Sunday, March 15, 2015

Morals for Women (Tiffany, 1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I ran a 1931 film called Morals for Women, made by the short-lived Tiffany studio (it had begun in the late 1920’s as a production company owned by director John M. Stahl and attempted to crack the ranks of the majors in 1929 — alas, just as the Depression was hitting and making it difficult for any business, especially one dealing in non-necessities, to survive) and a pretty obvious knockoff of The Easiest Way, filmed at MGM the same year. Like The Easiest Way, Morals for Women deals with a woman from a proletarian background — though in this film she comes to New York City from a small town instead of living in New York all along — who essentially makes it in the Big Apple by becoming a rich man’s mistress, then has to confront the guy from her previous lifestyle who comes back to her and wants to marry her but still thinks she’s a “good woman” by 1931 standards. Directed by Mort Blumenstock from a script by Frances Hyland (she’s only credited with “story” but since no other writer is credited I presume she wrote the actual screenplay too), it begins with a typically sententious foreword; “BROADWAY blazes through the cross currents of the breaking dusk. Its night with the shadows of its menace and cruel sword sweeps down unrelentlessly [sic] and swiftly on helpless souls, They, who lie before her, with their jewelled crowns, its night plunders and turns to flee when welcome dawn comes in across a sleeping sea.” Then we get a stock shot of the New York skyline, after which we start meeting our principals: “bad girl” Helen Huston (Bessie Love, just two years after her amazing performance in the 1929 MGM musical The Broadway Melody), her sugar daddy Van Dyne (Conway Tearle — who else?) and Paul Cooper, the nice young man who wants to marry her but still thinks she’s “pure” (John Holland). Before she came to New York Helen and Paul dated, but decided not to marry when they were both poor but to wait until they’d become more financially successful. One difference between this and the Easiest Way template is that in Morals for Women Paul Cooper has become more financially successful — enough to take Helen on a date through various New York nightclubs, depicted by a Dudley Murphy-style montage sequence in which an image of them sitting at a table appears in a circle in the middle of the screen while the rest is divided by diagonal lines into three or four sections representing the floor shows at the nightclubs they’re going to.

Morals for Women got mentioned on the Bix Beiderbecke Web site not long ago because one contributor theorized that Bix might have played on the soundtrack — which is not entirely impossible (the film wasn’t released until October 1931, two months after Bix died, but the recording could have been made months before that) but is highly unlikely. The montage is accompanied by Maceo Pinkard’s “I’ll Be a Friend ‘With Pleasure’,” one of the three songs Bix recorded on his last date as a leader (New York, September 8, 1930), but the version on the soundtrack is by George Olsen’s band and there’s no evidence of a hot cornet solo (nor is the movie mentioned on the label of Bix’s record, as is the case with “Deep Down South,” one of the other songs recorded at that session, whose label proclaims it as being from the 1930 film Pardon My Gun). On the technical level, Morals for Women is quite good — Tiffany had considerably higher production standards than most of the cheap independent studios from the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, and Blumenstock’s direction (though with that name I can’t help but wonder if he socked Tiffany’s investors for 25,000 percent of the production budget, made a deliberately bad movie and then absconded) is full of close-ups and shot-reverse shot cuts, standard techniques of major-studio productions at the time but ones the indies usually eschewed because close-ups cost too much to set up and every time a camera angle got changed, that was “down time” that also cost the company money. Hyland’s script is also genuinely witty and well constructed, and it differs from The Easiest Way in presenting Helen’s proletarian family not as a rock of stability that will be left for her to fall back on and be renewed after she dumps the man who’s keeping her and the man who’s in love with her dumps her in disgust after finding out she’s been That Kind of Woman. Rather, they’re shown as either incompetents or nags; Edmund Breese and Emma Dunn play her nagging parents and David Rollins and June Clyde her conniving brother and sister. The big thing that happens is that she goes back to her small town for a visit, a guy she knew in New York makes a slighting comment about her reputation, her brother starts a fight with the guy, is arrested and fined $1,000, and in order to come up with the money Helen has to return to her sugar daddy. Then her whole family comes to New York to see her, taking her by surprise just as she’s about to host a “wild” party (though like a lot of other 1930’s movies, the party is so decorous the point seems to be to scare viewers away from the demi-monde by making it look too terminally boring to bother with) featuring her sugar daddy and several other guests involved in mistress relationships.

Eventually, of course, traditional morality wins out and she returns home to that horrible family and to Paul Cooper, who agrees to marry her even after he learns the truth about her — a happy ending far less powerful than the bittersweet one of The Easiest Way, a film I haven’t seen for a while but which I’ve been in mind of recently because two recent Lifetime productions, Sugar Daddies and Babysitter’s Black Book, both reminded me of it, not only in their presentation of young women essentially whoring themselves out to rich men to get money to advance in the world (in Babysitter’s Black Book they were high-school students turning tricks to get the money for college; in Sugar Daddies they were college undergraduates becoming mistresses to earn the money for law school) but in their heroines being torn between their need for, and enjoyment of, the money they were making from sex with older men and their guilt feelings about living that way — only in 1931 the writers did a better job presenting their dilemmas and Constance Bennett, who played the central character in The Easiest Way, was far stronger as an actress than either Taylor Gildersleeve in Sugar Daddies or Spencer Locke in Babysitter’s Black Book. Still, it’s fascinating that stories like this (or the current box-office champ, Fifty Shades of Grey, also about a not-rich young girl willing essentially to sell herself to a super-rich man for all the kinky and potentially hurtful things he wants to do with her) are making a major comeback just now, with the rich getting ever richer, the not-so-rich falling ever farther behind, and young, attractive women in the 2010’s facing the same dilemma as their foresisters did in the 1930’s: make presumably “easy” (but actually quite difficult) money by selling themselves sexually or stay out of the whole sordid mess and suffer in poverty and unpaid student loan debt instead. I remember how incensed Molly Ivins was when she broke the story of women who had gone to business school and got degrees in investment and finance, but because those professions had heavy-duty glass ceilings and were as fiercely protective of their testosterone-fueled male-only environments as the video game industry, they were reduced to prostituting themselves — literally — for the men working the jobs, and making the fortunes, they had gone to school in hopes of achieving for themselves. These stories hook so many nasty social prejudices, including both market worship and sexism, it’s no wonder they are still being made and, if the evidence of Lifetime’s movie schedule is to be believed, actually making a comeback!