as Elizabeth Lane, a popular food writer for “Smart Housekeeping” magazine. In truth, she cannot boil water and gets her award-winning recipes from her friend, chef Felix Bassenak (S.Z. Sakall). The bucolic life she describes herself living on a farm in Connecticut with husband and baby is also a fiction. She lives alone in an apartment in New York City. Unfortunately for her, war hero Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) is also an avid fan of her column, and after his harrowing life and death struggle at sea, he dreams of nothing more than sampling her dishes at her farm. Her publisher, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet), not only thinks it would be great publicity, but he has also invited himself along. Now Stanwyck has to improvise a husband, baby, farm and cooking skills at the last minute if she’s not to be exposed as a fraud. Only someone like Stanwyck could take this paper-thin plot and make it into a hit. She pulls it off brilliantly, knowing when to put forth and when to pull back on the characterization, and interacting beautifully with her co-stars. Stanwyck is the reason this is one of my Christmas favorites.
5. A Christmas Carol (Renown Pictures, 1951): Considered as the most definitive and faithful of the Dickens adaptations, it also boasts the great Alastair Sim as Scrooge. Sim plays Scrooge as Dickens envisioned him: a cruelly smug man who has no remorse, no regrets, and feels zero guilt for his selfishness. It’s when he is forced to see the consequences of his life’s choices does he realize that the only way out is to wholly embrace goodness. The scene with the ghost of his partner, Jacob Marley, is particularly chilling, especially Marley’s indignation when Scrooge calls him a good man of business. Marley screams “mankind was my business!” and describes how the chain he “forged in life, link by link” is choking and weighing him down in the afterlife, following it by telling Scrooge his chain was just as long when Marley passed and it has grown even longer. It’s the movie’s most unforgettable scene and paves the way for Scrooge’s redemption, a redemption he is led into kicking and screaming at times. It is exactly the starkness of this version that places it heads and tails above all other adaptations.
4. It’s a Wonderful Life (Liberty, 1946): Frank Capra’s take on Charles Dickens aims not at the redemption of Scrooge, for greedy misers can never really be redeemed, but the redemption of Bob Crachit. Jimmy Stewart is George Bailey, a man who had big dreams of what he wanted to do with his life, but whom circumstances forced to make do with the life he had. As a result, when his savings and loan comes up $8,000 short due to his Uncle Billy’s forgetfulness, George begins to despair of his life, feeling himself a failure and pondering suicide. He stops to raise a prayer to God, who, upon hearing George, sends Clarence, a most unusual angel, to the rescue. George refuses to have anything to do with Clarence, thinking him a loon, but when he mutters to Clarence that it would be better if he were never born, Clarence takes the novel step of showing George what life in Bedford Falls would be like if he was never born. In short, it’s a first-rate horror show, as George learns how one person’s life and sacrifices can affect so many, even if he is unaware of it. Lionel Barrymore, as the greedy banker Potter, finally gets to play the Scrooge role, though he’ll never reform. That’s Capra’s message: Don’t wait for evil men to see the light, but take the wheel yourselves and steer humanity towards a better destination.
3. Miracle on 34th Street (20th Century Fox, 1947): It would surprise many to know that the studio that made this renowned Christmas classic, 20th Century Fox, had so little faith in it they released it in May 1947 instead of holding it for the holiday season. It mattered little to the throngs that came out to see it, or the Academy, who awarded Edmund Gwenn the Supporting Actor statue for playing Kris Kringle, which marks the only time a actor has won an Oscar for playing Santa Claus. Gwenn is superb as Kringle, who we first see as a man hired by feisty skeptic Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) to be Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade after the original actor hired to be Santa passed out drunk. Kris soon becomes the Macy’s Santa, eve though Doris is somewhat nervous working with a man who claims he is Kris Kringle. A misapprehension she makes turns into a head-on conflict between Kris and the store’s cruelly incompetent psychologist and results in Kris being committed to Bellevue. Lawyer Fred Gailey (John Payne), who loves Doris, takes up his defense. The trial is the highlight of the film, as Gailey argues Kris’s sanity before a judge with higher political aspirations who’s afraid to make the wrong move. When Gailey produces bags and bags of “Dear Santa” letters forwarded to the courthouse by the Post Office and makes the claim that Kris must be Santa Claus because the government recognizes him as such, the judge is spared a difficult decision and frees Kris. It’s a beautifully constructed film that never comes right out and tells us Kris is the real Santa or that he’s not the real Santa. And that’s why it works so well.
2. The Shop Around the Corner (MGM, 1940): For sheer charm alone, this film cannot be beaten. It’s the heartwarming story of two feuding co-workers, Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) in a Budapest gift shop who are unaware they are secret romantic pen pals. Alfred, who is in love with Klara, learns that he is the secret pen pal when she begins to quote his letters without knowing their author. He would like to announce he is the object of her affections but cannot confide it to her; he’s afraid of not measuring up to the fiancée she has imagined him to be. Eventually things come to a head on Christmas Eve, when Klara finally confides to Alfred that she finds him attractive does he come forth as her secret pen pal. Almost everything about this movie is pitch perfect, from the direction by Ernst Lubitsch to the camerawork by William Daniels to the supporting cast, which includes Frank Morgan, Felix Bressart, Joseph Schildkraut, Sara Haden, and William Tracy. And, of course, Stewart and Sullavan, who bring a sense of earnestness to an otherwise frilly story.
1. A Christmas Story (MGM, 1983): For me picking this film is a no-brainer because I grew up with its author, Jean Shepherd. Spending my childhood in the New York Metropolitan Area, I tuned into Shepherd’s radio show in WOR-AM every night, and was familiar with the tales A Christmas Story was based on long before he published them in the collections In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories. He was a greatly underrated humorist; not until A Christmas Story came out was he mentioned in any anthology of American humor. But there was no one else who understood the pulse of American life better than Jean Shepherd. The plot of the movie is pure Shep: All Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun with all the accoutrements, just like the ones he saw in his boys’ magazine. But whenever the subject comes up, all he hears from adults is “you’ll shoot your eye out.” Ralphie looks for any loophole to get his prize, and thinks he has it in going to see Santa at Higbee’s department store. But when he blurts out his heart’s wish to Santa, all he gets is a quizzical stare accompanied by the phrase “you’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” But while other writers must be satisfied to stop with the basic plot, Shepherd makes razor-sharp observations on the Christmas season, especially as it pertains to a kid: “Christmas was on its way. Lovely, glorious, beautiful Christmas, about which the entire kid year revolved.” No truer words were ever spoken.
Beauty and the Boss
By Ed Garea
Beauty and the Boss (WB, 1932) - Director: Roy Del Ruth. Writers: Joseph Jackson (adaptation), Ladislas Fodor and Paul Frank (play “A Templon Egere”). Cast: Marian Marsh, Warren William, David Manners, Charles Butterworth, Frederick Kerr, Mary Doran, & Robert Grieg. B&W, 66 minutes.
With all the social dramas Warner Brothers had been presenting to their audience, perhaps they figured the time was ripe to break it up a little and give the audience something to lift their spirits. And this cheery little fairy tale is just what the doctor ordered.
Viennese banker Baron Josef von Ullrich (William) is a busy man who believes women have no place in the office. (“Women are for non-working hours.”) He fires his current secretary, Ollie Frey (Doran) because she distracts him during working hours. He then gives her six months’ pay and but promises her that she’ll be seeing him when he has “a weak moment.”
