Monday, July 23, 2012

The Easiest Way (MGM, 1931)

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

Charles and I spent the rest of the night watching the next film in sequence from the batch I recently recorded from Turner Classic Movies, along with Untamed and They Learned About Women, and it turned out to be quite the best of the three: The Easiest Way, a quite sexually explicit melodrama from MGM in 1931 starring Constance Bennett (who had already broken free of the studio system) as Laura Murdock, one of a very large family who live in a small apartment and have to double and even triple up in the same beds — depicted in a marvelous tracking shot across the various beds by director Jack Conway: we see the conditions in which these people have to live well before we know who they are or that they’re biologically related to each other. Their father Ben (J. Farrell MacDonald) is a longshoreman but he’s getting awfully old to continue in such a physically stressful job; mom Agnes (Clara Blandick) can keep the house running and all her children fed only by maintaining virtually military discipline — a far cry from the warm, loving character she played in her best-known role as Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz at the same studio eight years later! — and though there are so many Murdock children it’s virtually impossible to keep track of them all, the story (the script is by Edith Ellis based on a 1909 play by Eugene Walter that had already been filmed as a silent in 1917) quickly focuses on two of the older sisters, Laura and Peg (Anita Page).

Peg is engaged to Nick Feliki (Clark Gable, in his first film as an MGM contract player — all he’d done before this was extra work, a handful of bit parts and his first featured film role as the villain in the 1930 William Boyd Western The Painted Desert — looking ridiculously gawky and with his ears sticking out even more than usual; maybe the rumor that MGM sent him to a plastic surgeon to have his ears shrunk is true after all!), the son of a laundryman who’s planning to go into business for himself. Laura works selling neckties at a department store and fending off the inevitable advances from the men who shop at her counter (why a woman is assigned to sell a male clothing item is a mystery actually pondered in the film itself), including Gensler (Charles Judels), a pretty repulsive man with the sort of thin moustache which (except on Ronald Colman and the later Gable) instantly marked a man as someone not to be trusted, especially around women. Gensler works for the Brockton Advertising Agency and offers Laura a job modeling for the artists who do their magazine ads, and though his real motive is to get into Laura’s pants any chance he has of that is short-circuited when his boss, Willard Brockton (Adolphe Menjou), takes an interest in Laura himself and eventually recruits her to be his mistress.

This being the so-called “pre-Code” period of loose (but not nonexistent) Production Code enforcement — The Easiest Way spent four years in development hell and was abandoned by three other studios, First National, Fox and Columbia, as well as independent producer Pat Powers, when their writers couldn’t come up with a way of filming it that the heads of the Production Code Administration, Will Hays and Jason S. Joy, would sign onto (and Columbia studio head Harry Cohn was furious when MGM got the go-ahead to film it after his plans had been nixed by the Code office; he suspected they were discriminating against his company because it was much smaller and less important than MGM, and given the discrimination that goes on today in which movies from independent producers get tougher ratings than those from major studios, it seems likely he was right) — we’re left in no doubt about the real nature of the relationship between Laura and Brockton. At the same time her decision is depicted surprisingly sympathetically (which, judging from the letters from Hays and Joy to MGM quoted in the American Film Institute Catalog, seems to have been the biggest thing that bothered the censors); though her parents don’t actually approve of the way they’re living, her dad is increasingly unable to work and her mom gets deathly ill midway through the movie and they have no compunction about accepting the money Laura offers them and adopting what now would be called a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy towards how she got it in the first place. Laura’s arrangement is upended when she falls in love with a penniless reporter, Jack Madison (Robert Montgomery), who proposes to her just before he’s scheduled to take a months-long assignment in South America — and he extracts a promise of fidelity from her and at the same time she jokes about his need to stay out of the clutches of those South American babes. (Given that we’d just seen Montgomery as the male lead of Untamed, made two years earlier, I thought, “Yeah, there’s a woman down there in a remote village who looks exactly like Joan Crawford!”)

