Movie Reviews - 1930s posts
Wednesday February 19, 2020
Movie Review: Behind Office Doors (1931)
Makes sense that a lot of women-in-office movies were made in the pre-code era. Cheap sets, easy sex.
Mary Astor’s Mary Linden here is the opposite of Barbara Stanwyck’s Lily in “Baby Face.” The latter used her body to get ahead in the business world; Mary uses her brain to help one man get ahead. She’s the smartest person in the room but not exactly looking out for herself. That said, can you still make an argument for her as the better feminist—or at least the better wish-fulfillment fantasy? Where’s the challenge in using men sexually? But getting a man to actually clean up his act? To mold the man you love into the man you want? That’s real power.
Not exactly Gary Cooper
“Behind Office Doors” isn’t much, and the blurry, public-domain version on Amazon Prime doesn't help. I wish they'd stop that.
First, a few cultural tidbits.
- In the first scene, we see some partying adults play a game called “Truth,” which is like “Truth or Dare” before the “Dare.” It’s just an agreement you won’t lie or prevaricate. Here, as with the longer version today, it’s a party game, a means of titillation, a potential precursor to making out/sex. Ronnie Wales (Ricardo Cortez) plays it with Mary but it stops at kissing. Turns out she’s in love with another man.
- When Mary proves unwilling, another girl offers herself, saying she’s a “grass widow”—meaning her husband’s often away. Yes, I had to look that up.
- You know that kid’s bit where you point at someone’s chest and when they look down, flick your hand up at their nose? Mary’s friend, Delores (Kitty Kelly), does it to Mary here. The implication is: Don’t be a sucker. I find it fascinating it was already a thing in 1931.
- As was talking about yourself in the third person. The man Mary loves, womanizing salesman Jim Duneen (Robert Ames), does it constantly in the first half of the movie. “Consider the Duneen is on his way.” “The Great Duneen isn’t dressed yet, but come in, honey.” Yes, he’s a jerk. It was the province of jerks back then, too.
The Great Duneen is the movie’s main sticking point. He’s a real creep (slapping Delores on the ass and saying “You pack a gun, girlie?”), and not exactly Gary Cooper (Ames died within a year at age 41 of alcoholism), so what does Mary see in him? It’s such a head-scratcher that Delores asks her to explain. For us. She tells a story about being so overwhelmed on her first day of work that she wound up crying in the hallway. Duneen found her, bucked her up, told her to keep up a bluff. He gave her the secret to life: “Everybody in the world was bluffing.” She never forgot it.
“Oh, he don’t look like no big brother to me,” Delores says.
Exactly. And Mary doesn’t seem the type to wilt in the hallway. But onward.
Delores thinks Mary’s a sap for not going for Ronnie, who’s rich, estranged from his wife, and crazy about her. Plus he’s the dude on the poster. But no soap. He’s barely in it.
Instead, Mary does the following:
- Convinces the retiring owner of Ritter & Co. Wholesale Paper (Est. 1889) to sell the company to his employees.
- Convinces Ritter, and banker Robinson (William Morris), that Duneen would be a good man to lead it.
- Tells Duneen what to say to get the gig. She even writes it down for him.
- Then she squirts ink on his loud, striped shirt and recommends a white one for the meeting.
That’s just for starters. After Duneen gets the VP job, she tones down his angry letters, suggests new business avenues, and he becomes president. And how does he repay her? Hires another assistant, a floozy named Daisy Presby (Edna Murphy), who seems good at just one thing. Yes, that. How do we know? The price tag of the lingerie she’d bought at Wimball’s—and cattily showed off to Mary—winds up on Duneen’s bedroom floor.
Eventually Mary classes up Duneen enough that he’s actually a catch, and, whoops, he becomes engaged to Ellen (Catherine Dale Owen), the banker’s daughter. Ellen’s no fool, either. She senses Mary’s love for her fiancé and wants her out, but as always Mary has to do the heavy lifting. She concocts an excuse (job offer with better pay), and quits, leaving Duneen flustered and out of his element.
The script was written by Carey Wilson (112 credits, AA nomination for “Mutiny on the Bounty,” said to be Louis B. Mayer’s favorite screenwriter), and Alan Schultz (one credit—this), and we get some good lines. When Mary gets dolled up for a business soiree, and asks Duneen what’s wrong with her frock, he responds, “Absolutely nothing. Looks like you been poured in it and forgot to say when.”
