Tuesday, September 17, 2013

I’ve Got Your Number (Warner Bros., 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film Charles and I watched last night was I’ve Got Your Number, a snappy little 67-minute Warners “B” from 1934 (the last year of the so-called “pre-Code” era, which showed in quite a few plot points and bits of “business”) centered around the telephone business and how important it had become in American life even though in 1934 there were still people with living memories of a time without phones and quite a few rural areas of the country where phone service was either spotty or nonexistent. It begins with a marvelous montage sequence showing various uses to which people put their phones, from a stockbroker using it to make what would now be called day trades to a woman placing a call to a married woman friend of hers to warn her that her husband is on his way home unexpectedly early, but fortunately the back door out of their bedroom still works. (Charles not surprisingly groaned at that one.) Then we meet our principals: Terry Reilly (Pat O’Brien) and his assistant John (Allen Jenkins — one of the kinkiest “pre-Code” aspects of this movie is Jenkins’ weirdly homoerotic tones as he upbraids Terry for being too interested in women), repair people for the phone company; Marie Lawson (Joan Blondell), a switchboard operator at the Hotel Eden (I made a bad joke about someone calling the Hotel Eden to ask them to page Adam and Eve, and Charles responded, “Cain’t do it — we’re not Abel!” I said, “I’m sorry, but we can’t get in touch with Cain either — he’s Nodding out,” and the jokes fortunately stopped before they got even worse); and Bonnie (Glenda Farrell — I recorded this off a Turner Classic Movies “Summer Under the Stars” tribute day to her, even though she’s only in two scenes), a phony psychic who gets busted when Terry and John catch her using her phone lines to broadcast fake messages from the dead to the customers at her séance. Why she relied on her phone lines instead of installing her own sound system remains a mystery — the writers, William Rankin (story) and Sidney Sutherland and Warren Duff (script), never explain it — but Terry and John use it as a pretext to rip out both her phone lines. However, John, despite his previous “women — yuck” attitude, is smitten with Bonnie and they pair off — as to Terry and Molly, who have one of those hate-at-first-sight that blossoms into love relationships that abounded in 1930’s movies.

Marie gets fired when she’s tricked into playing what she thinks is a practical joke on a customer — re-routing a call he’s expecting into another room — only it’s a plot to rip him off, the hotel blames her and she loses her job. Terry talks a rich friend of his into offering her a job at his company — and Marie is tricked again by the boyfriend of a girlfriend of hers, with the result that her sponsor, John Schuyler (Henry O’Neill), loses $90,000 in negotiable bonds to the crook and naturally blames Marie as having been in on the theft. Terry is convinced of her innocence and agrees to meet her, not knowing that the cops have put him under surveillance as a way of finding and arresting her — and when she’s pinched she accuses him of double-crossing her. But Terry and John get the evidence to free her by illegally wiretapping the crooks’ phone line — Terry from the crooks’ hideout (where they catch him and hold him) and John back at the phone company’s headquarters — and John rallies the rest of the phone company’s repair people, they crash the crooks’ hideout, rescue Terry and hold the crooks until the police can come and arrest them. Directed by one of Warners’ hackiest contractees, Ray Enright, I’ve Got Your Number is saved by the cleverness of the montage sequences (indeed the opening reel is probably better than the whole rest of the movie!), the nicely drawn (if predictable) antagonism between Terry and his immediate supervisor, Joe Flood (Eugene Pallette), and above all by a strong performance by Blondell in her best world-weary mold — even though the film lacks the fireworks of the movies in which Blondell and Farrell actually worked as a team and lit sparks off each other. As for Pat O’Brien, this may be one of the most actively unpleasant roles he ever played; though he softens at the end (when he’s alone with Blondell on their wedding night and the other phone guys crash their bedroom as a practical joke), for the most part he’s so nasty and unscrupulous throughout the movie you rather dread that he and that nice girl are going to end up together at the end.

I’ve Got Your Number is actually a quite good example of Warners’ “proletarian” movies, the sort of film they specialized in about everyday working-class occupations other studios, particularly MGM and Paramount, generally considered themselves and their audiences “above” — and as I’ve pointed out before, that’s largely due to where the theatres owned by the big studios were located. Paramount’s and Loew’s (MGM’s parent company) theatres were in the most affluent areas of the major cities, and therefore those studios made films that would appeal to the upper and upper-middle classes. Warners, flush with the success of Al Jolson’s early sound vehicles The Jazz Singer and The Singing Fool (the last, a 1928 release, was the highest-grossing movie ever until Gone With the Wind 11 years later), bought the First National company, a group of theatre owners that had formed their own studio in 1918 to make sure they could get star product — and as a result, from 1928 on, Warners had large numbers of theatres in working-class and rural areas Paramount and Loew’s hadn’t felt were worth serving, and therefore needed to make films about people like those in their audiences — even though Jack Warner was able to parlay the money he made on his gangster films, working-class stories and musicals (where he mashed up the elitist fantasies of Busby Berkeley’s production numbers with the proletarian stories of piss-poor performers desperately trying to get along until their shows opened and hopefully became hits) into the remarkable run of mid-1930’s movies that established Warner Bros. once and for all as a first-tier major: Madame DuBarry, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Anthony Adverse, The Green Pastures, The Story of Louis Pasteur and Warners’ first Academy Award Best Picture winner, The Life of Émile Zola.