Enter Susie Sachs (Marsh) - literally. While making her rounds in the city looking for work, she sneaks into his office. Rather oddly dressed, sporting a black umbrella and a black hat, she tricks the Baron into seeing her, and despite her shabby clothes and impoverished appearance, she amazes him with her energy, brains, and efficiency, so much so that he hires her on the spot. (She tells him she takes shorthand at 150 words a minute.) Here, he thinks, is the perfect secretary, a plain Jane that won’t tempt him on the job, so he can keep his mind focused on business.
But, in addition to her qualifications, she’s also very savvy. She immediately negotiates a higher salary and then picks up the phone, ordering a large amount of groceries to be sent to her mother (with a goose, at the Baron’s insistence). It takes her roughly five minutes to organize the Baron’s office into a model of efficiency, so much so that the Baron’s younger brother, Paul (Manners), and colleague, Count Von Tolheim (Kerr), are mightily impressed.
The Baron and Susie make a great team, as she keeps his affairs organized and protects his from distractions, especially the long list of women who are dying to see him (of which he is unaware). We immediately see that her protectiveness is spurred on by the fact that she, too, has fallen for the boss. Everything is fine until the Baron, accompanied by Paul, the Count and his aide, Ludwig (Butterworth), and Susie, travel to Paris to complete a business merger. After the merger goes through, and the Baron reaps a great profit, he suggests to Susie that she go out and experience Paris nightlife. What he doesn’t realize is that Susie longs to experience Paris nightlife, particularly in the company of the Baron. But he is all business towards her, and suggests she see Paris accompanied, not by him, but the delighted Von Tolheim and Paul. And that’s just fine with Paul, who seems to have developed a crush on her. (Shades of Sabrina.)
Hurt by the Baron’s suggestion, Susie confesses that she’s been keeping women away from his door. When the Baron discovers that Ollie is one of those women, he immediately sets up a date, and, as a punishment, orders Susie to deliver a box of flowers to Ollie’s room.
Ollie tells Susie that men will never notice her as long as she acts more like a machine than a woman, advising her to be more feminine, and demonstrates some of her flirtation techniques. Upon leaving, Susie decides to take Ollie’s advice, and that evening, when Paul and the Count arrive to take her out, she has transformed herself from ugly duckling into beautiful swan, dressed in a stunning evening gown with her hair styled attractively. The Baron cannot believe what he is seeing. She flirts with the Count and Paul, but runs back to the Baron, telling him that she is hungry for life. He fires her, but as she goes to leave, he asks her to take one more dictation. He dictates a memo in which he asks her to marry him and Susie happily consents.
Checking in at an economical 66 minutes, Beauty and the Boss boasts far more than a neat title. The film was adapted from a 1931 play by Ladislas Fodor and Paul Frank titled A Templon Egere (The Church Mouse), which starred Ruth Gordon and ran for 164 performances on Broadway during the 1931-32 season. Though the material is thin, the film benefits from a great cast, with Warren William, Marian Marsh, Charles Butterworth, and Mary Doran giving terrific performances. William, who usually plays Our Favorite Cad in Warner Bros. movies, is once again a cad, but in this case, he’s a nice cad. William is always fun to watch, but in this film we get to see him in a bit of a stretch, for as the film progresses, we see a change in his character as he tones down the edges and finds himself humbled by actually falling in love.
Marsh is perfection itself in a role that, were this film made a year later, would almost certainly go to the young Bette Davis. Marsh’s rapid-fire delivery would give Glenda Farrell and Rosalind Russell a run for their money. Director Del Ruth, goes out to ensure we’re on her side; the first time we see her, she’s dressed in impoverished clothing with little make-up, her face pressed against the window in a Viennese restaurant, where she watches William’s aide, Butterworth, enjoying his repast.
And the establishing scene, where she sneaks in and confronts the Baron, is the highlight of the picture, as she tells him about the plight of her class - what she refers to as the mice - poor and hungry. She describes herself to him as “hungry and poor as a church mouse,” which would become his nickname for her later in the film. To our surprise, the Baron is interested in her story; being rich and from the upper class, it never occurred to him that there just might exist a young lady in Austria more interested in being fed and clothed rather than collecting bling. The social Darwinian tone of the scene is lost on today’s audience, but back in the ‘30s, it was dominant in intelligent conversation. Were the film made today, that scene would have to be heavily revised to reflect today’s social consciousness.
As for Butterworth, what can I say? He specialized in playing droll, perpetually bewildered characters, and was a mainstay in early Warner Bros. films. We can always count on him for good comic relief and he is quite good in this film as the Baron’s assistant who is always writing last-minute instructions on his sleeves, is always at the boss’s beck and call, even having no objections when informed at the last minute that he will have to work through the night. Butterworth graduated from Notre Dame, where he studied law, and turned to newspaper reporting for the Chicago American and the South Bend News-Times before being bitten by the acting bug.
Former Ziegfield girl Doran makes the most of a minor part, shining in the film’s opening scenes with William, and later as Susie’s teacher in the subject of femininity. In the film’s opening scene, she’s taking dictation from William in a really racy scene. (Well, it is a Pre-Code film.) A close-up of her legs is followed by the Baron telling her “Yes, I see it, but I’ve seen better.” “But I didn’t think you could see my, umm . . .” “No, of course not.” William then continues distractedly looking over her form as he begins to criticize her obvious charms for distracting him from his work. As mentioned before, he fires her, but with generous severance pay and a “nudge-nudge, wink-wink, know that I mean, know what I mean” agreement to keep meeting after work that would have made Eric Idle proud.
David Manners has almost nothing to do but function as a sort of prop to William, and sleepwalks through his scenes. For someone supposedly totally infatuated with Susie, we’d never know it from the way he acts. And as for Frederick Kerr, why this wonderful actor was always given bite-size parts was always beyond me.
Director Roy Del Ruth keeps the film going at a breakneck pace, as if realizing that the less time we have to think about, the less thin and silly the plot seems. During the early ‘30s, Del Ruth was one of the workhorse directors in the Warners’ stable, where his nickname was “fastest of the fast,” due to his mastery of the in-house style. Checking on IMDb, I found he directed 10 films during 1932-33 alone. After his contact with Warner Bros. expired, Del Ruth worked for his old boss, Darryl Zanuck, at 20th Century before signing on with MGM, where he turned out a succession of musicals, including Broadway Melody of 1936, Born to Dance, Broadway Melody of 1938, and The Chocolate Soldier, among others.
Beauty and the Boss, although much lighter than the usual Warner Bros. fare of the period, is still a creature of its zeitgeist, and as such should be enjoyed with a grain of salt.
Winner Take All
By Ed Garea
Winner Take All (WB, 1932) -- Director: Roy Del Ruth. Writers: Robert Lord & Wilson Mizner (s/p). Based on a story by Gerald Beaumont. Cast: James Cagney, Marian Nixon, Guy Kibbee, Dickie Moore, Virginia Bruce, Alan Mowbray, Esther Howard, Clarence Muse, John Roche, Clarence Wilson, Ralf Harold, Julian Rivero, Charlotte Merriam, & George “Gabby” Hayes. B&W, 66 minutes.
Winner Take All is a rather ordinary film with an extraordinary performance from its lead, James Cagney, as a feisty lightweight giving a heavyweight performance in a featherweight boxing movie.
The plot is such that the audience will have no trouble figuring out its ultimate destination, but the real interest lies in how the principal characters arrive there. This is where Cagney comes in. He plays Jimmy Kane, a boxer sorely in need of a rest due to his high living away from the ring. The film opens in Madison Square Garden. The ring announcer introduces Kane to the audience, before the main event, telling them that this is “a boy who needs no introduction. A boy who has fought his way up to the top, an old friend and an old favorite . . . “ After a dozen tough fights, it seems that his rough fighting has cost him and he needs time to recuperate. To do this he needs financial help and the announcer asks the audience to help. They do so by tossing money into the ring.
