The Gorgeous Hussy

Dullsville

The Gorgeous Hussy (1936)

The Gorgeous Hussy (1936)

It probably comes as no surprise that the star of a movie called The Gorgeous Hussy is Joan Crawford. I think the term hussy was probably used quite regularly to describe the star’s off-screen behavior, but the movie is not as scandalous as the title might suggest. This work of historical fiction is set in 1823 Washington D.C. and places Crawford’s hussy among several government notables of the time.

Crawford plays Peggy, daughter of an innkeeper in D.C. where several lawmakers stay while in the capitol. She has grown up around the men and so Virginia Sen. John Randolph (Melvyn Douglas) has a hard time thinking of the girl as a woman. This reluctance causes him to spurn her when she enters his room late one night to declare her love.

The rejection leads Peggy to accept the advances of a sailor “Bow” Timberlake (Robert Taylor). The couple marries but Bow is called back to duty on the U.S.S. Constitution and dies before ever returning home.

Peggy has been good friends with Andrew (Lionel Barrymore) and Rachel Jackson (Beulah Bondi) for a number of years and begins to hang around with the politician up through a rough campaign for president, which he, of course, wins. The campaign involved a lot of gossip and harsh words against Rachel, who first married Andrew before her divorce from her first husband was finalized. With Jackson as president and Rachel having passed away, Peggy is in classy company but the rumors about her begin to mount.

Randolph returns to D.C. after five years in Russia and has resolved his feelings about Peggy to the point he does want to be with her, but the relationship will not last. Jackson objects to a union between the two and instead convinces Peggy to eventually wed Secretary of War John Eaton, played by Crawford’s one-time husband Franchot Tone. The rumors and “pot house Peg” references culminate in backlash from Jackson who asks his entire cabinet to resign because of their demands Peggy be sent away from Washington for the various scandals she has caused. Being the bigger person, Peggy bows out of the capitol scene.

I think filmmakers run a risk when inserting fictional characters into real historical situations. It is one thing to have fun with history and change aspects of real events for a laugh, but a drama in the same vein is not nearly as fun. If one ignores Crawford’s character in The Gorgeous Hussy, the movie does have some interesting historical aspects, such as the horrible mud that was slung at Rachel Jackson. The movie also becomes a bit predictable in terms of which relationships we know will be unsuccessful for Peggy, given that John Randolph never married someone with her name.

Crawford’s performance is fine, but uninspired. She is a woman with conflicting romantic emotions who is pursued or admired by nearly every man around her. We cannot, however, enjoy the movie as a “what might have been” romance between Peggy and Randolph given the historic requirements. I found it difficult to enjoy any of Peggy’s romantic interludes, which just added junk to what could have been a decent historical recollection of Jackson’s election.

Dancing Lady

Ring a Ding Ding

Dancing Lady (1933)

     I saw Dancing Lady for the first time probably more than a year ago. I distinctly remembered this movie as being sort of an odd role for Clark Gable but utterly loving how romantic he was in it. What I did not remember about the movie was its title and that Joan Crawford was the one receiving those romantic attentions. What does that say about her performance?

      Gable plays Patch Gallagher who is a Broadway musical director. He slaves to get shows put into production, making his cast of dancers labor endlessly, while taking orders from the purse-holding producer Bradley (Grant Mitchell).

      Crawford meanwhile plays Janie Barlow, a burlesque dancer who is arrested when her place of employment breaks into a riot. While at night court, she is spotted by bored millionaire playboy Tod Newton (Franchot Tone). He bails her out and takes her for a meal but cannot seem to convince Janie to date him. He does, however, help to fulfill her dream of having a legitimate dancing job. He uses his monetary influence to get the gal a meeting with Bradley, who instructs Patch to put the girl in the chorus. Upon seeing her audition, however, the director puts Janie in the lead.

      Janie and Patch on and off butt heads and have their romantic near-misses while Janie is publicly attached to Tod. The boyfriend has arranged for the girl to be compensated during rehearsals and is helping to ensure the financial backing for the show. Janie is stuck on her dream of stardom, however, and agrees with her beau that if the show is a success they will split, but if it is a flop, she will become his wife. Tod therefore takes the steps necessary to close the show.

