Sunday, April 29, 2012

Manhattan Tower (Remington, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Manhattan Tower, an obscure but quite good little movie produced by a short-lived outfit called Remington Pictures in 1932 (the editors of the American Film Institute Catalog didn’t get to see this one but they reported that the reason Remington Pictures didn’t last was that the company’s founder, A. E. Lefcourt, who put up the $50,000 to make it, died right after making this film). It’s a cheap-studio knockoff of Grand Hotel but within its budget limitations (as well as the state of its preservation; the version we were watching was an download of an actual restoration, but though the soundtrack was complete some scenes were still missing visually and were filled in with blank film, so the screen would suddenly go black while the sound continued) it’s an excellent movie, centered around the two factors that are often said to determine all human relationships, especially marital ones: sex and money. The entire film takes place inside the Manhattan Tower skyscraper (obviously inspired by the Empire State Building — indeed in the final scenes of the film it’s represented by footage of the actual Empire State Building) and the central character is Kenneth Burns (Clay Clement), New York manager of the National Products Company, who instead of concentrating on that job spends most of his time speculating on the stock market. Befitting the Depression era in which this film was made, his investments have all gone south and rendered him broke (when we see him listen to market quotes on the radio and every stock referenced is going down in price, my first thought was, “He’s either short-selling like crazy or he’s losing his shirt,” and of course the latter turns out to be true), and he’s facing a $2,000 margin call, without which his broker will sell him out completely. He’s so desperate, in fact, that he swindles the $1,000 life savings of his secretary, Mary Harper (Mary Brian, top-billed), and promptly loses it when he can’t come up with the other $1,000 he needs because his bookkeeper, Mr. Hoyt (Jed Prouty), won’t O.K. his request for an advance on his salary. Mary and her fiancé Jimmy Duncan (James Hall) were counting on that money so they could get married and buy their dream home in Kew Gardens; Jimmy works in the electrical room of the tower but is hoping he and his boss will get a contract to put wire into another major building and get considerably more money.

In addition to swindling the 99 percent out of their meager savings to maintain his own speculations — as if that weren’t bad enough — Burns is also cheating on his wife Ann (Irene Rich), whose own fortune gave him the capital to launch his career as a (bad) investor; he first makes a pass at Mary, and when she virtuously turns him down (though the fact that she let Burns touch her arm inspired a jealous hissy-fit from Jimmy) Burns instead takes up with one of his other office workers, party girl Marge Lyon (Noel Francis — a girl named Noel?), who’s shown up in a party dress from a party that literally lasted all night and was still going when she realized she’d have to leave it to get to work. (She calls her boyfriend de jour to pack up her street dress and bring it to her so she can change at the office, and his attempts to find her in the big building are the film’s principal source of comic relief.) As if all that weren’t enough plot, there’s another storyline: two big depositors in the Tower Security Bank on the bottom floor of the tower are threatening to pull their deposits out, and attorney Whitman (Hale Hamilton) — who’s also in love with Ann Burns and is encouraging her to divorce her broke and philandering husband and marry him instead (and hubby, being the rotter he is, tells her that $50,000 is his price for her freedom) — arranges a meeting and ultimately the bank chairman persuades his big depositors to stay in. Unfortunately, Whitman’s ditzy secretary Miss Wood (Nydia Westman) overhears the conversation in the meeting, concludes that the bank is about to fail and not only pulls her own money out but mentions all this in a crowded elevator and starts a run on the bank.

Manhattan Tower is actually a more unusual movie than the synopsis makes it sound, partly because writers David Hempstead (story) and Norman Houston (adaptation and dialogue) deploy their clichés in fresh and unexpected ways and partly because the director, the very interesting Frank R. Strayer (a potentially major filmmaker whose innovative experiments and genuine flair for the Gothic and strange got put aside when he won the job directing the Blondie series films at Columbia), shoots it in wild and provocative ways, including building-eye view shots of the people below as they swarm into the tower for the day’s work (contrary to the synopsis on, the Tower is not a residential building; it’s entirely offices) and an astonishing effect from the elevator’s point of view showing it moving up or down the shaft whenever people in the story use it to move more than one floor up or down at a time. (When they’re just going from one floor to the next, either above or below, Strayer uses a simple elevator crane: still a highly unusual device for a low-budget indie in 1932.) For an indie the sets are enviably substantial and solid-looking, and though some of the shots of the building itself were undoubtedly done with models, the effects are utterly convincing. Manhattan Tower is an extraordinary movie, one of the real gems of the early 1930’s, obviously inspired by the success of Grand Hotel but considerably darker and richer than the major-studio brethren that also tried to apply the formula of Grand Hotel to a business skyscraper (Skyscraper Souls, Steel Against the Sky, etc.) and with some reflections on the arrogance of wealth and power that seem all too timely today!