In the next scene, we see that his manager, Pop Slavin (Kibbee) is packing him off to recuperate at a health resort in the middle of the New Mexico desert. We also learn that it wasn’t the work rate that did Jimmy in, but also his hearty after-hours partying. Pop and trainer Rosebud (Muse) see Jimmy off and advise him to take it easy for six months, after which time Pop will get him some solid-paying bouts.
At the health farm, a pre-Gabby George Hayes welcomes Jimmy to the ranch and explains the layout, rules, and menus. On his first night. he hears a coyote. He wanders out to the veranda for a better look and meets young widow Peggy Harmon (Nixon). They chat about coyotes and strike up a friendship when Jimmy remembers her from a night at a New York restaurant. Del Ruth now presents a flashback depicting the incident. Seems Peggy is seated at Jimmy’s table and she irritates Jimmy’s girlfriend (Merriam), who starts a fight with Peggy. Watch closely during the flashback, because we are treated to a cameo of both Texas Guinan and another, future Warner Brothers tough guy George Raft, in archive footage taken from their 1929 film, Queen of the Night Clubs.
Peggy has come to the health ranch because her young son, Dickie (Moore), is ailing and needs a cure. We learn that she hopes to use using the promised proceeds from her late husband’s life insurance policy to pay the $600 bill. Jim becomes instantly attracted to Peggy (of course, we only have 66 minutes), and attached to both her and her son. Then Peggy discovers that the life insurance proceeds she was so desperately counting on will not arrive because her husband failed to pay his premiums. She tells Jim, who decides to take matters into his own hands. He goes to Tijuana and wangles a fight from Ben Isaacs (Wilson), the town’s boxing promoter. Isaacs doesn’t trust Jimmy because he hasn’t fought in so long, and is afraid that he’ll take a dive just to get the $600 loser’s purse (Convenient plotting, isn’t it?). Isaac tells Jim that if he’s that desperate for a fight with local hero Joe Pice (Rivero), it will be “Winner take all. Two thousand bucks and not a stick of peppermint for the loser.” Jim replies that he’ll fight Pice for the “winner take all” purse.
The fight ends when both boxers knock each other out. Jim manages to stagger to his feet, holding on to the ring ropes, and is declared the winner (shades of Rocky II), but not without a price. His nose is broken and one ear is cauliflowered. But Peggy’s bill has been paid, and she quickly puts one and one together and deduces he must have fought to pay it. Soon they’re making plans for a life together. However, Pop has heard about the Tijuana fight and, deciding Jimmy’s cured, calls him to Chicago for the necessary build-up bouts to contend for the lightweight championship. Peggy and Dickie see Jimmy to the train station, where Jimmy promises to get back as soon as possible so they can marry.
Jim fights well and is on his way to a championship bout. Returning to New York, he is introduced by Roger Elliot (Roche) to vampy socialite Joan Gibson (Bruce). Jim falls head over heels for her. Joan may be a man-hungry vamp, but she is also a Park Avenue snob, and treats Jimmy with a barely concealed contempt. Jimmy, for his part, misses all her signals and mistakes this attention as love. He begins to spend all his time with Joan and her uptown crowd. They, in turn, regard him as a sort of a mascot from the slums; good for a few laughs but not much beyond. A casual remark by Joan about Jimmy’s nose and ear hits him hard. When Pop arranges for Jimmy to fight the champion, Jimmy nixes the fight and goes instead to a plastic surgeon to fix his nose and ear. He also takes lessons in etiquette from Forbes (Mowbray), who is part of the crowd that surrounds Joan. But all his good work is for naught, for Joan is not amused, She tells her friend, Ann (Howard), "The fool took me seriously and went and had his face done over. Now, he's lost all the things that made him colorful and different. He's just ordinary, now like any other guy."
Confused by Joan’s attitude, Jimmy tells Pop to set him up with some palookas so he can get into fighting rhythm. However, with his newly reconstructed face, he is reluctant to take a beating, so he changes his fighting style from that of a puncher to more of a boxer, to avoid risking any damage to his profile. The fans, appalled by this new style, begin to boo him.
Joan discovers that getting rid of Jimmy is much harder than being introduced to him. Arriving at her apartment one evening, he is told by the butler that she isn’t home. He bursts into a party, telling her that his championship bout will be his last. Win or lose, they will get married. He gives her ringside tickets.
Meanwhile, Pop knows what’s going on and sends for Peggy. She surprises Jimmy and his reaction is callous, telling her that not only is he seeing someone else, but that he intends on getting married to Joan after his championship bout. Peggy, who has been most saccharine to this point, has had enough and tells Jimmy what’s what in a great scene for which we’ve been waiting since Jim met Joan.
It’s the night of the fight. Jimmy looks over the crowd, and guess what? No Joan. He sends Rosebud to call and find out where she is. After one round, in which Jimmy once again avoids contact, Rosebud reports that Joan is leaving on an ocean liner in about 20 minutes. With time slipping away, Jimmy goes on a furious attack and knocks out the champion. Without changing, he takes a taxi to the pier, boards the boat and frantically looks for Joan’s room. When he finds her, she lies and tells him that her sister needs her. Jimmy’s reply is that he didn’t even know she had a sister. Then, who else but Roger Elliot enters the cabin? It all becomes crystal clear to Jimmy. He punches Roger and kicks Joan when she bends over Roger's unconscious body before leaving. The film ends with Jimmy proposing to Peggy, who accepts.
Cagney gives Winner Take All the power it needs to keep its audience interested, and it’s to director Roy Del Ruth’s credit that he let his star bust loose, rather than trying to confine him within the strictures of the script and filming schedule. His Jimmy Kane is straight from the lower East Side, a loud and fast talker with an over abundance of pride that, combined with his tendency to think with his crotch, leads to his romantic troubles and almost to a career downfall. When he’s taken out of his element, as he is at the health farm, Kane’s demeanor changes from feisty and obtrusive to relaxed and compassionate. We sense that he seems to have found a true love match with Peggy. But when he’s back in the city, his demeanor returns to obnoxious. His pride, combined with his lack of intelligence, lead him down the merry road to ruin at the hands of Joan and her Park Avenue buddies.
It is only when Elliot comes into Joan’s cabin that Jimmy finally realizes the game is up and he takes what to him is the natural and appropriate action. Kane is a character whose callousness is more driven by ignorance than maliciousness; when in the company of the socialite wolves, he’s a lamb in the wilderness, and we can’t help but take delight when he gets his comeuppance in the end. Cagney’s ease in the ring, especially his footwork, caught the eyes of both critics and professional boxers. He trained for the role with former amateur boxing notable Harvey Parry, who has a role in the film, and would become Cagney’s regular stunt man. In his autobiography, Cagney noted that another boxer, watching him spar, was certain that Cagney had fought in the ring - his footwork proved it. "I said, 'Tommy, I'm a dancer. Moving around is no problem.'" He also said in interviews that he based the character of Jimmy Kane on guys he had grown up with, and it shows in his persona and delivery; imitating them, apparently, was no problem. It wouldn’t be his only role as a boxer - he would go on to play boxers twice more, in The Irish in Us (1935) and City for Conquest (1940).
Guy Kibbee and Clarence Muse offer solid support as Kane’s manager and trainer, respectively. Muse always brings a dignified persona to his roles and never allows himself to be placed into stereotype-land, no matter what the picture. Alan Mowbray does a fine job playing the “ponce” (this is a Pre-Code film), trying to teach Kane etiquette. John Roche is pleasantly invisible as Elliot, and it’s always good to see George Hayes in a film, Gabby or no Gabby.
