erik lundegaard

Friday February 03, 2023

Movie Review: The Greeks Had a Word for Them (1932)


“The Greeks Had a Word for Them” is based on Zoe Akins’ 1930 Broadway hit “The Greeks Had a Word for It,” which, as title changes go, is a little odd. It’s a pre-code film, in which half the point is women in half-slips, but It was considered too suggestive? Isn’t Them more suggestive? Or more disparaging? It implies something about our leading ladies rather than the general situation. 

By the time the movie was re-released in 1937, the Greeks were just tossed overboard and the movie became “Three Broadway Girls.” It’s about three golddiggers who seem less interested in the gold than the digging. Basically men are too easy to catch so they keep throwing them back.

Actually, no, it’s more about how girls stick together even if one of them is really, really awful. Plus side: It passes the Bechdel Test.

Working men
The opening title card trumpets female independence:

Throughout the ages, half of the women of the world have been working women

The second title card is accompanied by a wuh-wuh-wuhhhh noise: 

and the rest of the women have been working men

Our three girls are Schatzi (Joan Blondell), the strong, mama bear type, whose sugar daddy, Pops, is always offstage; Polaire (Madge Evans), the idealistic one whose young beau, Dey Emery (David Manners), is always hanging around; and Jean (Ina Claire), the loose cannon. After Jean returns broke from a trip to Paris, they go out on the town, and Dey brings along a friend for Jean. Not a bad catch, either: famed pianist Boris Feldman (director Lowell Sherman). Except Jean looks down her nose at him because he’s a mere piano player. Actually, she’s informed, he’s a pianist, classical, and performs 3-4 times a week at $2,500 a pop. She does the quick math and warms up fast.

The betrayals come faster at Boris’ place. Boris thinks Polaire has real musical talent and agrees to take her under his wing for two years, but tutelage includes travel and thus—duh—sex. Good guy Dey backs out graciously, but when Polaire wants to go after him Boris holds onto her. “None of that,” he says. “You’re mine now and I’m jealous.” 

As bad as Boris is, Jean’s worse. In the 10 minutes Polaire needs to get her belongings and return to Boris’ place, Jean comes downstairs wearing a mink coat and nothing underneath. And there goes Polaire’s tutelage. Why does Jean do it? I guess to prove she can. Because as suddenly as she wins Boris, she discards him. Then she goes after Dey.

One of the best moments is after Pops dies and the girls are at the reading of the phonographic will—with Jean dressed up in widow’s garb and fake tears. Pops has nice things to say about Schatzi and Polaire, then warns against the scheming of “the one called Jean.” Affronted, she stands and cries, “That’s a lie!” To which the phonograph responds, “I knew you’d say that. Sit down!”

Much of the rest of it is a battle between the girls. Schatzi and Polaire invite Jean to their hotel room while paying a waiter to pretend to be their butler. Jean sees through that gag, they all get catty about furs and pearls, then Jean tries to glom onto their meeting with Dey and his dad. To get Dey for herself? No, dad. And to get him, or maybe just for fun, she throws Polaire under the bus again—accusing her of stealing her pearls. “She wanted the pearls so you wouldn’t think she was a golddigger,” she says, then, to prove she doesn’t have them herself, strips to her slip, raising Dad’s eyebrows. And where are the pearls? In Polaire’s pocket, where Jean planted them.

So instead of Polaire marrying Dey, Jean marries Dey’s dad, but Schatzi and Polaire finally get the better of her. Before the wedding, while champagne-toasting, they regale her with their next adventure: following Italian aviators on an ocean liner to Paris. Suddenly the wedding doesn’t seem much fun to Jean, so the three scram to the ship, followed by the ever-persistent Dey. At the end, they’re all together, forgiven but unchanged, with Jean flirting with one of the Italians using her signature line: “I’m sure I’ve met you before. I never forget a face, and you are good-looking, you know.”

How Not to Marry a Millionaire
If the names and the situation sound familiar, yes, this was remade in 1953 as “How to Marry a Millionaire,” with Lauren Bacall as Schatze, Marilyn Monroe as the glasses-wearing Pola, and Betty Grable as the renamed Loco. Oddly, set amid the prosperity of postwar America, their financial situation seems more dire than it does here in the midst of the Great Depression. The ’50s girls all get married in the end, too. No Italian aviators for them.

“Greeks” isn’t a bad film. It’s urbane, carefree, witty at times. It's amost a forerunner to “Absolutely Fabulous.” When Boris offers a boozing Jean caviar, she responds: “Don’t speak of food while I’m drinking my dinner.” After Polaire sees Jean in wedding white: “Of all the snow scenes…” Wherever a good line could be had, it's had. At the speakeasy, for example, a drunk asks after the restroom, and a waiter replies dryly: “There’s a room there marked ‘Gentlemen,’ but don’t let that stop you.” I was reminded of “blackouts.”

It’s just a shame it’s not better. Claire, a Broadway actress, plays Jean with verve, but the character is so awful I can’t imagine anyone wanting to hang with her. Evans is her usual sweet self while Blondell—great as always—isn’t given enough to do. Director Sherman probably could’ve found a better Boris than himself, while Goldwyn probably could’ve found a better director than Sherman.

The version available for streaming is the 1937 re-release but it still seems fairly risqué. So were no cuts made to it? It’s a movie that fell into public domain, which means it’s easier to watch (yay) all the crappy copies (boo). Would be fun to see a crisp version in a movie theater. With smart friends and smarter cocktails.

Posted at 12:44 PM on Friday February 03, 2023 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s  
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