My favorite, though, is the piecemeal way Daisy reveals the disasters that have happened in Mary’s absence:
- No, she never processed the orders Duneen sent while on his business trip because they weren’t marked RUSH; she waited for him to get back.
- No, she can’t process them now because she forwarded them to his house.
- No, the butler can’t bring them to the office because of the fire at his home.
- No, she’s not sure how it started, but she thought the firemen were very rude to imply it was her cigarette.
- No, she didn’t fall asleep smoking; she was just “thinking with her eyes closed.”
Eventually, Daisy is canned, the engagement is called off, Mary returns. For a second it looks like we’ll end there, with Mary taking dictation again from the company president she made. Instead: cut to a final scene of Delores at the switchboard, getting a late call from her boyfriend, and seeing a note before her: Duneen and Mary have left to get married. “Ain’t that grand?” she says. That’s the end. The marriage, like Cagney’s death in “Public Enemy,” takes place off-camera. One wonders if it was added at the behest of a studio head or preview audiences. Or both.
Nobody gets out of here alive
“Behind Office Doors,” an RKO Picture, starts out like a wise-cracking Warner Bros. flick, then, under Mary’s tutelage, becomes a more staid MGM movie. I like the Warners part. That's where the cultural references are. At one point, Mary tells Duneen, “What do you think I came here for? Find out there’s one more cough in a carload?” Turns out Not a cough in a carload was an ad slogan for Old Gold cigarettes back then. In the same conversation, Duneen offers her a cocktail but it has OJ in it and she turns it down. For that, he calls her “Mrs. Rick” and adds “And the next time you come, we’ll have that sauerkraut you crave.” Radio show? Song lyric? Another ad? Anyone? I can't find it.
Overall, there’s a real “Nobody gets out of her alive” vibe to the cast. Most of the people in it either stopped making movies shortly afterwards or died:
- Ames died of the DTs in 1931.
- Catherine Dale Owen stopped making movies in 1931.
- Edna Murphy stopped making movies in 1933.
- William Morris died in 1936.
- Charles Sellon died in 1937.
Only three of the principles had any kind of career after this.
Kitty Kelly, who may be the best thing in the movie, continued to work steadily into the 1960s, but mostly in small roles. In one of her last, she played “Third Poor Person” in a 1966 episode of “Batman.” And no, she’s not that Kitty Kelley.
Ricardo Cortez, nee Jacob Krantz, who was trying to become the next Valentino, and who played the first Sam Spade in “Maltese Falcon” this same year, gave up acting for Wall Street in the early 1950s—although he returned for an episode of “Bonanza” in 1960. He died in 1977.
Mary Astor, of course, continued working in movies and television until 1964. She won an Oscar in 1941 for supporting actress in “The Great Lie”—most likely aided by the fact that she played her most famous part, Brigid O'Shaughnessy, in John Huston’s “Maltese Falcon” that same year. She died in 1987.
As “Behind Closed Doors” began, I actually mixed up my Malteses. I thought, “Hey, they’re together here before they’re together in ‘Maltese Falcon.’” It took a second before the other shoe dropped.
Could you make this movie today? Possibly. But you obviously couldn’t end it where it ended it. Tables would need to be reversed. Mary would get the company, and maybe Ronnie, who would be a doctor for the poor or something. I do like the idea of a woman refining and molding the man she loves only to lose him because he becomes such a catch. She cleans him up beyond her pay grade. You could make dark comedy out of that.
Thursday February 13, 2020
Movie Review: Frisco Kid (1935)
It works for a while. Bat Morgan (James Cagney) is a sailor who comes ashore in 1850s San Francisco only to be shanghaied onto another vessel. Or nearly. He wakes up as his attacker is rowing him to the ship, attacks the attacker, and both men go into the drink. Bat swims ashore, where, under the boardwalk, he’s found by a friendly Jewish tailor, Solomon “Solly” Green (George E. Stone), who could get as much as $250 for him but instead nurses him back to health. Bat chastises him later for it.
Bat: And you call yourself a businessman? Why didn’t you turn me over to his ship?
Solly: I sell merchandise, not men.
Nice line. After that, Bat follows Solly’s example and becomes a better man.
