Sunday, July 4, 2010

Stepping Out (MGM, 1931)

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

The film was Stepping Out, a fascinating MGM farce from 1931 based on a 1929 play by Elmer Harris, who also co-wrote the movie script with Robert E. Hopkins. It’s one of those delicious little “pre-Code” movies that goes out of its way to deny even the possibility of monogamy. Tom and Eve Martin (Reginald Denny and Leila Hyams) are celebrating their second wedding anniversary with their friends Tubby and Sally Smith (Harry Stubbs and Charlotte Greenwood). They’re living in Los Angeles and apparently Tom and Tubby are partners in producing a film, though we never see any evidence that they’re actually engaged in moviemaking and the “film” seems, at least for Tubby, to be nothing more than an excuse to meet women for clandestine affairs under the guise of interviewing them for parts.

Tubby tries to lure Tom away from his wife long enough so they can go on a double-date with golddiggers Cleo del Rio (Lilian Bond) and Madge, a.k.a. “Bubbles” (former Chaplin co-star Merna Kennedy), Tom reluctantly agrees, and rather than go out the two would-be philanderers invite the women to Tom’s place — while their wives decide that what’s sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose, and they decide then and there to go for a trip to Aguascalientes, Mexico, then a favorite party spot for the movie set because in addition to featuring a famous horse-race track and other forms of legalized gambling was also a place during Prohibition where Americans could cross the border and buy alcoholic drinks legally. (There’s even a song from this period called “There’s a Wah-Wah Girl in Aguascalientes,” which Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden recorded — separately, not together.)

Only no sooner have our adulterers’ girlfriends arrived than their wives return unexpectedly — they forgot something (Eve’s bag) — and there are a few French-farce moments as the guys try to hide their girlfriends from their wives. Just then the festivities are interrupted by attorney Charley Miller (Richard Tucker), who warns Tom and Tubby that their personal assets could be at risk if the film they’re supposedly making runs over budget, so they will need to sign all their money and property over to their wives until the film finishes shooting. The wives learn about this and go secure in the knowledge that even if their husbands figure out what’s going on and follow them to Mexico, they’ll be up shit creek because they won’t have any money at all. In Aguascalientes Sally runs into an old boyfriend, Paul Perkins (“Ukulele Ike,” billed under his real name — Cliff Edwards — though he still gets to do a song), and he and his friend Hal Rogers (Kane Richmond, later the leading man in innumerable serials for Republic and Columbia) romance Sally and Eve, respectively, putting them in the same boat as Tubby and Tom were in during the first act and setting up yet more hotel-room farce as the various principals avoid each other by ducking in and out of rooms. It all ends more or less happily, of course, with the original husbands and wives re-paired and their alternative partners of both genders out in the cold, figuratively speaking.

Stepping Out is a one-joke movie and the one joke gets pretty tiresome about midway through, but it’s still a clever little film and a great showcase for Greenwood, who gets top billing and mostly dominates the movie even though she gets very little comedic support, especially from the dull actor playing her husband. (Later she’d get to make a film called Flying High, also shown on this disc, in which she had a much more charismatic and irrepressible co-star, Bert Lahr.)