erik lundegaard

Wednesday February 19, 2020

Movie Review: Behind Office Doors (1931)

WARNING: SPOILERS 

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.

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Posted at 12:28 PM on Wednesday February 19, 2020 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s  
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