As for the female leads, let me mention that, back in the Pre-Code era, Warner Brothers was tilted towards it male stars. Female stars often received short shrift, except when they could be exploited as sex objects. Consider the wealth of female talent at the studio: Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell, Mae Clarke, Virginia Bruce, Mary Astor, Aline MacMahon, Loretta Young, Myrna Loy, and Bette Davis. Then note that the only ones who lasted with the studio into the late ‘30s were Blondell and Davis. The others either left for greener pastures at other studios, or like Astor, chose to freelance. Jean Harlow, who was in The Public Enemy with Cagney, also left the studio for Columbia, and later, MGM. A wise career move on her part, otherwise she never would have learned to act or given vehicles in which to star and build a career.
Winner Take All has two prominent female roles: poor widow Peggy Harmon (Nixon) and vampy socialite Joan Gibson (Bruce). Bruce is a marvel to behold in the film, playing the man-hungry snob to perfection. Though she takes awhile to arrive on the screen, once she makes her entrance we are immediately drawn to her patrician looks. It also seems obvious that Del Ruth and Bruce placed more into her character than the script originally called for. Watch the scene where she meets Kane for the first time. We can see the excitement in her eyes as her hand brushes against Kane’s sweaty chest; a look of longing mixed with disgust for his lower-class origins. And yet she is hooked. It’s not until later, when Kane loses his gorilla-like charm, that Joan is no longer interested and returns to her own kind. The use of Esther Howard as her friend, Ann, is brilliant on both the writers’ and director’s part, for their conversations fill in the blanks and tell us what direction Joan is going to take her games with Kane. Howard, by the way, is marvelously catty in her small role. I think it was John Ford who said that film acting is done with the eyes, and Bruce does a lot with her eyes, using them to maximum effect in both medium shots and close-ups.
Marian Nixon, on the other hand, is the Good Girl, and as such, has the sugary role. Unlike Bruce, Nixon’s Peggy cannot exist without Kane, and during the middle part of the film, when the only thing she gets from Kane is a postcard with a brief message to the effect that he’ll be back, we begin to surmise that Peggy simply can’t take a hint. When Pop brings her back and she tells Kane off, we’re totally on her side and muttering to ourselves that it’s about time. But then comes the ending, and she takes Kane back with only his poor excuse for an explanation. He’s supposed to be crawling back to her, but it seems as if she’s crawling back to him.
Lord and Mizner adapted Winner Take All from Gerald Beaumont’s 1921 story “133 and 3.” Wilson “Bill” Mizner was one of America’s great characters. Besides being the co-owner of The Brown Derby (“If you know anything about food, you can sell it out of a hat.”), he was also a land speculator in Florida with architect brother Addison (they developed Boca Raton and Palm Beach), a successful Broadway playwright, boxing manager, and an opium addict. According to Cagney in his autobiography, Mizner would entertain him for hours on the set between scenes with tales of his exploits in Alaska, where he swindled miners with rigged boxing and wrestling matches. He died on April 3, 1933, at the young age of 56 from a heart attack. Presumably, he was all worn out. Anita Loos and Robert Hopkins later based the character of Blackie Norton (Clark Gable) in the 1936 MGM production of San Francisco on Milner. Loos referred to Mizner as “America’s most fascinating outlaw.”
Director Roy Del Ruth began his Hollywood career in 1915 as a gag writer for Mack Sennett. He was a Warner’s favorite because he brought the product in fast and cheap, without compromising the quality any more than was necessary. For instance, he needed only 15 days for Winner Take All. Other Warner’s titles he oversaw included Blonde Crazy (1931) with Cagney and Joan Blondell, Taxi (1932), with Cagney and Loretta Young, Blessed Event (1932) with Lee Tracy, Employees’ Entrance (1933) with Warren William and Young, Little Giant (1933) with Edward G. Robinson and Mary Astor, and Lady Killer (1933) with Cagney and Mae Clarke. From 1934 to 1942, he was Hollywood’s second-highest paid director. He continued to make films until 1960, and died in 1961 at the age of 67, leaving behind his wife of 27 years, the former actress Winnie Lightner, and two sons, Richard and Thomas.
Winner Take All was yet another hit for Warner Brothers and solidified Cagney as a box-office draw. At its New York premiere, Warner’s played up the boxing theme by bringing in several ex-champions and using New York boxing promoter Jimmy Johnston as Master of Ceremonies. It also provided the actor with more ammunition in his ongoing fight with the studio for bigger paychecks, a fight that eventually led to Cagney leaving the studio in 1935 before returning in 1938.
A FACE IN THE CROWD: CLARENCE WILSON
When I spotted him in the role of Tijuana promoter Ben Isaacs in Winner Take All, I wasn’t surprised Clarence Wilson was in the film. He seemed like a regular staple of early ‘30s films. What did surprise me, though, was that Clarence was playing an honest promoter. I fully expected him to try to double-cross Cagney in some form or another. With that pickle puss, Wilson was destined to play the sneaky heel.
Face it, we’ve probably seen him more times than we can remember in films, yet some of us often mistake him for fellow character actor Jimmy Findlayson, the nemesis of Laurel and Hardy, to whom he bore a slight resemblance. But we loved this sourpuss, who, according to Bruce Eder on AllMovie.com, looked as if he was “evidently weaned on a diet of pickles and vinegar.” Wilson usually played the heel, the sort of person who dances while evicting a poor widow and her children. In those roles there was no one like him.
Clarence Hummel Wilson was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on November 17, 1876. He began his career as an actor in Philadelphia in 1895 as part of a stock company that toured the United States and Canada. Making his way eventually to Broadway, he played a series of supporting roles to such stars of the day as James K. Hackett, Marguerite Clark, Charles Cherry, and Wilton Lackaye.
Wilson entered motion pictures in 1920 as “Jues” in Goldyn’s Duds. He followed this a short time later with an uncredited role in The Penalty, starring Lon Chaney. He worked steadily in the ‘20s, sometimes as “Wilson Hummel,” sometimes as “C.H. Wilson,” and sometimes as Clarence H. Wilson. When sound arrived, Wilson found himself still in demand. His first sound film was the Carole Lombard/Robert Armstrong newspaper comedy, Big News, for Pathe in 1929. He had a small role as a coroner.
Over the next 12 years, Wilson would specialize in playing crabby judges, cold-hearted landlords or orphanage officials, angry school or city officials, grouchy process servers, and stingy and nasty businessmen. Most of his roles were little more than bit parts (many uncredited), and he was wonderful as a humorless foil for the likes of W.C. Fields, Wheeler and Woolsey, and Charley Chase, though he occasionally landed a bigger role, such as Helen Mack’s drunken father, who ran a pathetic sideshow in Son of Kong (1934). He was best known as the corrupt sheriff in 1931’s The Front Page and for appearing as an Our Gang comedy foil. Shortly after playing school board chairman Alonzo K. Pratt in the Our Gang short Come Back Miss Pipps (1941), Wilson died, at the age of 64, on October 5, 1941.
Godard’s Pop Culture Noir
By Ed Garea and Jean-Paul Garrieux
Breathless (Les Films Imperia, 1960) - Director: Jean-Luc Godard. Writer: Francois Truffaut (story). Cast: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Seberg, Daniel Boulanger, Henri-Jacques Huet, Roger Hanin, Claude Mansard, Richard Balducci, Jean-Pierre Melville, Francois Moreuil, Jean-Luc Godard. (Original title: A bout de soufflé) B&W, 90 minutes.
