Saturday June 12, 2021
Movie Review: Employees' Entrance (1933)
I’ve seen a lot of pre-code movies, so I know the score, but “Employees’ Entrance” still shocked me.
Warren William plays Kurt Anderson, general manager of Franklin Monroe & Co. department store, who is also the worst aspects of capitalism personified. “My code is smash—or be smashed,” he says. When a clothier, Garfinkle (Frank Reicher), can’t deliver all of an order for an advertised sale, Anderson cancels the order and sues the man for the advertising and estimated loss on the sale—ruining him in the process. When his right-hand man, Higgins (Charles Sellon), offers no new ideas to boost sales, Anderson not only fires him but insults him out the door—calling him old, sick, dead wood. Later, Higgins commits suicide, and while everyone stands around distraught, Anderson offers this eulogy: “When a man outlives his usefulness, he ought to jump out a window!”
Yet somehow this horror show comes off as the hero of the story. Maybe because he’s true to his code? He tells off subordinates and superiors equally. He sneers at softness and praises and promotes ruthlessness. When Denton Ross (Albert Gran), a jolly executive, admires Anderson’s tenacity, Anderson responds, “Beginning to like me, eh? I despise you for that.” When his new right-hand man, Martin (Wallace Ford), storms into Anderson’s office with a bottle of poison, threatening to kill him, Anderson offers the man a gun: “Go ahead—and don’t miss.” When Martin hesitates, Anderson calls him yellow. When Martin merely wings him, Anderson says dismissively, “You can’t even shoot straight, can you?”
All of which is kind of fun. But then there are the rape scenes.
In their place
“Employees’ Entrance” is ostensibly a Depression-era romance between the up-and-coming Martin and the bewitchingly beautiful Madeline (Loretta Young), who models clothes for customers at the store. But every romance needs its complication, and the complication here is Anderson, their boss.
Martin is an up-and-comer because he has good ideas—putting the men’s briefs near the women’s dept., for example, since wives tend to buy for their husbands—and also because he’s ruthless. Anderson overhears him refusing to pay an artist for subpar work, then dismissing him with contempt, and he’s so impressed he offers him Higgins’ job. Then he peers in close.
Anderson: You’re not married are you? … This is no job for a married man. Where would I be with a wife hanging around my neck?
Martin: Don’t you like women?
Anderson: Sure, I like them. In their place! But there’s no time for wives in this job. Love ’em and leave ’em—get me?
Martin gets him. Except he’s just begun a romance with Madeline; and when they marry, they have to keep it secret from the boss. That’s the complication—or part of it. The bigger part is that earlier in the movie Anderson rapes Madeline.
That’s how we’d view it today anyway. Did Warner Bros. in 1933? Or society at large? Nah. A cursory search of the movie’s 1933 reviews indicates a “both sides” kind of thing: what girls do for a $10-a-week job; how employers take advantage. It's how the movie was marketed: titillation with a wink.
Here’s how it goes down. We open on a pullback shot of a busy department store over which we get its annual sales figures—$20 million in 1920—and then a 10-second vignette of a longtime employee getting fired by the unseen Mr. Anderson. Through the 1920s we go, with the ruthless Anderson raising annual sales to $100 mil by 1929. After the Wall Street Crash, sales dip to $45, and the board meets with concerns of Anderson’s overzealousness, suggesting he get a handler, but Anderson will have none of it. He demands twice the salary and no supervision or he’ll go to their competition. Then he insults all of them, particularly the fatuous owner Mr. Monroe (Hale Hamilton).
William is great in the role. With his angular face, sloe eyes, prominent, dignified nose and moustache, he already has a wolfish aspect, and he makes the most of it. One night, patrolling the store after hours, he hears a piano playing in a “model home” and investigates. It’s Madeline. The conceit is she’s homeless and hungry and needs a job, but at the same time she’s as put-together as a young Loretta Young. And if she's hiding there, why the piano playing? Kind of a giveaway. Anyway, sensing all this, the wolf closes in. He agrees to feed her; he agrees to give her a job. Then when she tries to leave, he closes the door and looms close.
Anderson: You don't have to go, you know.