Kidding. Bat adopts the code of those who shanghaied him (“dog eat dog”) rather than the one who saved him. In fact, he winds up causing the death of the one who saved him.
Yeah, it’s kind of fucked up.
“Frisco Kid,” directed by Lloyd Bacon (“42nd Street”), and written by Warren Duff (“Angels with Dirty Faces”) and Seton I. Miller (“Adventures of Robin Hood”), is Cagney’s first period piece. He’s in fine form with longish hair and a stocking cap, but he never thought much of the flick. In his autobiography, he called it “one of those catch-as-catch-can affairs Warners put out purely because they had to be put out. By that I mean Frisco Kid had already been sold to the exhibitors even before a foot of it had been shot or conceived.”
Bat’s rise on the Barbary Coast is fun but too quick. He shanghais Slugs (Joe Sawyer), the guy who shanghaied him, then tosses in another of Slugs’ victims for a quick $500 ... which he quickly loses at the blackjack table to a cheating Paul Morra (Ricardo Cortez, Sam Spade in the original “Maltese Falcon”), who also happens to own the place. So much of Bat’s rise is in the establishments. At the low end is The Occidental, where he first got shanghaied, and which is run by Spider Burke (Barton MacLane, the future Gen. Peterson on “I Dream of Jeannie”). With cash, he rises to Morra’s, which includes a few respectable people, and where he becomes a bouncer after killing Slugs’ accomplice, the Shanghai Duck (Fred Kohler). But he’s got bigger dreams. He wants to be the biggest and most important guy in town—and he does that by enlisting the help of powerbroker Jim Daley (Joe King). Together, they create the Bella Pacifica, with its mirrored glass and marbled bar, and which caters to “the swells” and “society blades.”
Why does Daley even listen to Bat? Because he’s got an idea, see? The local newspaper, run by Charles Ford (Donald Woods), is on a campaign to clean up the Barbary Coast. “The town is tired of having a dirty neck,” Bat tells Daley. “And they may try to wash it—unless we buy up all the soap.”
Right. It’s a little vague. All the businesses kick in to Daley/Bat—protection money, I believe—but the first part of Bat’s scheme? Quieting Ford and his newspaper? Doesn’t happen. In fact, Daley wants Ford dead. But Bat met Ford once and immediately liked him, for no good reason other than he’s supposed to like him, so Bat confronts the would-be assassin, Spider Burke, and knocks him out. Later, Burke tries to shoot Bat, but Solly inadvertently steps in the way. Down he goes. And with him, the best part of the movie.
Now we’re just left with the romance. Jean Barrat (Margaret Lindsay) is the publisher, or something, of the newspaper. Her father used to run it but he was knifed in the back for taking on the Barbary Coast. “I’m only telling you this,” she says to Ford, “so you know you’ve taken a dangerous position.” Judge Crawford (Robert McWade) warns Ford, too, but in the other direction: He has to say something to clean up the town. The Judge is a pain throughout. He shows up just to hector people: Ford isn’t doing enough; Jean shouldn’t get involved with Bat. Etc.
Jean: I think there’s a very worthwhile and human side to his character.
Judge: I can’t understand you, Jean.
Jean (light laugh): I can’t understand myself sometimes.
Yuck. But it’s that Warner Bros. ethos. Our guy isn’t bad, he’s just trying to survive in a crummy world. If only he could become respectable. At the same time, we don't want him to become respectable. Those guys are boring. Basically:
|Scum||Charming Crooks||Dull Society|
|Spider Burke||Bat Morgan||Jean Barrat|
|Slugs Crippen||Paul Morra||Charles Ford|
|Shanghai Duck||Judge Crawford|
The Judge is so annoying that when he builds an opera house, Bat can’t resist tweaking his nose. He invites a few raucous Barbary friends, who horrify the swells. Unfortunately, Morra shows up uncharacteristically drunk and invades the Judge’s box; when the Judge objects, he shoots him.
The rest of the movie is lynch mobs. Ford turns back the first mob with a fiery speech about rule of law—only to discover Daley has freed Morra. So he confronts Daley, decks him, and is shot dead by him. That leads to the second lynch mob, which extracts both Morra and Daley from prison, puts them through a kangaroo court, and hangs them. (Morra goes with aplomb; Daley whimpering.) Now they target Bat. He prevented the Barbary Coast mob from burning down the newspaper, but the citizens’ mob doesn't know that, and probably wouldn't care, and they burn down his place and take him prisoner. At the kangaroo court, he's about to get a death sentence when Jean shows up and pleads his case: “You hanged Morra and Dailey because they killed. Bat Morgan has killed no one!”