“To make a film all you need is a girl and a gun.” -- Jean-Luc Godard
If only it were that simple. And yet, Godard pulled it off, for all he needed was a low budget and enough imagination to overcome it. Dedicated to Monogram Studios, whose films were often playing at the theater down the street from the offices of Cahiers du Cinema, where Godard was plying his trade as a film critic, the film resembles a Monogram product in that it was made and looks on the cheap. However, while Monogram Bs emphasized action over characterization, Breathless turns that formula on its head, emphasizing the characters. A film that might have begun as a noir has instead aged over the years to become a pop culture watershed.
Godard was eager, almost chomping at the bit to make a movie. His friends and colleagues at Cahiers, Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, had already made their feature debuts. However, while Truffaut and Chabrol drew upon the autobiographical in their films, Godard chose to do a film with almost no touches of the autobiographical. Perhaps this is because Godard, unlike Truffaut and Chabrol, grew up in the pleasant climes around Geneva, Switzerland, the son of wealthy parents.
Breathless details a simple story: Michel Poicaard (Belmondo) is a young punk who styles himself after Humphrey Bogart. He steals a car in Marseille and heads for Paris, but is stopped by two motorcycle cops. Discovering a pistol in the glove compartment, he uses it to kill one of the policemen, and takes off running. Reaching Paris, he looks up old girlfriend Patricia Franchini (Seberg), an American student and aspiring journalist, who is hawking copies of the New York Herald-Tribune (where she works) on the street. After some conversational give-and-take, she agrees to hide him while he tries to get in touch with an associate who owes him money to that he can evade the police and flee to Rome. But the police are closing in and pressure Patricia to give Michel up. She betrays him, which leads to the finale, where Michel is shot in the street while attempting to flee.
The synopsis strongly resembles a film noir of the type for which Monogram was famous. However, Godard’s approach to the material departs radically from the Hollywood template. He employed his experience as a critic, his knowledge of both high and low culture, and his philosophical meanderings, derived principally from existentialism, to transform the story. His lack of movie-making experience was not a problem, for he had the help of such as Claude Chabrol, Francois Truffaut, and Jean-Pierre Melville whenever he became stumped. He also had the services of cinematographer Raoul Coutard, suggested to him by producer Georges de Beauregard, who had Coutard under personal contract. Coutard cut his teeth shooting documentaries for the French Army’s Information Service in Indochina. His background suited Godard perfectly, especially considering the budget and Godard’s lack of expertise. Coutard was able to show Godard how to shoot with a handheld camera and a minimum of lighting, for which he used a specialized film, Ilford HPS, intended for still photography and not available at the time as motion picture stock. He spliced 18-meter lengths of the film into 120-meter rolls. Because the sprocket holes differed from the sprocket holes for normal motion picture film, Coutard used an Eclair Cameflex camera, the only one that would work with the film stock. However, this presented a whole new set of problems, for the camera was noisy and unable to produce synchronized sound. The only alternative was to dub the film during post-production.
Melville showed Godard the tricks of placing the cameraman in a wheelchair (as he did with Bob le flambeur) for tracking shots, giving the film a look of improvisation. Because Godard did not have the necessary permits to shoot on the street, Melville showed him an old trick he improvised during the shooting of Bob le flambeur: placing the cameraman inside a postal cart with a hole cut out for the lens along with packages on the top. (Melville also neglected to get the necessary permits to film.)
Melville schooled Godard in the art of jump cuts, which further enhances the illusion; not only of improvisation, but also of what goes hand-in-hand with it - imminence. To his credit, Godard took the craft of jump cuts to a whole new level, giving the film fluidity. Some of the cuts took place within the camera while other cuts were made in the editing room. Godard’s first cut of the film was about 2½ hours long, but producer Georges de Beauregard wanted the film at no more than 90 minutes, so rather than take out whole scenes, Godard shortened them through the use of jump cuts, cutting within scenes and even within shots. To shorten the film even more, Godard also cut between shots from disorienting angles, breaking the traditional rules of continuity. The result is a film that not only looks like a newsreel, and appears amateurish, but one that conveys the idea of imminence, for as the film progresses, the audience remains on top of the action, rather than viewing it at a distance, as is done with most other films. Godard saw the act of making a film as an important prelude to its meaning; as important as its content and style. Film for Godard is a sort of “action painting,” reflecting the conditions under which it was made. The role of the director, such as his technique, was the means to the end of making it personal, in this case the infusion of original ideas to the overall aesthetic.
The title, A bout de soufflé, loosely translates as “Breathless.” However, Godard is using another meaning: at the end of breath, at the last gasp, giving a clue as to the ending and the new beginning the viewer can infer.
THE STORY BEHIND THE LENS
To listen to Godard talk, one would believe the film sprang all ready-made from his head, and all he had to do was fill in the blanks. But this, of course, is not so. We have already seen the help Melville provided on the set with regards to the technical side. As to the story, Godard has Truffaut to thank. For years Truffaut was fascinated with a November 1952 incident concerning petty criminal Michel Portail that French tabloids France-Soir and Detective featured on their pages and which kept their readers in thrall. Portail, a young thug imprisoned for armed robbery and then expelled from the United States, returned to France and spent the summer with his American journalist girlfriend, Beverly Lumet, on the Cote d’Azur, living the high life. Learning that his mother, who lived in Le Havre, was dying, Portail stole a diplomat’s car from in front of the Greek embassy and was driving to see her when a motorcycle policeman named Grinberg pulled him over. He shot and killed the patrolman and managed to hide out for two weeks until police found him in a barge docked on the Seine, in the center of Paris. What especially interested Truffaut about the story was the American girlfriend who helped him hide out from the police. Portail hoped to take her with him on his escape. Instead she turned him over to the police.
Truffaut worked with both Chabrol and Godard in developing the story for film, but failed to find an interested producer, in part because Michangelo Antonini’s 1953 film, I vinti (The Vanquished), had an episode based on a sensational 1948 case where a 16-year old boy shot a classmate to death, ostensibly over the affection of a girl. The girl’s father sued in French court, asserting that the identity of his daughter was not protected. The French government agreed and censored the film on the grounds that it implicated people still living. As Michel Portail was in prison at the time, producers understandably backed off. In 1959, Godard, now itching to make a movie, asked if he might revive the project. Truffaut, fresh off the overwhelming reception of Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows) at Cannes, not only gave his blessing, but also hooked Godard up with producer Georges de Beauregard. Both Truffaut and Chabrol agreed to work on the film if de Beauregard agreed to produce it. Their offer secured the necessary financing, and so Truffaut was credited as the writer and Chabrol as technical adviser, although neither really had much to do with the film itself.
Given a budget of roughly $90,000 (one-third of the average cost for a French film at the time) to realize his dream, Godard began casting. For the role of Patricia he wanted Jean Seberg, a young actress given the star push by Otto Preminger in his Saint Joan and Bonjour Tristesse, and about whom he had written admiringly in Cahiers du Cinema. She was readily available, as her star had plummeted after critics savaged both films. As he was acquainted with Seberg’s then-husband, Francois Moreuil, an attorney with aspirations of being a director, Godard was able to secure an interview with Seberg. She was less than impressed during their meeting, finding him to be “an incredibly introverted, messy-looking young man who didn’t even look her in the eye as she talked.” Moreuil, however, convinced her to take the role, and she signed with producer de Beauregard for $15,000. Convincing Columbia Studios to loan her out was not as easy, but Moreuil managed to get the studio to accept a small fee for her participation. To express his appreciation, Godard gave Moreuil a small part as a journalist interviewing the author Parvulesco at Orly Airport.