      In many of the Gable-Jean Harlow (and other) pictures we see the man balancing two women and choosing the one who suits him best. In Dancing Lady, the romantic arrangement is the opposite, with Crawford doing the choosing. Gable also takes a toned down approach to his usual masculine, take-what-I-want attitude and although drawn to Crawford’s lips, always turns away before he can interfere in an established relationship. Perhaps the artistic background for his character in Dancing Lady is what softened his role. Gable really makes the flick worth watching.

      Crawford –and Tone, for that matter– really could have been played by anyone. The two were on the verge of a romantic relationship off-screen, and although Tone is his usual charming self, he proves despicable in his actions. Crawford was ingrained in the flapper/showgirl roles at this point in her career, so she gives her standard fare on screen. This judgement is not to say she put on a poor performance, just one that was not memorable for me, blending into the many others she did at this time.

      I should note that Fred Astaire appears playing himself and dancing opposite Crawford. Also working as stage hands are the Three Stooges, whose presence is amusing in and of itself. To think, Joan Crawford worked with the Three Stooges!

Sadie McKee

Ring a Ding Ding

She goes from rags to riches, but not in the way you'd expect.

Sadie McKee (1934)

     When you have watched enough movies from the ’30s and/or ’40s, you start to notice a lot of trends, especially in the romantic genre, and the plots start to blur together. You could also say the same of some Joan Crawford movies as she went through phases of characters: the flapper, the rags to riches, the bitch, etc. In watching Sadie McKee, however, I had the second of my recent experiences of thinking I had a plot pegged only to be wildly surprised (The other was Something to Sing About).

     We are introduced to Crawford’s titular character as she strolls toward a mansion. Some gents in a car comment that one can tell she has class, while another notes she is the daughter of his cook. It has been some time since servant Sadie has seen the son of her masters, Michael, with whom she grew up. Played by Franchot Tone, Michael Alderson is thrilled to see Sadie has grown up so beautifully, so it is easy to assume the two will soon wind up together.

     Sadie has a boyfriend, however, who has been fired for stealing from the company run by the Aldersons. Sadie believes he is innocent and so throws a fit as she is serving the family dinner and overhears how they wish to make an example of him, with Michael leading the attack. She holds a grudge against Michael as she hops a train from upstate New York to the big city with this boyfriend Tommy (Gene Raymond).

     After an awkward unmarried, yet consummated night at a boarding house, Sadie and Tommy make plans to meet at city hall after going to separate job interviews. The man never shows, however, because he has met the sexy performer across the hall (Esther Ralston), has joined her act as a singer and left town. Sadie soon takes a job as a dancer at a club and attracts the attention of millionaire Jack Brennan, played by Edward Arnold. His attorney who has joined him at the club happens to be Michael. The old friends have a tense reunion as Sadie is still angry with him and as revenge spends the entire night in the drunken arms of Brennan while at the club.

     Brennan, who is a perpetually drunk alcoholic, proposes to Sadie that night and the two are indeed married despite Michael’s objections surrounding Sadie’s gold-digger intentions. The feud continues up through a negative diagnosis that Brennan will die unless he quits drinking. Sadie makes it her mission to keep the man sober and succeeds, and in so doing restores a friendship with Michael.

     The marriage hits a breaking point, however, when Sadie learns Tommy is unemployed and possibly sick. She still loves him and explains to Brennan why she needs a divorce.

     My prediction within the first five minutes of Sadie McKee was that the protagonist and Michael would end up together. Crawford and Tone became off-screen lovers on this picture and eventually married, although the size of her fame would eventually squash their relationship. As they interact on screen at the movie’s start, the two get along so swimmingly, and Tone gazes at her so lovingly, that their courtship seems easy to predict. When Sadie goes to NYC, however, my prediction changed to her bumping into Michael and an instant relationship starting from there. Again wrong.