Me: Well, Spider Burke, most likely, but we can let that one go.
In his own defense, Bat says this:
The only thing I’m guilty of is trying to make good. Make good my own way. [Pause] Which was wrong, I found that out.
Ouch. That pause.
Anyway, the vigilante committee remands Bat to her care. She says she has faith in him. He says she won’t regret it.
We regret it. The end.
Where have you gone, Lili Damita?
It's an odd end. The couple is together but basically surrounded. This was from the period when Warners didn't kill off Cagney. After “Public Enemy,” I don't think he died onscreen again until “Ceiling Zero,” his next picture after this one, which was a sacrificial death, as was, in a way, “Angels with Dirty Faces,” a few pictures after that. Then it was off to the races. Then moidah the bum.
A couple more things worth mentioning about “Frisco Kid.”
On race matters: There’s just one non-white face, Wong Chung playing Chung. We first see him as another player at Morra’s blackjack table; after Bat builds Bella Pacifica, we see him in Bat’s office, shining his shoes. That’s about it. Of the 45 credits IMDb lists for Wong, 44 are uncredited. The one that isn’t is the Anna May Wong vehicle “King of Chinatown” (1939), in which he plays “Chinese man”—which is his credit (or uncredit) in 11 other movies. This is the fourth movie in which he actually has a name, and it’s his third with “Frisco” in the title. The others: “Frisco Jenny” (1932) and “Fog Over Frisco” (1934).
Charles Middleton, soon to play Ming the Merciless in “Flash Gordon,” also has a bit part as a rabble rouser.
Fourth-billed is an actress named Lili Damita, who’s barely in it. She plays Belle, Morra’s girl, and helps him cheat. She’s also in a lot of publicity shots for the film—including cheek to cheek with Cagney—but again, she’s barely in it, and never with her cheeks near Cagney’s. Was her part cut? Was she was just a name to draw in the crowds? In her obit from 1994, The New York Times says the French-born actress was “one of Hollywood's most glamorous celebrities in the early years of talking pictures,” starring opposite Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper and Laurence Olivier, while romantically linked to Prince Louis Ferninand. A 1929 Times headline reads: LILI DAMITA ENGAGED TO KAISER’S GRANDSON. A day later, this errata: HOHENZOLLERNS DENY PRINCE IS TO WED.
“Frisco Kid” is one of her last pictures. What happened? Chiefly, she married an up-and-comer named Errol Flynn. They divorced a few years later, of course, but they had a son, Sean, who—no surprise—was a handsome sonovuabitch. He made a few knockoff movies in the early 1960s trading on his dad’s fame but apparently died in Cambodia in 1970. As a soldier? No, a photojournalist. He went to Vietnam in 1966 for Paris-Match, was wounded, left to cover the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, then returned with plans for a documentary. He and a colleague went missing from Cambodia in 1970; they were never found. His mother had him declared legally dead in the 1980s.
Me: Wow, they should make a movie of this.
They did: “The Road to Freedom,” 2010, loosely based. The Times thought it awful, calling it “a howler.”
Damita did marry again. From her obit: “Her second marriage in 1962 to Allen B. Loomis, an Iowa manufacturer, also ended in divorce.” Not sure why the Times sounds so dismissive here. They were married 20+ years. Plus it’s somehow charming: from a prince, to a movie star, to an Iowa manufacturer. Even those guys—us guys—get a chance now and again.
Wednesday October 02, 2019
Movie Review: Devil Dogs of the Air (1935)
Devil Dogs? Plural? More like hot dog, singular.
Thomas Jefferson “Tommy” O’Toole (James Cagney) considers himself the world’s greatest aviator but joins the Marines to (I guess) be with his childhood buddy, Lt. Brannigan (Pat O’Brien), and has to go through all the steps—training, flight instruction, solo flight—that he considers beneath him. He lets everyone know it’s beneath him. He’s got a superior attitude and a superior laugh. He doesn’t exactly endear himself to them. Or us.