Madeline: Oh, yes I do.
Anderson: No, you don't.
At which point he kisses her. Kisses? More like mashes his lips against her unresponsive ones. Fade out.
That’s the first instance. The second, which occurs at the annual office party, is even worse. By this time, Martin and Madeline are married and fighting. Off Martin goes to drink and sing “Sweet Adeline” with the boys, while Madeline sits and frets by herself. And the wolf closes in. Anderson plies her with champagne, and when she gets woozy he tells her to go to his room, 1032, to lie down for a bit. He’ll remain at the party, he says. For some reason, she believes him. Five minutes after she goes up, he goes up, finds her asleep on the bed, positioned alluringly, and loosens his tie. Fade out.
We expect some kind of comeuppance for all this—isn’t that how movies work?—but that's the shocking part of “Employees' Entrance”: It ever arrives. I don’t even think it departs. When Anderson finds out about the marriage—when he discovers that the woman he’s twice assaulted is married to the right-hand man he considers almost a son—he gets mad at them. “She’s hogtied you, my boy,” he tells Martin. “Turn her loose. A little money’ll do the trick.” The most startling moment is when Anderson blames Madeline for his own sexual assaults when he knows Martin is eavesdropping on the conversation:
“I was all right for you the first night I met you. I was all right for you the night of the party. Let’s see, you were married to Martin then, weren’t you? And that’s what you call love. You women make me sick! Come on, come on, how much?“
That’s when she slaps him, leaves, drinks poison, is rushed to the hospital. Cue gun scene with Martin.
OK, there’s nearly comeuppance. For some reason, the board is ready to drop him again, but Ross, who is supposed to be Anderson’s handler, now works to get the proxy votes from the globetrotting Monroe to save Anderson. And he does. And at the last minute, they rush to the meeting to save the day. It’s a common movie trope—we’ve seen it a million times—but it’s usually about saving the hero. Here, it’s about saving a ruthless SOB who uses his position to sexually assault women … who, sure, also seems like he's the movie’s hero.
It almost ends there, too, on our victorious hero, back to his ruthless ways. But then we get a final perfunctory scene of the cuckolded Martin visiting the sickly Madeline at the hospital and promising they’ll start over. “It’s been done before,” he says helplessly.
Overall, the film is light comedy, with blackout-like “bits” sprinkled throughout. A Jewish man considers a football for his son until the salesman calls it a “pigskin.” A woman asks where the basement is and a bored saleslady tells her “12th floor.” There are perennial problems with the men’s room, the elevator operator keeps enumerating (in a flat voice) the long list of items available per floor, and the company proudly—and one assumes speciously—reiterates that its founders are descendants of Benjamin Franklin and James Monroe.
“Employees’ Entrance” was directed by Roy Del Ruth—who did some of the better pre-code Cagney flicks: “Blonde Crazy,” “Taxi!” and “Lady Killer”—and heralded the return of Alice White, a late-era silent star who got involved in an early 1930s scandal. Apparently she had an affair with British actor John Warbuton and accused him of beating her so badly she required plastic surgery; allegedly, she and her ex, writer-producer Sy Bartlett, then hired goons to beat up Warburton. All of that hurt her career. For a while, she did comic supporting roles, such as this and “Picture Snatcher,” married actor-writer John Roberts in 1940, then disappeared from the screen. In the 1950s, after a divorce, she went back to secretarial work, which she’d been doing when Charlie Chaplin discovered her in the 1920s. She died in 1983.
Here she plays Polly Dale, another clothes model. She’s great: funny, sassy, brassy. Anderson hires her to seduce the portly Ross, and we see her using her boop-oop-a-doop charms on him but to not much avail. She reports back he only wants to play chess. “Try Post Office,” Anderson tells her.
Big department stores were new things back then, and the trailer for this one promised to tell you the stories behind the scenes, but you don't have to squint much to see the whole thing as a metaphor for a movie studio. Everyone's scrapping to get by in the depths of the Depression, while one man, a near-dictator, a mogul say, ruthlessly cracks the whip and shows them the way—while taking advantage of women on the side. No wonder Warners made Anderson the hero. He’s them.
All in fun in 1933.