Thursday April 30, 2020
Movie Review: Big Business Girl (1931)
You certainly won’t get any spoilers from the movie's synopsis on Amazon.com—where it's currently streaming in blurry black & white for $2.99—because they make it sound like a precursor to “A Star is Born”:
A delightful romantic comedy of a jazz singer and his working wife who are at odds after her new career and popularity take off while his stagnates.
- He’s not a jazz singer
- Her success (in business) isn’t the problem
- His stagnation (as a band leader) isn’t the problem—to him
- It’s not exactly delightful
IMDb’s synopsis is closer:
Thanks to her ability and her legs, Claire McIntyre rises in the business world.
Coming up for air
Was Loretta Young really only 18 when this was filmed? After being a romantic movie star for several years? Interesting math. She plays the aforementioned Claire, called “Mac” by everyone, who’s just graduating college with her boyfriend, Johnny (Frank Albertson), when the movie opens. It’s the graduation dance, couples keep ducking behind a folding screen to smooch, and Mac makes doe eyes at Johnny, who’s leading the band. But it turns out he’s the dreamy one. Outside, we quickly get a sense of their divergent personalities and interests:
He: Oh, this is a heckuva world. Why should people have to work?
She: Oh, honestly, Johnny, you’re only good for two things: making music and making love.
He’s set to go to Paris to lead his band there—quite the gig!—but doesn’t want to go without her. She's off for New York to start a business career but doesn’t want to go with him. That is, she wants him to have ambition. He doesn’t. She keeps calling him a boy. He is.
New York turns out to be tougher than she anticipated. She posts a Want Ad saying she will “consider position where remuneration and opportunity are commensurate with her ability.” The second one simply says this:
She can’t even get a gig as a secretary at an ad agency—until the agency owner, Robert J. Clayton (Ricardo Cortez, nee Jacob Krantz), shows up on a Saturday afternoon, no one else is there, assumes she works for him, and has her take dictation. Then he notices the legs. Soon she’s writing ad copy and has her own office. For a moment she’s happy. Then over the intercom she hears Clayton tell yes-man Luke Winters (Frank Darien), “Even if this copy isn’t excellent, she’s worth $125 a week as an office decoration. A girl with a chassis like that can be a half-wit and get by.” They laugh, she’s distraught.
This is where the movie gets murky. She winds up using that chassis to play men but to what extent is she getting played? She’s becoming … what they think of her? Is that a victory? And sure, certain clients are putty in her hands, but Clayton’s another story. She’s the last to leave a party at his place and he makes eyes and insinuates. Then he calls her a cab, she’s like “Phew,” but he gets into the cab, too. She keeps saying no. Then he walks her to her door. “I don’t suppose you’ll let me come in for a minute?” “That’s one of the correctest supposes you ever made in your life.” Except she takes too long to close the door and he slips in. And she still lets the door shut? That’s part of the murkiness. How knowing is she or how preposterously naïve? She seems half amused by his persistence. It gets worse. He says if he kisses her once she’ll be in the market for more. “Bless your healthy male egotism!” she says, but then she acquiesces. Does she think this will get rid of him? He’s a wolf, at the door, and after a long kiss, she says “Coming up for air,” and “Stop it,” and “No,” none of which work. She’s trying to push him away but he’s moving in for the kill.
Which is when Johnny walks in the room, spins Clayton around and decks him.
Kidding. He’s a boy, remember? He merely pipes up, more indignant than angry: “Not interrupting anything, am I?”
And Clayton still isn’t ready to go—not until he finds out Johnny and Mac are married. Is this when we find that out? Seems like it. Either way, she hasn’t told anyone. For this reason, she says to Johnny later:
When a girl is just starting out in business, well, if she’s married and everyone knows it, they’re afraid to give her a responsible job. Afraid she’s going to quit. Keep house for her husband, start a family and all of that.
It’s easy to dismiss such lines but women were still hearing that shit 40 years later. Some might still be hearing it today.
The rest of the movie is about which one she’ll choose: the wolf or the boy. The boy is so petulant and high-pitched, I almost preferred the wolf. She gets Johnny a gig as bandleader on the “Sun Motor Hour,” but he doesn’t know she was behind it and remains petulant. Clayton keeps them apart, lies to both sides, and sets up a “sting” from the days before no-fault divorce: “The old gag, you know: He goes to a hotel, we find him there. That’s all the evidence you need.” They’re all in on it. Even if Mac and Johnny are both filled with regret.
Two good bits come out of this: We see the hotel registry, full of Mrs. and Mrs. Smiths, Browns and Lees. And we get Joan Blondell as the prostitute he’s supposed to be caught with. She’s the best thing in the movie: knowing, droll, gum-cracking. Mac arrives first, she and Johnny put together they’ve been had, and they take the piss out of Clayton when he arrives. He finally gets the decking he deserves. Blondell gets the last line.
Gotta admit, I have a real thing for a young Loretta Young. At one point, Johnny says “Did anyone ever tell you that the back of your neck is delicious and refreshing?” The refreshing is overdoing it but he ain’t wrong. She's lovely.
Was Cortez always the wolf? He also played “the other man” in “Behind Office Doors,” also from 1931, not to mention the randier Sam Spade in the first “Maltese Falcon.” (Again: 1931.) They groomed him to be Valentino but he became the bad boy you don’t root for. After B movies and a few shots at directing, he returned to Wall Street.
Not Albertson. With his high-pitched voice, youthful looks and gee-willikers attitude, he reminded me of one of those forgettable love interests in a Marx Brothers movie—the “Do you mean it, Julie? Do you really do?” types. Turns out: Yes. He was exactly that in “Room Service,” their weakest film. But you know what else he was? Sam “Hee Haw” Wainwright in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the swaggering, money-flapping cowboy real estate baron who flirts clumsily, or intrusively, with Marion Crane, and whose $40k cash payment sets her on a deadly path toward the Bates Motel in “Psycho.” Both are small but memorable parts. And he‘s good in them. Check out his scene in “Psycho” again. No “refreshing neck” lines for him anymore. He’s the wolf. Maybe we all become the wolf eventually.
Sadly, that was one of his last roles. He died in March 1964, age 55. His Times obit mentions “Room Service,” an early talkie called “Happy Days,” but not this one. And, interestingly, not “Psycho” or “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Neither had yet become the institutions they became.
According to the opening credits, “Big Business Girl” is “based on the college humor story” by Patricia Reilly and H.N. Swanson. Swanson wrote and produced a few randy, pre-code movies but is best known as a great literary agent—if that’s the same H.N. Swanson. Can’t find anything on Reilly. The humor story was adapted by Robert Lord—one of eight movies he helped write in 1931. He also wrote a few forgettable Cagney films ( “Winner Take All,” “Hard to Handle”) as well as the early Bogart vehicle “Black Legion,” which changed black and Jewish victims to Irish and Poles, but was still relevant to its (and sadly our) time. Then producing, which he’d begun in the early ’30s, took over: “Gold Diggers of 1933,” “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” “The Letter,” “In a Lonely Place.”
Young Loretta Young has to choose between the future Sam Spade and the future Sam Wainright. Hee haw.