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.