It's kinda weird. I'm a Cagney fan but he's a real asshole in this one.
Not only does he disrespect Brannigan, he tries to steal his girl, Betty (Margaret Lindsay). Wait, he does steal her. First he tries to con the mother, Ma Roberts (Helen Lowell), by selling her his crashed airplane, which he says will attract customers to her diner; then he keeps making a play for Betty. He assumes, with that constant, superior giggle of his, that Betty is enamored of him, too. All the while, she fulminates—“Ooo!”—until she doesn’t. It’s like that transition in “Taxi” when Loretta Young goes from absolutely hating Cagney to cozying up to him on a date. Here, O’Toole basically blackmails Betty into going to the dance with him, and the next we see them they’re dancing cheek to cheek—and she’s not minding it a bit. All the “Ooo!” has gone out of her. If it wasn’t 1935, I would think Sam Peckinpah directed it, but it’s Warner Bros./Cagney mainstay Lloyd Bacon.
We keep waiting for comeuppance, but when it comes it’s muted and distracted; then rewarded.
South of La Jolla
O’Toole first shows up in his plane with WORLD’S GREATEST AVIATOR on the side and TOMMY O’TOOLE on the tops of the wings, and buzzes the San Diego Marine compound and does loop-de-loops. When instructions are given, he’s paring his fingernails. When he goes up with a flight instructor, he disables communications so he doesn’t have to listen to him. Brannigan then takes over as flight instructor but when the plane catches fire he bails out, while O’Toole, with a laugh and a “So long, sucker!” lands the plane safely to acclaim. The longtime commander—beloved, one would think—is suddenly tagged with the mocking nickname “Bail-Out Brannigan.” Maybe he is. He tries to bail out again by requesting a transfer to Quantico. It’s Betty, inside the newly dubbed “Happy Landing Café,” who convinces him to stay and fight. Given what happens, one wonders why she made the effort.
O’Toole finally gets an inkling he’s despised when the rookies, after their first solo flight, are hailed and paraded around the compound before a ceremonious toss into the ocean. Hoo-rah! None of this happens to him. He sticks a perfect three-point landing and gets the cold shoulder. “What gives?” he asks. “Figure it out for yourself,” says the mechanic dismissively.
But it’s just an inkling and it doesn’t stick as well as his landings. He makes more plays at Betty. Outside the dance, Brannigan and O’Toole almost fight, but a commanding officer arrives with his wife and two young beauties and asks the young men to escort them inside. All the while, ambulance driver Crash Kelly (Frank McHugh) follows them around hoping to be of use. It’s the movie’s not-particularly-funny running gag. Crash even tries to engineer injuries. Dude, wait seven years. You’ll see plenty.
It is interesting seeing a military movie from a time when there was no draft and no war. It reminds me of “Top Gun” this way. What do you make the climax about? You make it about war maneuvers, Blue vs. Brown, with “the enemy” trying to land “just south of La Jolla.” Some of these scenes, on the beaches amid smoke screens, seem an eerie prefiguring of future battles.
Of course, during maneuvers, O’Toole and Brannigan are in the same plane, and of course their plane is clipped and they lose part of a wing. O’Toole gets all panicky and is ready to bail but Brannigan insists they keep flying; then he wing-walks to repair the damage. One wonders if he’s doing all this to expunge his nickname or if it actually makes sense. The ground is certainly full of doubters: “A thousand to one they won’t make it,” says Ward Bond. They do, O’Toole is hailed again but for the first time he deflects credit.
O’Toole: Brannigan did it all, give it to him.
[They cheer Brannigan]
Brannigan: Forget it. Took two of us to bring it down.
Aw shucks, guys. At which point, Betty arrives and plants a hot kiss on Brannigan, and it suddenly dawns on O’Toole that he’s not the guy for her.
It just doesn’t dawn on Warner Bros. I guess the star was the star, and he got the girl even if the story has to tie itself in knots to make it happen. Here, days after the kiss, Brannigan is walking with Betty and asks her to marry him. She doesn’t exactly jump. She gets quiet and sad and gives the 1930s version of all of those “I like you as a friend” lines I heard 50 years later: “If you were my brother,” she says, “I couldn’t love your or admire you more than I do.”
Ouch. Then this:
She: Oh Bill, I haven’t hurt your feelings, have I?