Some of the minor roles went to Godard’s friends. He asked Melville to play the celebrated novelist, Parvulesco. Two of the other journalists in the crowd interviewing him were producer Andre S. Labarthe and director Jean Douchet. Director Jacques Rivette had a cameo as a man Michel sees run over in the street. And, finally, Godard himself makes an appearance (a la Hitchcock) as a man who recognizes Michel outside the Herald-Tribune office and informs to the police.
For the male lead of Michel, Godard wanted Jean-Paul Belmondo. Belmondo had appeared in a few films prior, but he was virtually unknown outside France. However, the problem with securing Belmondo’s participation came from his agent, who told the actor that he would be making the biggest mistake of his life if he were to accept the lead. Belmondo, who knew Godard personally, was beholden to him for some good write-ups in Cahiers and agreed to be in the film.
Now that Godard had his leads, the next thing on his list was to work the story into a screenplay. His original plan was to film the story, adding only dialogue. But soon he realized he needed to rewrite the entire story. In the original outline, Truffaut’s antagonist, having missed the last train from Paris to Le Havre, steals a car near the Saint-Lazare station and later kills the patrolman who pulled him over. He then goes to meet his girlfriend, Betty, a young American journalist, and the chase shifts from one cinema to the next in the streets of Paris. The police arrest Betty and she gives Michel up. The police find him hiding on a barge. He gives himself up but tells them he has swallowed a fatal dose of aspirin. No one believes him, but once at the station he keels over and dies.
Godard and Truffaut worked on a treatment (officially attributed to Truffaut) that is closer to a continuity script, though without the dialogue. This version matches the locations and most of the narrative developments in the finished film. Truffaut’s vision of the anguished young man who turns to crime out of despair now becomes, in Godard’s vision, an existential hood indifferent to common morality and the law. Also, the girl, renamed Patricia, now enters the film near the beginning with their love story dominating the middle portion of the film. She has become a neophyte journalist, reduced to selling the Herald-Tribune on the street in addition to other assignments. Godard moved the opening sequence from Paris to Marseilles, where Michel pretends to read Paris Flirt while observing the pedestrian and auto traffic in front of the Vieux Port.
Filming began on August 17, 1959. Godard began by shooting the lengthy bedroom scene at the Hôtel de Suède, shooting for two hours with only a minimal crew and no lighting before running out of ideas. This proved to be the hardest location for Godard to secure, but as he was smitten with the hotel, having lived there in the early 1950s, producer de Beauregard managed to obtain permission from the hotel’s management (with a little grease, no doubt). The rest of the film was filmed chronologically, with the exception of the first scene in Marseilles, which was shot toward the end of filming.
According to Coutard, Godard discarded the screenplay he had written early on in the shoot and instead improvised by writing the dialogue day by day as production went along. He would then give the lines to the actors, have a few brief rehearsals on the day’s scenes, and then filming began. The actors found this a strange way of working causing them to sometimes forget their lines. However, since the soundtrack was to be post-synchronized later, Godard would simply solve this problem by calling out their lines to them from behind the camera.
Richard Balducci, who played Tolmatchoff, stated that the shooting days ranged anywhere from 15 minutes to 12 hours, depending on how many ideas Godard had that day. When he ran short of ideas he would cancel the day’s filming. This erratic shooting schedule angered de Beauregard to the point he wrote a letter to the entire crew complaining about it. According to Coutard, on a day that Godard had called in sick, de Beauregard bumped into the director at a café, and what began as an argument quickly escalated into a full-blown fistfight.
Despite the erratic schedule, though, filming lasted for 23 days, ending on September 12, 1959 with the final scene (where Michel is shot in the street) filmed on the rue Campagne-Premiere in Paris.
THE INFLUENCE OF SARTRE
When it comes to a deeper examination of the motivations of the central characters, Breathless is heavily influenced by the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. His concepts of the priority of the individual versus society, the absurdity of life, Michel’s view of death as an everyday event, the impossibility of love, and the idea of “bad faith” are all found in the film. Michel is defined through his actions, not his thoughts. In fact, he barely thinks of anything outside his own immediate existence. He lives for the moment. Patricia, on the other hand, lives according to her dreams and thoughts. She lives an inner life, expressed by her attachment to art, music, and romantic versions of love. For instance, during the scene in her hotel room she poses next to a Renoir poster of a young girl and asks Michel if he thinks she’s prettier than the girl. Michel, for his part, tellingly sits beneath a Picasso poster of a man holding a mask. She thinks of tomorrow while he thinks only of today. When Patricia reads him William Faulkner’s conclusion to The Wild Palms, “between grief and nothingness, I choose grief,” Michel’s rebuttal is “Grief is a compromise. I’d choose nothingness. You’ve got to have all or nothing.”
But Michel himself is a flawed “hero,” for he lives in bad faith. For Sartre, bad faith (mauvaise foi) is a condition where an individual, under pressure from society, adopts false values and rejects his or her innate freedom to act authentically. Michel’s bad faith is expressed by his desire to be Humphrey Bogart. He’s not just a punk; he sees himself as an uber-criminal, a man totally outside the law and society, as Bogart’s characters were. When he walks by a cinema showing Bogart in The Harder They Fall, Michel takes a moment to admire Bogart’s face on the poster. Tellingly he swipes his thumb across his lip, uttering only one word, “Bogie.” He had earlier stopped to admire a poster for Robert Aldrich’s film, Ten Seconds to Hell, featuring the tag line, “Live dangerously till the end,” which brings a knowing smile to his face. He wants to be as tough as Bogart in the films he loves. He practices facial expressions in the mirror, wears a fedora, aviator-style sunglasses, runs his thumb across his lips in a constant gesture, and is never -- ever -- seen without a cigarette, removing one only to insert another. But as Godard shows, the fedora, and even the cigarette seem too big for Michel’s face. Underneath his persona, he is frightened. Even his killing of the policeman was driven by the panic of the moment, not a cool, controlled action. Michel uses this persona to hide his desperation. Note his increasing panic at finding the associates who owe him money. When he takes his newly stolen car to a shady dealer, only to discover the dealer ripping him off, he slaps the dealer around a little, grabbing enough money for a taxi, but leaving the car.
And what of Patricia? She is Michel’s opposite, but she is also wallowing in bad faith. We can read Michel right away, for he wears his persona on his sleeve, but Patricia is hollow and inscrutable, an enigma. And she is Michel’s Achilles heel. When we see him first encounter her as she sells copies of the Herald-Tribune on the streets, he tells her, “It’s crazy, but I love you.” She walks with an arched back, rebuffing Michel’s attempts to move in. Michel may be attempting to emulate the thuggish persona of Bogart, but it is Patricia who has the upper hand in their relationship. When he teasingly asks why she doesn’t wear a bra, she coldly retorts, “That’s no way to talk.” His only response is to issue a meek apology.
The manner in which Patricia detaches herself from the immediate world is also telling. She briefly ponders whether she might be pregnant by Michel, but then thinks no more about it. The more he reveals himself to her, the more her detachment grows. She learns some shocking facts: that he’s a cop killer, that he is married (though he says it ended long ago), and that he uses more than one name (aka Laszlo Kovacs). But her gamin face betrays not the slightest notion of what she is thinking. In his attempt to establish control in their relationship Michel tells her about a story he’d read in a newspaper: a bus conductor had stolen five million francs to seduce a girl. After going through the money in three days the conductor reveals to the woman that it’s stolen money; he may be a hood, but he likes her. The real point of the story is that she stuck by him, standing lookout as they were caught trying to rob fancy villas. Later, as he drives her to an interview in another car she asks what happened to the Ford. “It’s in the garage,” he answers. She never stops to question his answer, but rides along quietly. At the same time she benefits from their relationship by riding around in the expensive cars Michel swipes and dining at fine restaurants, which confirms her image as an up and coming journalist. That image, however, is confined to her inner life.
