Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Rich Relations (Cameo/Imperial, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film last night was Rich Relations, a 1937 production from an independent company variously known as Cameo and Imperial — the credits of the print we were watching said Imperial but the American Film Institute Catalog identifies Cameo as the producing studio and Imperial as the distributor — the same outfit that gave us the rather dubious but not totally uninteresting 1935 thriller (at least in intent) Murder by Television with Bela Lugosi. Rich Relations was available for download from archive.org and I was interested in it because it featured two actors I particularly like but who, for whatever reasons, never became major stars, Ralph Forbes (who played the Pinkerton role in the 1926 Mr. Wu, essentially a rewrite of Madama Butterfly only set in China instead of Japan, and with the heroine’s father not only very much alive but actually the male lead, and who starred in the marvelous 1933 film The Phantom Broadcast) and Barry K. Norton (an Anglo-looking but Argentinian-born actor equally at home in English and Spanish; he played the David Manners role in the Spanish version of the 1930 Dracula and was the juvenile male lead in Frank Capra’s 1933 Lady for a Day).

Unfortunately, Rich Relations turned out to be one of those mediocre movies which timidly went where hundreds of movies (and no doubt thousands of novels and stage plays before that!) had gone before. Produced and directed by Clifford Sanforth from a script compiled (it’s hard to say “written”!) by Joseph O’Donnell, Rich Relations tells the story of one Nancy Tilton (Frances Grant, a personable but uncharismatic young actress), who applies for a job as secretary and stenographer at an insurance company office run by Dave Walton (Ralph Forbes). She gets the job less because of any intrinsic talent (in an inventive opening montage that’s director Sanforth’s most creative work in the film, she’s shown as part of a split screen with three other applicants for the job and then another effects shot showing how many other people are applying, jobs being as hard to come by in that era’s depression as they are in the current one.

Once she’s hired, she’s plunged into a sexual maelstrom that’s the most fascinating aspect of this film: in this era of hyper-concern about “sexual harassment” it’s odd, to say the least, to be flashed back to a time when women in the workplace were expected to endure sexual advances from men in the same workplace as part of the cost of being allowed to work at all — and what’s more, they had to carefully juggle the adverse potential consequences to their careers of saying no or saying yes. Nancy soon learns that the reasons she got the job have nothing to do with her talents, such as they may be; the office Don Juan, Don Blair (Barry K. Norton), wanted her on the staff because she’s got red hair (though, this being a black-and-white film, we have to take that on faith) and redheads turn him on (though after a while we get the impression that anything human, female and not too much older than he turns him on!), while Dave Walton wanted her because he was under the impression that she was one of the “Chicago Tiltons,” a rich family, and he reasons that a woman who doesn’t have to work for economic reasons will be better at her job.

Unfortunately, the film squanders a potentially interesting premise and becomes a quite ordinary romantic-triangle movie in which Nancy is torn between Dave and Don — at one point, anticipating the brutal and almost sadistic tactics of the Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire characters in Holiday Inn, Don picks Nancy up at her home while she’s about to go on a date with Dave, takes her for a drive, promises to bring her back before Don is scheduled to come by, then pretends to have car trouble — he tells her the car has already lost a cylinder and might lose another two any moment (and there’s a knowing wink between him and the gas-station attendant who, of course, knows what B.S. this is) — and there’s a complication in that Don was already having an affair with another woman at the office, a blonde named Trixie Lane (Muriel Evans). Trixie is understandably jealous of Nancy and anxious to break Nancy and Don up. Meanwhile, Don has introduced Nancy to his parents, and they’ve assumed that she’s one of the “Chicago Tiltons,” while she’s been very careful all movie to avoid saying she is but also to avoid saying she isn’t. The real Tiltons, who’ve been in Europe all this time, suddenly return to Chicago and Nancy is worried that her not-quite-imposture is going to be revealed. There’s a byplay involving a purse misplaced by one of the other employees that turns up on Nancy’s desk, and she’s accused of stealing it but Don stands up for her and she keeps her job. Then there’s a race in which Nancy tries to get out of town before it’s revealed she’s not one of those Tiltons, and Don drives her bus off the road and spends the day with her.

Later Don calls her and tells her that under no circumstances is she to tell anyone they were together that day — for reasons apparent only to Joseph O’Donnell, because the pledge makes no sense given the hard turn the plot is about to make into crime drama. A large sum of money is embezzled from the company and Nancy is suspected and thrown in jail. Don is also suspected, but because of her “pledge” to him they can’t alibi each other. Eventually Nancy breaks down and tells the truth, whereupon the police figure out that the real culprits were Don’s brother-in-law (whom we haven’t seen) and the security guard at the office. Just then John Tilton turns up at the police station, and just when we’re thinking, “Oh, no, they’re not going to have Nancy turn out to be one of the Chicago Tiltons after all,” they have Nancy turn out to be one of the Chicago Tiltons after all — though there’s a tag scene in which Nancy tells John (who actually fathered her during a short-lived marriage before he met and married the current Mrs. Tilton) that her name is no longer Tilton, but Walton; she and Dave married that morning. (Does he then move to Bentonville, Arkansas and found Wal-Mart?)

Rich Relations is a decently made movie — though the cheesy music heard under the opening credits and the early montage and the lack of music in the rest of the film show its indie origins — and acting-wise the honors are stolen by Franklin Pangborn in a typically queeny performance as one of the insurance executives (of course he wears a flower in his lapel and does a lot of “business” with it!). It’s just a lot of old clichés we’ve seen done better in hundreds of movies before it — and I suspect the gimmick of the poor girl who turns out to be the long-lost heiress of a rich family was started by Plautus in ancient Rome or someone equally, shall we say, venerable. As for Forbes and Norton, they both acquit themselves well with what meager rations they’ve been given to work with, but this was hardly a credit that was going to get either of them the stardom they deserved.