He: Oh no, honey. I understand everything. ... Good luck, kid.
One moment he’s ready to spend the rest of his life with her, the next he’s bowing out gracefully. So Pat O’Brien.
This is the second of seven movies real-life pals Cagney and O’Brien made together between 1934 and 1940, and most are similar. They’re often childhood friends, in the military, with Cagney the hotshot and O’Brien the temperate/spiritual one. There was often an issue with a girl. In the first, “Here Comes the Navy,” Cagney is after O’Brien’s sister, while here, as in “The Irish In Us,” he steals O’Brien’s girl. Eventually, Warner Bros. just threw up its hands and said, “Screw it, we’ll make O’Brien a priest from now on.” Problem solved.
This, by the way, is IMDb’s synopsis of the movie: “A talented but brash stunt pilot enters the Marine Corps and becomes more disciplined.” So when does the discipline come? At the very end—kinda sorta not really. After the turndown from Betty, Brannigan again requests a Quantico transfer, but as he’s leaving he goes out of his way to tell O’Toole that he’s the one Betty really likes. “If you think that kiss the other day was anything but friendship,” he says, “you’re crazier than a Chinese kite.” Then he leaves, hail and hearty, while O’Toole chastises a private for not saluting—repeating the lines Brannigan drilled into him:
“The Marine Corps only asks for three things: willingness to learn; respect for a superior officer and the uniform he wears; and the ability to take orders so he can give them later on.”
Trouble is, O’Toole never really leaned to take orders without a smirk; he just got good at giving them. He's one of those types.
Anyway, he gets the girl.
The man behind ‘Wings’
A few things I liked. At one point, during maneuvers, there’s a dirigible in the air, reminding us that all of this was filmed pre-Hindenburg when dirigibles supposedly had military value. I also liked the pilot training/tests, which is like a pre-tech, budget version of what we’d see in “The Right Stuff.” Instead of this equilibrium chair from the 1950s, for example, it’s a swivel desk chair. The instructors spin it five turns one way, five turns the next. Then the pilot wobbles out. That’s it.
I liked Lowell as Ma Roberts. She’s got great comic timing in scenes like this:
Ma: Betty’s father was a Marine. Died in the Nicaraguan campaign.
Ma: No. Mumps.
The flight footage is surprisingly good. The story comes from John Monk Saunders, who was born in Hibbing, Minn., in 1895, moved to Seattle in 1907, and served in the Air Service, the forerunner to the Air Force, during World War I. He never saw combat— he was a flight instructor in Florida—which apparently disappointed and/or haunted him. Is that why he began to write about it? Because he couldn’t do it? Either way, in the 1920s, he wrote novels and short stories about WWI pilots, which he sold to Hollywood, and which became, among other movies, “Wings,” “Dawn Patrol,” “Ace of Aces,” and this. For most of the ’30s, Saunders was married to Fay Wray, the girl in King Kong’s palm, and got into an infamous fight with actor and WWI vet Herbert Marshall at a 1934 Ernst Lubitsch dinner party. He also suffered from alcoholism, which is why he committed suicide in 1940.
The main thing I didn’t like in the movie, as you can tell, is Cagney/O’Toole. They really do make him an asshole here. He’s much more likeable as a murderous gangster. Those guys have a code.
Where have you gone, Rocky Sullivan?
Tuesday September 17, 2019
Movie Review: Other Men's Women (1931)
Apparently they were down with OPP in the 1930s, too. At least at Warner Bros.
In the clunkily titled “Other Men’s Women,” Loretta Young-elopee Grant Withers plays Bill White, a raconteur for the railroad who has a girl in every station. We first see him stepping off a slow-moving train and ducking into a station diner for three eggs and double entendres with the waitress. He’s counting all the while. Counting what? Double entendres? No. Train cars, we soon realize. So he knows when to get back on board. Like a lot of early Warner Bros. leads, he also has a catchphrase. Offering a stick of gum, he says “Have a little chew on me.” He must say it 10 times in the first 10 minutes.
He also drinks too much, carouses, and is tossed out of his flat by a stuttering female landlord, whose stutter he makes fun of. Plus he’s trying to avoid Marie (Joan Blondell), one of his dames. Not sure why.