As she ascends the escalator to her meeting with a journalist who was doing favors for her in return for sex, she tells him that she doesn’t know if she’s unhappy because she’s not free, or if she’s not free because she’s unhappy. As they leave, he puts his arm around her and she yields to him. Michel spies the two of them kissing in his sports car. He has done what Michel has not been able to do - get her to submit to him.
Sartre’s theme of the impossibility of real love comes to the fore during their romp in Patricia’s bedroom. For Sartre, loving relationships are doomed to failure because they are stuck in a subject-object scheme: I cannot love the other without losing my freedom or denying the freedom of my loved one. Godard’s dialogue in the bedroom scene emphasizes the deception and stratagems both employ to enslave the other in the battle for domination. “I’ll stare at you until you stop staring at me,” Patricia says. “Me, too,” he replies. When Patricia takes a rolled up poster and frames Michel’s face, he looks totally smitten by love, totally betraying his tough guy persona, thus reversing the roles. When Michel drops his façade and admits to her in all sincerity that he wants her to stay with him, he exposes his vulnerability, enabling her to gain the upper hand. He now becomes the naïve one and she becomes the schemer. In the long bedroom scene, the two of them talk, joke, argue and fool with each other, but totally fail to understand each other. There is no coming together of lovers as one.
Patricia’s hollowness, though, is never more clearly shown than during the press conference she attends at Orly Airport. Holding the conference is the writer, Mr. Parvulesco (Melville), who speaks in terse banalities. Asked about the difference between French and American women, he answers, “French women are totally unlike American women. The American woman dominates the man. The French woman doesn’t dominate him yet.” Patricia now realizes that no matter how thuggish Michel desires to appear, he falls within Parvulesco’s framing of men.
Patricia then asks if women have a role to play in modern society, to which Parvulesco responds, “Yes, if they’re charming and wear striped dresses and dark glasses,” a reference to her appearance, which draws a slight smile. Another journalist asks him how many men can a woman love in a lifetime. “Physically, I mean.” Parvulesco begins counting on his fingers, adding large numbers. More than that,” he continues “two things matter in life. For men, it’s women, and for women, money.” Patricia’s only response is to smile broadly. When she asks Parvulesco about his greatest ambition, he answers, “To become immortal, and then die.” She pulls the sunglasses from her face, places the arm into her mouth, and in a gesture of contemplation, she gazes into the viewer’s eyes. Parvulesco has just exposed her real intentions. And thus lies the absolute distance between Michel and Patricia: Michel thinks a lot about death, while Patricia thinks of life. Michel’s significance in life might be women, but Patricia’s is not just money, but immortality, life, and that immortality does not include being subject to Michel’s scheme.
Their gulf grows during a cab ride with Michel. His anxiety about getting his money is emphasized by Godard’s frequent jump cuts. He blames Patricia for the fact he hasn’t yet received his money; he makes belligerent remarks to the driver, and becomes frustrated with Patricia’s desire to be a writer. Patricia’s response to his inquiry about her being a writer is that her intention is “to have money and not rely on men.”
When detectives track Patricia down at the offices of the New York Herald-Tribune, one shows her the cover of the newspaper with Michel’s face in full display. She initially denies knowing him, but when the detective persists and threatens her with passport trouble if she didn’t cooperate, she admits she knows him, using an excuse that the picture was old. The detective gives her his number to call when she sees him again. As she leaves the office she tips off Michel, who is waiting across the street. A detective is tailing her but she loses him by ducking into a cinema.
When they meet up shortly afterward, her doubts about the innocence of their relationship begin to surface. “And killing a policeman?” “I was scared,” Michel replies. She asks, “How did they know I knew you?” “Someone must’ve seen us together and informed on us,” “That’s horrible, informing on people,” she replies. Her face, though, betrays her thoughts; we can see her weighing the advantages and disadvantages of calling the police.
It is when they find Antonio, who owes Michel money that their relationship begins to seriously unravel. He sends them to stay at a photography studio. Patricia’s doubts about Michel begin to become manifest itself early that evening, as she tells Michel that she dumped the journalist because she had to make sure she didn’t love him first. She then asks Michel if he wants to go to bed. “Sleeping’s so sad. We have to separ…” Michel fills in the last syllable, and she reiterates the word “separate,” continuing, “You say ‘sleep together,’ but you don’t.” When Patricia looks into the camera again, her mind is made up. Michel is doomed.
The next morning he sends her to buy the France-soir newspaper for the latest details about the search. She stops into a café and reaches into her purse, pulling out the detective’s number. She ponders for a few seconds, then calls Inspector Vital and reveals Michel’s location. Returning from the café, she tells Michel she can’t go to Italy with him. She also tells him that she has informed the police as to his whereabouts: “Michel, I called the police. I said you were here. I don’t want to be in love with you.” Michel replies that, “You’re like the girl who sleeps with everyone except the one man who loves her, saying it’s because she sleeps with everyone.” With that exchange the roles have become fully reversed. It is Michel who now is unsure; Patricia has taken cool façade from him, disposing of Michel after concluding that he no longer fits within her objectives. How could she achieve her dreams of immortality by maintaining a low profile or escaping to Italy? It no longer suits her -- she has chosen money and potential immortality over Michel’s proclamations of love.
Leaving the photography studio, Michel is like a zombie. All the air has been removed from his sails. Antonio pulls up in a car and hands Michel his money. “I’m tired,” says Michel. “I want to sleep. I shouldn’t be thinking of her but I can’t help it.” Another car also stops. It’s the police, who exit the car brandishing pistols. Antonio offers Michel a pistol, but Michel refuses it. Antonio drives off, throwing the pistol at Michel’s feet. The police open fire and hit Michel in the back. He stumbles trying to escape before collapsing. The men approach, along with Patricia. Michel’s mouth opens high, expands wide, and he purses his lips looking at Patricia. As they stand over him, and life escapes from his body, he looks at Patricia and mutters softly, “C’est vraiment dégueulasse” (It’s disgusting). As he dies, Patricia turns to the policeman, asking what he said. The answer: “Il a dit: ‘Vous êtes vraiment une dégueulasse’” (He said: “You are a disgusting person”). She now stares directly into the camera and traces her lips with her thumb in the way Michel has done in imitation of Bogart. The final words of the film are now uttered by Patricia: “Qu’est que c’est: dégueulasse?” (What does that mean, dégueulasse?) That she fails to even understand his dying words sums up the flawed nature of their relationship. It doesn’t matter, though, for by her final gesture she reveals that she has become Michel.
GODARD AND SARTRE
Besides the influence of Sartre in the film’s plot, Godard also reflects Sartre’s theory of aesthetics. In fact, it might be said that he is a child of Sartre inasmuch as when Godard was reaching intellectual maturity, it as Sartre who dominated the French literary and artistic scene. For Sartre, authentic art comes from artists who extend the sacred tradition only when they forget that tradition and forge a new art for the present age with contemporary tools of expression. Each and every true thought must be reinvented; if not, it will wither and die on the library shelf.
