Friday, August 21, 2009

Three Wise Girls (Columbia, © 1931, rel. 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I picked the fourth in a sequence of five films TCM showed made at Columbia in the early 1930’s: Three Wise Girls, an unexpectedly good movie thanks largely to the original story, “Blonde Baby,” by Wilson Collison; a wisecracky script by Robert Riskin (based on Agnes Christine Johnston’s adaptation of Collison’s story); and a marvelous performance by Jean Harlow in the lead, Cassie Barnes, small-town girl from Chillicothe (it’s somewhat surprising in a movie this old to see a real small town depicted on screen instead of a generic or fictional one) who works as a soda jerk (jerkette?) at a drugstore and makes $15 per week, out of which she appears to be supporting her widowed mother (Lucy Beaumont) as well as herself. When her friend Gladys Kane (Mae Clarke) returns to Chillicothe and tells Cassie she’s making $200 per week as a model in New York, that’s all Cassie needs to hear: she’s out of that depressing small town almost immediately, whereupon she promptly loses three jobs in New York, the last of which (and, it’s implied, the other two) she was fired from when she punched out a boss who was making advances to her.

We already know that Harlow’s character is playing someone highly protective of her virginity because when the film opened, she was walking away from a date who parked three miles outside of town and tried to “get fresh” with her. A man drives by and offers her a ride home, but she saltily tells him that it’s because of another man with a car and some nasty ideas about her that she’s walking home. Once she’s in New York, rooming with Dot (silent-screen veteran Marie Prevost) — who works from home doing address labels (in a modern movie she’d be doing something involving the Internet, but the principle would be the same!) — she visits Gladys at the salon where she models, and Gladys gets her a job and she becomes a success. (One of the surprising things about this movie from today’s point of view is that it’s impossible to imagine anyone as full-figured as Harlow being a clothes model now.)

She also finds that Gladys is actually making only $60 per week and that she’s dating a married man, Arthur Phelps (Jameson Thomas) — who both she and we quickly find out is a total heel when he makes a pass at Cassie while Gladys isn’t looking. Cassie had earlier met her own rich man, Jerry Dexter (Walter Byron, the leading man for Gloria Swanson in the ill-fated Queen Kelly), only when he brings his wife (Natalie Moorhead) to the salon where Gladys and Cassie model she’s stunned — but at the same time not too surprised — to find he, too, is married. What’s more, in the earlier exposition scene setting up the fact that Jerry is married, he and his wife describe a relationship (they can date other people but each gets veto power over the other’s choices) that sounds more like modern-day polyamory than anything we expect to see in a classic-era Hollywood movie — even one like this that comes from the so-called “pre-Code” period of looser (but not nonexistent!) Production Code enforcement.

Tearing into Gladys for setting herself up for unhappiness by dating a married man, Cassie rattles off a series of predictions — that he’ll say it doesn’t mean anything, that if it weren’t for his wife refusing to give her consent he’d divorce her in a moment, and that shouldn’t mean they can’t still go out together — that (thanks to Robert Riskin and a strain of mordant wit in his writing he had to suppress in his later work for Frank Capra) exactly parallels the arguments she gets from Jerry as to why she should allow their relationship to continue. The film goes on its merry way, punching holes in conventional morality all over the place and using tough wisecracks to get away with depicting people as they actually behave — especially sexually — and it’s only towards the end, when conventional morality has to be given a chance to start kicking back, that it gets soapy: Phelps makes it look as if he’s having an affair with Cassie, thereby driving Jerry away in a jealous hissy-fit, then gets away from both Gladys and Cassie by announcing a reconciliation with his wife that’s announced on the front page of the New York Sun (second edition — Charles was pleased for once to see a newspaper in a movie that wasn’t a final or an extra).

Gladys responds by committing suicide — Riskin toys with us by showing her alone in her apartment, her window wide open and her standing at the edge of it, just before she calls Cassie; Cassie arrives and we think she’s got there in time to save her friend; then Gladys collapses in her arms and Cassie heads for the bathroom to get a wet cloth to revive her and finds an empty bottle marked “Poison.” Cassie responds by returning to Chillicothe and her old job in the drugstore, but Jerry traces her there, shows her a newspaper headline that announces that he and his wife are indeed divorcing, and so there’s a happy ending for two of the three wise girls, at least — since in the meantime there’s been a charming comic-relief romance between Dot and Jerry’s chauffeur Jimmy Callahan (Andy Devine — almost unrecognizable in a role that doesn’t give him much dialogue with which to show off that famous gravelly voice) and they’re together in the front seat of Jerry’s car at the fadeout.

Three Wise Girls is the last film Harlow made anywhere other than at MGM — she was still under contract to Howard Hughes then but he was loaning her out all over Hollywood — and three films after this she’d do another film based on a Collison story, Red Dust, and have one of the biggest hits of her career (thanks largely to having Clark Gable as a co-star, a far cry from all the prissy guys with thin moustaches that inhabit the male roles here!). It also has a surprising director, William Beaudine — yes, the very man who made what was probably the worst film of Bela Lugosi’s career (at least until he hooked up with Ed Wood), The Ape Man, just 11 years later; though the quality of Three Wise Girls is probably due far more to Riskin than Beaudine (Schreiber theorists take note!).

Beaudine’s name was on the credits of a truly great film from two years later, The Old-Fashioned Way, but that was a winner simply because W. C. Fields was the star and all a Fields director had to do is make sure the cameras were pointed at him and in focus. Here Beaudine actually turns in a stylish job that proved he did have real talent that probably got bludgeoned out of him by all the cheap, tacky assignments he had to take to pay off his debts from the stock market crash; maybe it’s damning with faint praise to say that William Beaudine could make a great movie with an Academy Award-winning writer and a star who later became one of Hollywood’s enduring legends (and not just because she died tragically young), but though he started off with those advantages he was certainly good enough here to prove himself worthy of them!