Good news: His colleague Jack (Regis Toomey) has offered to let him stay at his place, further out of town, with his wife, Lily (Mary Astor of “Maltese Falcon” fame), and a handyman, Peg-Leg (J. Farrell MacDonald), who, yes, has a literal peg leg. At one point Peg-Leg and Lily are arguing over who should use the shovel to turn the earth for her sweet-pea garden. Peg-Leg wants to help but can’t really use the shovel, which is about when Bill offers his services. Then we see the result: Bill turning the earth, Peg-Leg following behind and poking a hole in the ground, into which Lily plants her seeds. Everyone is useful. Nice scene.
Bad news: The longer he stays the more he and Lily flirt; and one day, when Jack is gone, she’s sewing a button onto his shirt, he feigns to dance with her, and we get this exchange.
Bill: Say, I think you‘re the swellest girl in the world.
Lily: Oh, you’re a dear. And just for that I'm gonna give you a little kiss.
At which point both suddenly realize the depths of their longing for each other. She moves off, he pesters, he grabs and demands to know how she feels, she admits, they kiss.
And to think, it all began with “Say, I think you’re the swellest girl in the world.” Sign of a true lothario: making that line work.
When Jack returns, he senses something wrong—his wife is pale and Bill isn’t around. In fact, he’s already fled. But they’re still colleagues, so Jack sees him. By the time Bill confesses to kissing Lily, Jack thinks it’s worse. They fight, Jack gets the worst of it, and his head hits a rail. Result?
“He’s blind,” Lily says. “Stone blind.”
Now we’re in melodrama territory. A character can’t go blind—let alone stone blind—at the end of the second act without it being a melodrama.
As for the final act? Bill is still working on the railroad, now partnering with his friend Ed (James Cagney, fourth-billed in his third film), when the rains come. A flood might wash away the bridge, so Bill decides to take a train, loaded with cement, and drive it onto the bridge to weigh it down. Or something. Ah, but Jack overhears and stumbles to do the job himself. Now they’re fighting over who gets to sacrifice himself. Jack, blinded, wins this one. He drives the train onto the bridge, a wave comes, the bridge collapses, there goes that.
To sum up, Jack lets Bill stay at his place, and Bill repays him by:
- cuckolding him
- blinding him
- floating the idea that kills him
You’d think this wouldn’t lead to a happy ending but you’d be underestimating Hollywood’s capacity for such things. At the end, we get a refrain of the opening. Train pulls up, Bill, counting cars, goes into EATS, and now Lily is there, too. They’re happy to see each other. They make small talk. She asks him to come see her sometime. He makes it back to the train, and, as he’s running along the top, jumps up and down in excitement.
“Other Men’s Women” was written by playwright/actress Maude Fulton and directed by William “Wild Bill” Wellman. We get a few good shots—like when Jack feels his way toward the train that will lead to his sacrificial death—but no memorable lines. Withers isn’t bad but you get why he didn’t last as a leading man. He played big, and often goofy, and not exactly smoldering. Blondell is underused and Cagney criminally so, but we do get to see him dance lightly across the screen. He and Withers also have a nice bit talking atop the train cars, and, without looking, stooping for low bridges because they know the route so well.
As stated, it’s Cagney third movie role. In his fifth, also for Wellman, they made movie history.
Friday September 13, 2019
Movie Review: Fifty Million Frenchmen (1931)
Does anything make less sense than a Cole Porter musical without the Cole Porter music? Maybe a Pearl Jam concert without Eddie Vedder? It’s like you’ve got LeBron on your team and you leave him on the bench. Because “box office receipts for LeBron are down at this time.”
My roundabout rationale for checking this out:
- A few months back, I was watching the Cagney flick, “The Crowd Roars,” in which Cagney players a race-car driver, and at one point Joan Blondell says sardonically, “Well, 50 million race-car drivers can’t be wrong.”
- My ears perked up. I’d long known that Elvis Presley had a greatest hits album called, “50 Million Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong,” which I’d always thought a weird, catchy title. So much so that I’d played off it before. Example: “5,000 Elvis Cards Can’t Be Wrong,” about a Memphis attorney who sends cards to his clients on Elvis’ birthday rather than Christmas. But I had no idea the Elvis album title was playing off of something else. But what? What was Blondell referencing?
- Turns out, the 1927 hit Sophie Tucker record, “50 Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong.”