Godard applies Sartre’s views by stating that cinema is the medium where “reticence, as it were, is unable to hide its secrets; the most religious of arts, it values man above the essence of things and reveals the soul within the body.” (Godard on Godard, p. 80)
For Sartre, it was not the realism of film, or its social and political importance, that was central; it was the energy and the illusions film creates. Like many French filmmakers of his time, Sartre was influenced by surrealism, the everyday, and the accidental transformed into the magical. Film’s rhythm, harmony, integration of motifs, and its ability to produce different themes simultaneously made for a unique attraction, especially as it affects our consciousness. Sartre’s contemporary and companion, Simone de Beauvoir, in her volume of memoirs, The Prime of Life, credited cinema with shaping much of Sartre’s mature philosophy, especially for his view of the absurdity inherent in the world’s condition.
Like the New Wave, Sartre embraced American films because of their difference from the French films. This difference sprang from an entirely new set of assumptions and perceptions of what the cinema could be, perceptions that went beyond the cinema to the way life might be led. As with the surrealists, it was a celebration of the improper, the asocial, the despised, and the disrespectful; it was unconventional, not in accordance with what art is or “should” be. Sartre’s contemporary, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, valued film because in the cinema, we are constantly immersed in a world. This is what Godard means when he states that cinema reveals the soul within the body. There are no secrets in cinema; everything is on display.
Godard takes these dictums and pushes them to the limit. Of all the directors in the New Wave, he is the most “American.” It might be said that his early films are the cousins to American pop culture, and of the New Wave directors, he had the most immediate impact on American pop culture. We see one American pop reference right at the beginning, when Godard dedicates the film to Monogram Pictures. Truffaut had wanted to use a quotation from Stendhal (“We are going to speak of dreadful things”) as the opening citation. Breathless is perhaps the most self-conscious film in terms of its display of American consumer items, especially automobiles, and iconography, seen on the scene where Michel admires the poster of Bogart, and the jazz score.
BETWEEN THE LINES
Breathless is also filled with references to art, literature, and cinema in general. Painters Renoir, Picasso and Klee are referenced, as well as writers Faulkner, Dylan Thomas, Louis Aragon, and Dashiell Hammett. (The scene where a character criticizes Michel for wearing silk socks with a tweed jacket is lifted from Hammett’s novel, The Glass Key.) And there are references to American director and their movies: When Patricia rolls up the Renoir poster and looks at Michel through it is a homage to Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns, which uses a shot through a barrel of a gun that cuts to a couple kissing. Later, when Patrica is trying to shake the police tail, she ducks into a cinema playing the film, Whirlpool, directed by Otto Preminger. There’s also a reference to Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends, as well as Richard Quine’s Pushover. Joseph H. Lewis, who directed the 1949 Gun Crazy, is referenced in the scene where Michel tells Patricia the anecdote about the bus conductor and the scene is the taxi. And at the end, Patricia’s “What does that mean, dégueulasse?” echoes Ida Lupino’s blank stare at Bogart’s dead body and asking what it means “to crash out” in Raoul Walsh’s 1940 classic, High Sierra. The references to so many film noirs is interesting in light of what Godard is trying to do: make a film noir that breaks down the form of a film noir. This is an explicit homage to Sartre’s theory that the artist must forge new ideas from traditional ones.
Despite the fact that Godard was trying to make a film noir, what he actually came up with was more of a noir comedy. Unlike other noirs, Breathess feels unreal -- it is self-conscious, which will dictate the movie’s style. This self-consciousness is best seen in the films many inside jokes. For instance, when Michel (who, besides the real life Michel Portail, is based on womanizing screenwriter Paul Gegauff) goes to see the gangster Tolmatchoff (Balducci) at his travel agency for the money he is owed, they discuss Bob Montagne (the lead character of Melville’s 1955 noir, Bob le flambeur, or Bob the Gambler), and it’s mentioned that Bob is now in jail. When Tolmatchoff gives Michel a check he won’t cash, Michel notes, “Bob the gambler would have cashed my check.” The police later visit Tolmatchoff to hustle him for information. Other noirs would stage this scene in a dive bar, or at a place like the docks, but for Godard, it’s the cue for another inside joke. He stages it at Tolmatchoff’s travel agency, where the gangster is leaning lazily against a counter, playing with a model airplane. There he gets the spiel to turn in Michel. The cops tell him it shouldn’t be difficult to rat Michel out; after all, he had done the same thing earlier to Bob Montagne.
Another reference occurs when Patricia learns Michel also uses the alias of Laszlo Kovacs. Some have mistakenly concluded that Godard was referring to the renowned Hungarian-American cinematographer, but the truth of the matter was that Godard had not met Kovacs. The name, “Laszlo Kovacs,” was the name of Belmondo’s character in Chabrol’s 1959 film, A Double Tour. And even Godard’s former place of employment was not exempt: while Patricia is selling copies of the Herald-Tribune, a young woman appears, selling copies of Cahiers du Cinema.
This feeling of the absurd, the unreal, was the result of the process of production. Godard wrote the script form his accumulated notes as he went along, and though the locations were planned ahead, what occurred within them was not. The very process he used to shoot the movie, filming it verite in the style of a documentary with light equipment and almost no crew, is the very thing that gives it such an absurd and surreal feeling. Noirs by such directors as Hawks and Lang (both of whom Godard admired greatly) took a tightly scripted and processed story, to which they added the human element. Godard begins with the human element: the spontaneity, rhythm, and everydayness, which he stylized through the use of jump cuts and other editing tricks. To this he then adds the plot, such as it is. Thus, the gangster story we come to expect is turned into a film about two lovers in contemporary Paris. The middle section of the film, where Michel and Patricia fool around, talk, and do things that any ordinary pair of lovers might do, with the only accompaniment being a recording and the cacophonous street noise of everyday Paris, is striking in its very lack of action.
Given its beginning, with Michel stealing a car and later killing a motorcycle cop, we form the expectation of a grimy noir, set in the seedier parts of Paris, as Melville gave us in Bob le flambeur, or Jules Dassin in Rififi. What we get instead is a commonplace Paris, a Paris of wide boulevards, cafes, offices, and nice hotels. Yet, it’s the conflict between the characters and the setting that sharpens the film and sets it apart from its predecessors, whether in France or Hollywood. Even Michel’s death and the events leading up to it is shot in a low-key manner. We can’t imagine Hawks, Huston, Walsh, Dassin, or Lang being so laid back in the scene where Patricia tells Michel that she has just dimed him out. In fact, the gangster plot at times seems like an unnecessary intrusion into Godard’s panorama of the contemporary Paris of his day, for what sticks with us long after the move ends are the images of the flow of everyday Paris life; not the gangster doings, which often seem like an afterthought. In subsequent films such as A Woman is a Woman, Vivre Sa Vie, Band of Outsiders, and Two or Three Things I Know About Her . . ., the city of Paris itself is as much as character as the actors in the plot.
Breathless was an immediate hit, both with the public (it returned a profit of more than 50 times its cost) and the critics. Even before its release it won the annual Jean Vigo Prize (January 1960), given to films made with an independent spirit. The film was remade in 1983 with Richard Gere, who showed that he had none of the star power of Belmondo.
Over the years both the film and its director’s style have influenced a generation of young filmmakers. Directors such as Richard Lester, Seijun Suzuki, John Woo, and Ringo Lam were influenced both by the movie and the director. In the U.S. today, Godard’s most ardent disciple is Quentin Tarantino, who even named his production company, A Band Apart, after the title of a Godard film. In fact, we may well say that, if not for Godard, Tarantino might not exist, at least not in his present form.
Godard himself, who reportedly was never happy with his finished product, claimed that his 1975 film, Numero deux, was a remake of Breathless. However, be that as it may, more than 50 years later, Breathless still has the power to mesmerize and influence a new generation of filmgoers.