     The plot element that has Sadie unendingly in love with Tommy, despite his having done her wrong, seems to create a hurdle for the story to get over. By the time we reach the point that Sadie can leave Brennan, the picture has gone on for so long that it has little time to wrap everything up and presumably throw the woman in Michael’s arms. SPOILER Even in killing Tommy, the story cannot erase Sadie’s feelings for the man, and so the picture closes on she, her friend, her mother and Michael enjoying the man’s birthday at the woman’s apartment. Although we can guess what his candle-blowing wish is about, the screen goes dark and we are left with no final kiss to seal the deal. (Time to put on The Bride Wore Red). END SPOILER

      Both Crawford and Tone give splendid performances. Tone especially will grab you with his powerful emotional displays as he fights tooth and nail against Sadie’s desire to make herself into an unsavory sort. Crawford matches him well in her fighting scenes, and the couple have always been delightful to watch on screen together. Backing Crawford up is Jean Dixon, playing Opal, the hardened night club performer who finds Sadie a job and then revels in her wealth. She acts as a bit of comic relief while encouraging the woman to take Brennan for all he is worth, although her intentions are not sinister.

Source: Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine

Love on the Run

Love on the Run (1936)

Gasser

     If one were to pit Franchot Tone against Clark Gable in vying for a woman’s affections on screen who would win? One might say the answer depends on the woman. In the case of Love on the Run, Joan Crawford is our leading lady, but although she was married to Tone offscreen at the time of the film, that man does not get the slightest chance to woo her in this picture.

     Tone and Gable are dueling reporters of sorts as Barney Pells and Mike Anthony, respectively. They are London roommates and foreign correspondents for rival New York newspapers. Mike is consistently vowing to share any scoops with his pal, but always leaves him in the lurch. On the first day of our story, the two flip a coin to see who will cover the wedding of a socialite to a prince and who will attend the takeoff of a baron and baroness who are pilots. When Mike arrives at the church, he finds Crawford as socialite Sally Parker fleeing from the premises and tracks her down.

     The reporter wins over the girl’s trust and conceals his profession. To sneak her out of her hotel, however, he borrows the aviation outfits of the baron and his wife, and the two take off in that couple’s plane using Mike’s moderate flying skills. To get away with this, however, Mike tied up the baron, baroness and his pal Barney who was interviewing them at the time. The two crash land in France and begin an adventure of hiding from the public, secretly reporting news stories back home and avoiding the baron and baroness, who turn out to be frauds/spies.

     Tone intercepts the couple repeatedly throughout their journey and is rewarded by being tossed from a train and tied up again and again to allow Mike to continue getting the scoop. When Mike’s profession is uncovered, it creates turmoil in the romance blossoming between he and Sally, but nothing that a movie plot cannot overcome.

     Love on the Run is not the love triangle I expected it to be. If anything Sally and Mike band together to thwart Barney. It was Mike’s treatment of his roommate that particularly turned me off to the protagonist. He is so brutal in his treatment of the man –at one point forcing Barney, who is rescuing Mike, to switch places with him and become a hostage to the spies– that I found it difficult to laugh at.

     The romantic plot is not particularly enthralling. It is a slow-growing love between Sally and Mike as the two initially annoy each other, as is often the case in movies, but it is nothing if not predictable. Crawford, as you might have gathered from my lack of mention of her thus far, offers nothing novel to the story. Any woman could have played this part and the picture would have remained the same.

I Live My Life

Gasser

I Live My Life (1935)

     Over the past couple of years I have absorbed A LOT of Joan Crawford movies. I tend to DVR them any chance I get, which has led me through an array of great and mediocre flicks. What I have observed in many of her basic romance plots is that the woman often plays the dame who toys with men’s romantic devotion to her for most of the movie before finally succumbing to the love she never realized was there. That is true of I Live My Life, the title of which tells one nothing of the story.

     Crawford is part of a wealthy American business family as Kay Bentley. She meets Irish archeologist Terry O’Neill (Brian Aherne) while her yacht is docked in Naxos, Greece, and immediately makes a pest of herself. The man is working to dig up an ancient statue he has searched for over two years and the woman feigns an ankle injury to compel him to carry her down a mountain. She begs her boat captain to return them to the island the next day so she may see Terry again under the guise of an apology. The two spend the day together as Kay pretends to be the yacht owner’s secretary because Terry has made clear he has no interest in people who have too much money to be good for them. That night the rugged man declares he loves Kay and will meet up with her again in New York.