- Hey, Cole Porter turned that into a musical in 1929!
- Hey, Warners turned that into a movie in 1931!
- Hey, Scarecrow Video has it!
And here we are.
So was it worth the journey? Eh.
The song is mostly about sex (“They shorten them here, They shorten them there/ And if her name is Teddy they make Teddy bare”) but the movie is mostly about love. So Hollywood. Apparently even pre-code.
Jack Forbes (William Gaxton) is a rich American playboy who arrives in Paris on a luxury liner with a French girl on his arm (Carmelia Teraghty of Rushville, Indiana), but spots an American girl, LuLu Carroll (Claudia Dell, Octavia in the ’34 “Cleopatra”), and falls hard and fast. He searches all over Paris and finally finds her dining with relatives at the Hotel Ritz. It’s his friend Michael Cummins (John Halliday) who IDs her. Trouble? Cummins likes her, too, so he suckers Forbes into a bet. Part of their dialogue here almost feels like song lyrics:
Cummins: May the best man win? What’s that got to do with it—with all his jack.
Forbes: That sounds like a dirty crack
Cummins: That may be. But everyone woman you’ve ever got, you’ve got with your money.
Cummins winds up betting Forbes $50k that in two weeks, with no money he didn’t earn during that time, he can’t get the girl. Then Cummins badmouths Forbes to her. Says he’s crazy. And he is—for her—while she’s surprisingly open. I mean that negatively. She’s just kind of a big blank.
So was such a bet a common conceit in 1930s movies? Or high society? I was reminded of “Trading Places.”
I did like the moment when Forbes realizes how much of his day-to-day he’s lost by losing money. He calls the bellboy over to page Lulu and is going to tip him, then pats his pockets. Right, no dough. He still makes the request, but the bellboy, knowing the score, stands there, waiting. Forbes pats his pockets again and gives him ... is it a pen? Anyway, not a bad bit. Later, when he hops aboard Lulu’s cab and sweet talks her all the way back to her hotel, but is left holding the cab fare, he hands over his coat in exchange. Good thing he gets a job or he might’ve been naked before long.
The job he gets? Tour guide. Leads to a long scene in which various characters (in both senses of the word) try to engage him. There’s a slim woman “who wants to be insulted” in Paris. She’s played by Helen Broderick, who like Gaxton, was in the Broadway musical. There’s a Jewish couple and their bratty kid.
Wife: Mister, will you kindly tell us where is the house of Victor Hugo?
Forbes: Victor Hugo? The guy who wrote the movie ‘The Man Who Laughs’?
Forbes: Never heard of him.
It’s like the absurdist comedy of the Marx Brothers without the Marx Brothers. Or the comedy.
All the while, Forbes is being tailed by two inept detectives, Simon Johanssen and Peter Swanson, played by the vaudeville comedy team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. They’re supposed to make sure Forbes doesn’t get the girl. But of course they wind up sympathizing with his plight.
Olsen and Johnson are actually the stars of the film—the leads—but for the most part I didn’t find them funny. L’opposite. Olsen is the stern, severe one while Johnson has an insane, sloppy giggle that wears fast. He laughs at an effete bar patron and a fat one. He laughs more during the movie than we do.
I do like a scene where they become unwilling assistants to a magician (Bela Lugosi, I believe), and a nice slow-mo chase by the cops over a recently tarred street. And of course how could I not love this self-intro to the high-society types: “And my name is Peter Swanson. Of the Minnesota Swansons.”
In the end, of course, Forbes gets the girl and wins the bet, Cummins is foiled, and Olsen and Johnson wind up at a place called “Café of All Nations” with a bevy of beauties. Initially it’s just Johnson (we hear his giggle inside) while Olsen stands on the sidewalk with their ticket home: From HAVRE to NEW YORK. But he tears this up with a shrug and says the movie’s closing line. “Well, fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong.” So we get the line if not the song.
Apparently director Lloyd Bacon filmed the entire musical, which was released in Europe, just not the U.S., where audiences had supposedly soured on musicals. Only the music-less American version remains. Evalyn Knapp gets a credit, and a photo, on IMDb, but I don’t remember seeing her, so maybe she wound up on the cutting room floor? Meanwhile, an actress playing a hotel-room hottie named Suzette gets no credit at all. Anyone know who she is?