Friday, June 11, 2010

Blonde Inspiration (MGM, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film that I picked was Blonde Inspiration, which TCM had listed as being from 1932 (it was actually from 1941) and which was one of Busby Berkeley’s few (but more common than most people think) efforts at directing a non-musical. It’s basically a Capra-esque farce about a young man, Jonathan Briggs (John Shelton), whose dreams of being a writer are thwarted by the hard-nosed attitude of his aunt, Victoria Mason (Alma Kruger), and her husband Reginald (Reginald Owen). It appears that Virginia is running a successful business and keeping the family supported while Reginald is unemployed — though he has access to a cash stash of $2,000 which he sneaks to Jonathan, knowing Victoria wouldn’t approve, so he’ll have a nest egg with which to support himself while he breaks into print.

Jonathan has already spent three years writing a serious novel with a Western theme, but in order to make some money immediately so he can pay Reginald back he concocts a plan to sell quickly written stories to a Western pulp magazine, Smoky Trails — whose lead (and, it appears, only) writer, “Dusty” King (Donald Meek), is a dipsomaniac who all too often disappears on benders just before deadline. The magazine is run by publisher Phil Hendricks (Albert Dekker, showing a sense of humor I had no idea he had — all I’d seen him in before this were his super-villain roles in films like Dr. Cyclops and The Killers) and editor “Bittsy” Conway (the marvelous character comedian Charles Butterworth), and after they bet the last $300 in their magazine’s bank account on a horse and lose it, they seize on Jonathan and his $2,000 as the way they can pay their print bill and keep the magazine going for four more weekly issues before selling out to rival publisher Hutchins (George Lessey). The other people who work at Smoky Trails are their secretary, Margie Blake (a marvelous performance by Virginia Grey), and a character identified as “Wanda ‘Baby’” (Marion Martin) the dumb blonde to end all dumb blondes — she’s dumb in both senses (she’s unintelligent and she doesn’t speak).

Margie is assigned to nursemaid Dusty King and, when he disappears a day and a half before deadline with none of the next Smoky Trails written, she presses Jonathan into service, teaching him how to use a plotting machine and sitting up with him for a day and a half of solid work during which he dictates a full-length pulp novel and she takes it down in shorthand and then types it up. What Jonathan doesn’t know — and Margie hasn’t had the heart to tell him — is that his stories won’t be published under his own name, but under that of Dusty King. For the next issue Margie gets his deal renegotiated and holds up Hendricks and Conway to make Jonathan a one-third partner in whatever they get for selling the magazine — only no sooner than he’s completed his manuscript for the issue’s novel-length story than Dusty King, who technically still lives in the company-owned penthouse Jonathan and Margie are staying in, grabs the finished but unbound manuscript and strews its pages to the wind in an alcoholic daze, whereupon they float several stories down to the street below and a bored street cleaner sweeps them down the storm drain with the rest of the trash.

Jonathan has been unable to stop this from happening because he’s unconscious — all those sleepless hours have finally got to him — and the desperate publishers grab the manuscript of the novel Jonathan spent three years writing and run it in their next pulp. When Jonathan finds out that’s what they’re doing, he turns against Margie, goes to the printer, tries to wreck the presses and ends up getting arrested — whereupon he’s bailed out by Hutchins, whose reader has read the “serious” novel and decided it’s a piece of total tripe that belongs in a pulp. The film ends with Jonathan and Margie reconciled, altar-bound and with Jonathan pursuing a career as a pulp writer and hoping one day to get good enough that he can write a serious book. Blonde Inspiration was one of those occasional gems the studio system produced out of left field: the script (by Marion Parsonnet based on an unproduced play by John Cecil Holm) is a delight start to finish; Berkeley’s direction refreshingly unpretentious and technically assured, and well paced enough to make this comedy genuinely funny; and while John Shelton is no more than serviceable the rest of the cast is fine — particularly Virginia Grey, who plays her part with the offbeat sincerity of Jean Arthur in her films with Capra and gives this farce more emotion than it needed but without unbalancing it or losing the laughs.