     When Terry arrives in American and tracks down this secretary, he finds he’s been misled. He happens to connect with Kay’s father, played by Frank Morgan, however, in presenting his artifact to the museum at which the older man is a trustee. When Terry is invited to his home, he re-meets Kay but both are cold over the lie. Kay’s deception in her identity is not the true conflict of the story, however. Nor is the clear class divide between the woman’s friends and her outdoorsy love interest. Kay is engaged to some other wealthy bloke strictly on business terms that will result in her wealthy grandmother paying out a marriage settlement to the newlyweds. Her father is under his mother-in-law’s thumb and is getting himself into financial trouble through private prospecting. His daughter’s dowry, however, could help him in settling the debt.

     Crawford’s Kay not only allows the male lead to declare his love for her without any reciprocation but waits until the movie is three-quarters complete before shouting her affection. In this vein we see a better performance by Aherne than Crawford because we can read the genuine fluctuation in his emotions as he is scorned and re-adored by this woman. Crawford is content to flit about uttering her lines and projecting the cheerful, fun young woman audiences surely loved but fails to bring any conviction to her part. She does what is required of her, nothing more.

     It is in roles like this one and in The Bride Wore Red with Franchot Tone that we cannot help but fall in love with the genuine affection of the men while loathing Crawford’s parts in their plans for the most financially suitable match. In I Live My Life, Kay could easily have informed Terry of why she would marry her fiancée instead of him, but perhaps that dims the drama.

Advise and Consent

Wowza!

Advise and Consent (1962)

     The movie Advise and Consent is about exactly what the title says: the U.S. Senate’s power to “advise and consent” on a presidential appointment to a certain administrative position. This process and the general proceedings of at least state-level government have become all too familiar to me in the last two years as I have been a reporter covering state government. I have seen the Ohio Senate use its advise and consent power to essentially fire someone who had been doing a job for many months but because of a scandal, the pick by a Democratic governor was not longer fit in the eyes of the Republican Senate. I, too, have been watching from afar as the U.S. Senate presently stalls on approving an Ohioan picked by President Obama to direct a new consumer protection bureau because lawmakers do not like the agency itself.

     So even though Otto Preminger‘s Advise and Consent takes place 50 years ago, the procedure still seems a bit like I was sitting at work, yet that did not negate its impact. In this fictional account, a president, played by an older Franchot Tone, has selected Henry Fonda‘s Robert Leffingwell to be his secretary of state. The selection raises much turmoil as Leffingwell has made a handful of enemies in the Senate, chief among which is Charles Laughton‘s Sen. Cooley. A special committee is formed to consider the appointment and is chaired by young Sen. Anderson (Don Murray). During the hearing, Cooley sits in and berates Leffingwell with questions about his involvement in a communist group while a college professor. He even brings in a witness who testifies that he saw Leffingwell at these meetings, but the appointee fires back by questioning the witness into admitting he had a mental breakdown in the past and indicating the address of these supposed Red meetings is actually a fire station.

     Things get hairy, however, when Cooley starts digging into this new evidence and Chairman Anderson’s wife receives threatening phone calls. The chairman is being blackmailed into pushing the approval ahead and his fate is to be a bleak one. As the story progresses, it is nearly impossible to determine from one minute to the next whether Leffingwell will be confirmed as SOS.

     The plot of Advise and Consent is packed full of heated exchanges. It’s 140 minutes are filled to the brim with a wide smattering of characters that are, frankly, difficult to keep track. Unlike other Congressional movies, such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, much of the drama takes place away from the Senate floor. In fact, it is interesting to view how government works, with a majority of empty seats in the chamber when much of its business takes place. It is easy to pick protagonists and villains, although they are not all from the same party nor even on the same side of the argument as it pertains to Leffingwell. I am not sure Preminger’s telling of the story either glorifies or condemns the confirmation process for appointees but is more focused on painting the drama that could surround what is often such a quick and thoughtless process.