She gets regular cables from him until he’s sent into the interior, whereupon she hears nothing; she gave back all the jewelry Brockton gave her when she broke up their relationship and has sold or pawned all her fancy clothes when the seedy hotel she’s been staying at presents her with a bill for $62 (in 1931 dollars!) and tells her to pay or get out. Desperate for money, she tries to borrow it from her former friend Elfie St. Clair (Marjorie Rambeau), also the mistress of a rich man, who turns her down. Then she contacts Brockton, who agrees to help her but only if she returns to him and the sordid lifestyle they were leading; desperate, she does so (there’s a marvelously cynical scene in which the prissy desk clerk who’s been withholding her room key because she hasn’t paid her bill suddenly gives it back to her when Brockton shows up). She’s living with Brockton in a fancy apartment when Madison finally returns home and asks to marry her just before he leaves on another trip, this time to the Soviet Union, and she plans to elope with him; she tells her maid to pack her clothes and intends to sneak out surreptitiously, but Brockton returns before she and Madison have a chance to get away. (Jack Conway’s suspense editing is quite good here; Conway’s reputation is as a reliable MGM hack but there are moments in his films when he’s as good a director as any of the ones Andrew Sarris and company hailed as the great auteurs of classic Hollywood. He was also a practicing Christian Scientist and he probably got this assignment for the same reason he got to make Jean Harlow’s breakthrough movie, Redheaded Woman, a year later: MGM often handed the highly moralistic Conway stories they thought would get them in censor trouble in hopes he’d tone them down in his treatment of them.)

Brockton bluntly informs Mitchell what kind of girl Laura really is and how she’s been living, and Mitchell has a moralistic hissy-fit and abandons her. We then get a montage of her sinking to the gutter again until it’s Christmas Eve and she drifts by the home of Nick Faliki (ya remember Nick Faliki?) and his wife, Laura’s sister Peg, and though Nick had previously rejected Laura he relents, he and Peg take her in, and in a surprisingly open-ended ending for a 1931 movie (or a modern one, for that matter) Peg reassures her that someday Jack Madison will forgive her and take her back. The big deal for the censors about The Easiest Way was that “it builds up audience sympathy for Laura Murdock and supplies her with the means of securing sympathetic excuses for, if not actual approval of, her weakness of character” (of course it does! If it didn’t, it would be far less powerful as drama!); they complained that Ellis’s script was “much more dangerous than the original play” and did not go “far enough in building up the idea that Laura is being punished,” to which MGM producer Hunt Stromberg wrote back that he would have a scene added in which Laura “makes it plain that the life she has been leading has been hideous, destructive, shameful and unhappy.” Fortunately, Stromberg, Conway, Ellis and whoever else was involved managed to make that point without getting that preachy; instead, when she’s comfortably ensconced in Brockton’s apartment (again) Laura gets a visit from Elfie, the old friend who had earlier refused to help her, only this time it’s Elfie asking for help because she’s now broke: the man who’d been keeping her all those years suddenly died and left her penniless — “his family came in and took everything,” she laments (which struck a bit close to home for me right now!) — which made the point that being kept is a sordid way to live without having to stop the movie for a sermon.

The Easiest Way — the title itself is marvelously ironic because the so-called “easy way” turns out to be quite hard after all — is a quite good movie, though given how MGM cast him later it seems a pity Clark Gable didn’t get the Robert Montgomery role (Gable would have been convincingly butch whereas Montgomery still seems callow and shallow), albeit that Gable’s character seems to have been consciously shaped as an alternative to Bennett’s: a model of legitimate upward mobility in accord with the proletarian virtues. Constance Bennett’s performance is a bit mannered at the beginning but gains power and strength as the film progresses and the script shoves her moral dilemmas in our faces; it’s certainly a lot better than the similar tear-jerkers she was making at RKO at the same time (What Price Hollywood? excepted) even though at RKO she got a stronger leading man, Joel McCrea, than Montgomery, who’d develop into a much better actor than he was this early in his career. What’s most impressive about The Easiest Way now is precisely what pissed off the censors about it while it was being made (when the censor board in Alberta, Canada got hold of it it had already been so badly cut one of the board members wondered if the reels were being shown in the right order!): its refusal to make moral judgments, its willingness to present Laura Murdock’s dilemma with sympathy rather than blanket condemnation, and her ultimate redemption coming from her (biological) family rather than an outside man willing to “forgive” her. Interestingly, this was one of those early talkies MGM filmed an entirely separate version of in a different language with a different cast: in 1932 they put out a French-language version called Quand on est belle, with Lili Damita (star of Cary Grant’s first feature, This Is the Night, and the first Mrs. Errol Flynn) in Constance Bennett’s role, André Burgère in Robert Montgomery’s and André Luguet in Adolphe Menjou’s (a bit perplexing, that, since Menjou was French and therefore could easily have repeated the part — I suspect he asked for too much money).