Tuesday, June 24, 2014

High Pressure (Warner Bros., 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was High Pressure, a 1932 Warner Bros. comedy/drama on the same DVD as the one we’d screened a couple of nights earlier, Private Detective 62 — and, much to my surprise, a considerably better movie. High Pressure began life as a Broadway play by Aben Kandel called Hot Money that opened in November 1931 and closed after just nine performances; Warners grabbed the movie rights and filmed it with their newly acquired actor, William Powell (grabbed from Paramount in a talent raid that also bagged Ruth Chatterton and Kay Francis, though Powell wouldn’t achieve true superstardom until Warners dropped him in 1934 and he ended up at MGM, where he broke through with back-to-back mega-hits, Manhattan Melodrama and The Thin Man), along with hotshot director Mervyn LeRoy and an excellent supporting cast featuring at least one player outside the usual Warner Bros. contract list, Evelyn Brent (more on her later). The wisecracking screenplay was by Joseph Jackson and an uncredited S. J. Peters, and it begins with Ginsburg (played as a well-to-do Jewish stereotype by George Sidney), a money man who claims to have a contract with an inventor for a formula that will make rubber out of sewage, hooking up with Mike Donahey (Frank McHugh at his most Frank McHughiest) to promote the new invention. Donahey tells him that the secret to success is to get the super-promoter Gar Evans (William Powell) to organize the promotion and head the company formed to exploit the new process. Unfortunately, Gar is just finishing up a five-day bender and Donahey has to visit every speakeasy within walking distance of Gar’s home on 47th Street in New York City just to find him, after which they have to spend five days of workouts and steam baths just to leach the alcohol out of Gar and return him to sobriety, coherence and business acumen. The trio launch the Golden Gate Artificial Rubber Company after Gar convinces his new partners that a) they should never mention the word “sewage” in connection with the process, b) they should pick a corporate name with the word “gold” in it, and c) Ginsburg should henceforth be referred to as “Colonel Ginsburg” because either a military or a ministerial title is essential for the front man in this sort of enterprise, and the alternative — “Reverend Ginsburg” — would be utterly unbelievable attached to someone so stereotypically Jewish. (“Rabbi Ginsburg” obviously wouldn’t have had the same ring, or been equally persuasive in getting the goyim to invest in the company.)

Once Gar is on board — for 51 percent of the enterprise — he insists on spending $25,000 of Ginsburg’s money on an ultra-fancy office (I think the floor of this was recycled from the big nightclub set in Al Jolson’s 1928 film The Singing Fool) and starts taking orders for Golden Gate stock even though Ginsburg’s inventor has disappeared and therefore there’s no one at the firm with any idea whether the process actually works. Of course, this being a 1930’s movie, romantic complications enter into things as well: Gar is in love with Francine Dale (Evelyn Brent), whom he was dating and was, indeed, visiting at her apartment when he abruptly told her he needed some Bromo-Seltzer and disappeared on a five-day drinking binge instead. She doesn’t want to get involved with him only to have him jilt her for another preposterous reason, but she agrees to sign on to Golden Gate as their receptionist — only to get into hissy-fits of jealousy when Gar hires secretary Helen Wilson (Evalyn Knapp, for once acting like a human being instead of a mannequin), insists that she not have a boyfriend (explaining that he doesn’t want to train a private secretary only to lose her to matrimony) and tells her he’ll be working her late. Francine overhears this and assumes the worst, but Helen couldn’t be less interested in Gar personally, namely because she does have a boyfriend, Jimmy Moore (John Wray), whom she was hoping to save enough money on the job to marry. One interesting aspect of High Pressure is Brent’s almost viciously cold performance in this role, a part that would have sent Bette Davis, fangs bared, out to chew the scenery; before Josef von Sternberg discovered Marlene Dietrich, Brent had been his favorite actress, and he had directed her much the way he did Dietrich: act as emotionlessly as possible, feign total indifference to the events of the story in general and the feelings of the male lead in particular, and affect an icy world-weariness almost the opposite of the intensely engaged, emotionally driven performances most of Warners’ female stars gave in the early 1930’s. Brent really does seem like a Sternberg heroine dropped into the middle of a shrieking Warners melodrama, and her glacial intensity contrasts oddly with the typical hurly-burly of an ordinary Warners film, especially one helmed by a fast-paced director like LeRoy.

Early on it occurred to me that High Pressure could easily have been remade in the modern era, with an Internet start-up instead of an industrial process as the product the highly inflated “company” is supposed to be making — and about midway through Charles and I both realized that the basic story had been remade recently as The Wolf of Wall Street, with Leonardo Di Caprio in the Powell role of the brilliant manipulator ultimately undone by his own manipulations, both financial and romantic — though the two films end dramatically differently in ways that reflect the various attitudes towards money of the 1930’s and the 2010’s. In the wake of the 1929 Depression audiences were highly skeptical and even angry at characters like Gar Evans who exploited ordinary people to make unethical killings in the markets, and so the writers of High Pressure were careful to give Gar a worm-turning scene in which, his company about to be shut down by the attorney general and the Better Business Bureau, he sells out to the trust interests controlling the natural rubber industry and is able to wangle a deal by which all his stockholders are made whole even though the rubber process itself is useless (he learns this when the “expert” chemist who supposedly invented it turns out to have a “degree” from a diploma mill Gar set up himself as one of his previous schemes), whereas Di Caprio’s character in The Wolf of Wall Street couldn’t have cared less about the welfare of his pigeons. The American economy collapsed in 1929 and led to an era in which people openly questioned the whole idea of wealth and its concentration, and many folks mobilized in the streets to demand programs aimed at helping the 99 percent; alas, the nearly as severe collapse of the economy in 2008 led not to a revival of progressivism but to a nation whose citizens mostly continued their blind worship of money and people who have it, and to a Tea Party movement aimed at making the rich even richer — reason enough that the protagonist of The Wolf of Wall Street, unlike the one of High Pressure, could retain the audience’s sympathies even without giving back his ill-gotten gains!