     I think it might go without saying that the performances in Advise and Consent are superb. An older Laughton really stands out as the southern Senator who has spent more time in the chamber than probably any other in the film. He is unpleasant and unreasonable but in a way unlike all of his other villainous characters. I was surprised to see Franchot Tone’s name associated with the president role as I know him best for his plethora of light-hearted romances, but he plays an amiable –and ill– president well. His health condition prevents the character from engaging in any grandstanding speeches or getting heated over the situation, which is absolutely doable for Tone. Gene Tierney also makes a return to the screen after a seven-year hiatus for poor mental health as Washington socialite Dolly Harrison; Peter Lawford plays bachelor Sen. Smith; and Walter Pidgeon is perfect as the president’s advocate in approving the appointment, Sen. Munson.

Fast and Loose

Ring a Ding Ding

Fast and Loose (1939)

      The success of The Thin Man movies clearly proved that audiences did not need a blossoming romance tacked onto their mystery thrillers and that a devoted husband-wife set up was just as appealing. A trilogy of “Fast” movies were the result in 1938 and 1939 as MGM sought to capitalize on the complaint that too much time elapsed between the release of each Thin Man picture. 

     Fast and Loose starring Robert Mongtomery and Rosalind Russell was the second of three films featuring mystery-solving booksellers Joel and Garda Sloane; however, each film featured different stars in those roles. For the first, Fast Company, Melvyn Douglas and Florence Rice filled the parts. The last, Fast and Furious, featured Franchot Tone and Ann Southern as our married sleuths. I have not seen the other two flicks, and while I think the leading men in all three would be great as Joel, I do believe I picked the best actress to play the devoted wife.

     Montgomery’s Joel is very much like Nick Charles in his reluctance to engage in crime solving using his extensive powers of rare book knowledge. In Fast and Loose he is unaware he will be engaged in such crime-solving until he is knee-deep in trouble. The Sloanes visit rare book collector Nicholas Torrent (Ralph Morgan) to broker a deal for a absent-minded grocer who seeks to purchase a rare Shakespeare manuscript from the cash-strapped man. The couple stay in the house overnight when Joel is alerted to a crash that turns out to be someone knocking out family friend Vincent Charlton (Reginald Owen), who was examining the manuscript in the dark at the house safe. The manuscript is found nearby but the question of forgery starts to surface as we learn the Torrent librarian has a prison record related to forgery. Next, Nicholas Torrent is murdered at his desk and Joel finds himself an on-and-off suspect in the case all while trying to solve it himself.

      The difficulty comes in the mass amount of suspicious characters. Joel’s friend Phil (Anthony Allan) who is secretly dating the Torrent daughter, seems rather shady and possibly in cahoots with the Torrent son Gerald, played by Tom Collins. Meanwhile, Gerald makes contact with a “hussy” –as Garda calls her– and the gambling joint owner with whom she pals around. The librarian with a felony record, who has disappeared, looks like the sure culprit, but he is later found stuffed into a suit of armor, dead. Joel’s meddling also earns him a nudge off the roadway by another car, driven by goons of the gambling heavy, and he begins to worry about his wife’s safety. In true Nora Charles fashion, however, Garda is a tough broad who talks big and enjoys watching her husband sock the bad guys.

     I typically complain in films like this that there are too many characters to keep track of and remember their names, which can make figuring out the story rather difficult (ala The Big Sleep). Fast and Loose did a fantastic job, however, of making clear the names of each character so when they are referenced later I could understand about whom they were speaking. This is also a nearly impossible mystery to crack, but we thankfully get a summary of the events at the close of the film with the revelation of the murderer, a technique also employed in The Thin Man.

     Montgomery makes a great detective. He would further prove this when he directed his own Lady in the Lake years later, playing a full-blown private eye. The man has never had trouble on the charm front and proceeds through his mystery-solving work with all the ease of a pro. Russell is very enjoyable as the loving sidekick. She is quite down to earth while fitting in with the lofty society in whose company the couple finds itself. The two leads also have good chemistry. They seem like a comfortable married couple and the romantic basis of their relationship comes to the surface each time Garda becomes jealous of the company her husband keeps.

     As long as one does not compare Fast and Loose too closely to The Thin Man, a marvelous time is sure to be had. One would not think the subject of rare books could work as the backdrop for a thrilling murder mystery, but it does. Who knew a person could take a background in manuscript sales and use it to work as a police consultant? Only in the movies, I suppose.

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