Sunday, July 15, 2012

Millie (Charles Rogers/RKO, 1931)

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

Charles and I watched Millie, a fascinating film we had just downloaded from, made by Charles Rogers’ independent production company in 1931 and then sold to RKO Radio Pictures when Rogers was hired as a producer there (not as head of production at the studio, as some sources have it: William LeBaron was the head of RKO from 1929 to 1932, when he was fired and David O. Selznick took over for one year, then had a fight with the radio people who ran RKO and knew little or nothing about movies, and quit). Though nominally based on a novel called Millie by Donald Henderson Clarke, published in 1930, Millie the movie seems to have been pulled by its screenwriters (Charles Kenyon and Ralph Morgan) from a pretty well-stocked wing of the cliché bank. The basic situation — a young woman leaves her husband, giving him custody of their daughter, and leaves a progressively looser and less “moral” life until years later, when her daughter is now an adult and is being romanced by one of her old sugar daddies, and she kills him to protect the daughter but doesn’t mount a defense in court because she doesn’t want the daughter’s name dragged into it — is not only an obvious offshoot of Madame X but a very similar story called Scarlet Pages had been filmed by Warners in 1930 (though in that one the mother was a career woman who had had the daughter out of wedlock years before and that was the big secret she was trying to conceal — and it was the daughter, not the mother, who killed the “roo” who was trying to despoil her). Millie is one of those frustrating movies that’s good as it stands but could have been considerably better: Millie Blake (Helen Twelvetrees) is a college girl in the small town of Willows (presumably in New England; the school she’s attending is called “Willows University” and though we never actually see it, it appears to be co-ed, unusual for a New England college then) when one of her fellow students, Jack Maitland (James Hall), takes her on a date, finds out that she’s always wanted to go to New York, and offers to take her there … right now.

When she protests (though not too hard) that she’s “not that kind of girl,” Maitland proposes marriage to her and she goes through with it. Three years and an ornate silent-film-style title later, all is not well with the Maitlands: they have a daughter, Connie (though the child actress playing her — unlisted both in the American Film Institute Catalog and on — looks about five instead of two or three), but Jack keeps sneaking out of the house on unspecified “business trips.” What he’s really doing, of course, is having an affair — and Millie finds out about it in the worst possible way: invited by two of her old college friends, Helen (Lilyan Tashman) and Angie (Joan Blondell, apparently given a loan-out that let her out of the Warners’ prison, at least briefly — though she’s stuck with an unattractive hairstyle and a role that doesn’t offer her anywhere near as much to work with as the parts she got at Warners did), to go to lunch at a fancy cabaret, she spots Jack and his bimbo on the dance floor, the two women confront each other in the lobby to the women’s restroom, Millie says, “I’m his wife!,” the woman says, “I’m his sweetie!,” and Millie bails on her marriage as well as her daughter, who stays with Jack, Jack’s mother and the officious governess Jack hired to take care of Connie. (Earlier there was a scene Charles was sure he’d seen before, in which Millie pleads for the chance to bathe Connie herself instead of letting the governess do it, the governess refuses and Millie says, “Whose kid is she? You see more of her than I do!”) Millie becomes a “woman of the world” in a movie whose refreshing honesty about sexual matters marks it as a product of the short-lived “pre-Code” Hollywood glasnost — though she insists on holding down jobs rather than just making her money by dating rich men the way her friends Helen and Angie do.

She toys with wealthy Jimmy Damier (John Halliday, who also was in Scarlet Pages as the prosecutor in that film’s courtroom sequences, and who here bore an odd resemblance to Adolphe Menjou) but has her next affair with someone who’s as ill-off as she is, reporter Tommy Rock (Robert Ames). Four years into this relationship she finds that he’s seeing other women, and breaks it off; she takes up with Jimmy and, it’s implied, many other men as well. Eight years later Millie is still relatively attractive — whoever Helen Twelvetrees’ makeup person was, he or she deserves credit for not overdoing her age and turning her into a desperate hag the way the heroine of Madame X has been in most of the films of it — but discernibly hard-bitten, and the final act is sparked when she learns her old flame, Jimmy Damier, has been visiting the Maitland family and attempting to seduce Connie (played as an adult by Anita Louise — with her, Blondell and Frank McHugh in the cast, Millie sometimes seems like a Warner Bros. picture in exile) by promising her a career on the stage. Tipped off by Mike (Charles Delaney), Jimmy’s chauffeur, that Jimmy is taking Connie to his lodge in the country to complete his seduction, Millie hires a cab to drive her out there, pleads with the cabbie (Charles Sullivan) to drive faster, and when she arrives she takes out a gun she picked up from a drawer at home and shoots Jimmy dead. She’s put on trial and makes an utter mess of her own testimony because she won’t say who the mystery woman she was protecting was — and the prosecutor sticks his foot in it by yelling at the jury during his summation, “Find the woman!” — and then the woman suddenly appears when Connie, who isn’t about to let her mom go to prison or be executed for protecting her from her own stupidity, speaks out in the courtroom, demands to be sworn, gives her evidence and wins her mom’s acquittal.

Millie is a fascinating story that could have made a better movie, and part of the problem is the old-fashioned stiffness of silent-film veteran John Francis Dillon’s direction while part of it is Helen Twelvetrees’ schizoid performance. Twelvetrees was a semi-major star of the silent era — when sound came in she was basically just below the “A”-list of the day and knocking hard on the gates of major stardom — and she didn’t have any obvious vocal flaws (her voice was in a normal female register, she didn’t stutter and she could certainly vary her intonations to express emotions) but sometimes she comes off as a ridiculously chipper, winsome relic of the silent era, while at other times — especially when the script puts her in especially dire situations — her acting is finely honed and fully in keeping with the demands of sound cinema. Through much of the movie I was wishing Joan Blondell could have been playing Millie (though the actress it really cried out for was my all-time favorite, Barbara Stanwyck!) and I was also wishing the writers had kept more of the focus on Millie herself and made the film more strongly from her point of view — but Millie is still a quite impressive movie and an illustration of how much the movies lost when the glasnost ended and the Production Code started to be strictly enforced by the end of 1934. (Right after the American Film Institute Catalog entry on Millie, there’s a listing for a 1934 Monogram film called Million Dollar Baby — a title that’s been used for two quite wildly different movies since, a Warners screwball comedy in 1941 and Clint Eastwood’s legendary female-boxing drama turned euthanasia story in 2004 — the plot of which is about a boy actor who’s put in drag and passed off as the next Shirley Temple — only Monogram was forced to eliminate all the satirical references to Temple when Fox, Temple’s studio, complained to the Production Code Administration and said a cheap studio like Monogram shouldn’t be allowed to sully the reputation of their greatest star. That’s how silly and arbitrary the Hollywood censorship got!)