Thursday, October 1, 2015

Five and Ten (MGM, 1931)

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

The TCM showing I watched September 28 was a quirky 1931 movie called Five and Ten — released by MGM and billed as “A Marion Davies Production” (which in practice probably meant a William Randolph Hearst production, though why it was billed under her name when Hearst’s standard practice was to list the films he produced and financed as “Cosmopolitan Pictures” is a mystery), based on a book by Fannie Hurst and directed by Robert Z. Leonard (a mostly reliable hack who made one truly great film in his long career, the 1937 Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy masterpiece Maytime) from a script by A. P. Younger (“adaptation”) and Edith Fitzgerald (“dialogue continuity”). One would think that a modern-dress Marion Davies movie called Five and Ten (actually five and ten — the main title, unusually for 1931, lists the film’s name in all lower-case letters) would cast her as a working-class girl eking out a living as a clerk at a five- and ten-cent store and meeting a rich man, falling for him and trying to make the relationship work in spite of the class differences. Instead it’s a story about the Rarick family, who opened a chain of five- and ten-cent stores that through mergers and acquisitions has become the dominant low-end retailer through most of the country and is negotiating to buy a Pacific Northwest chain that will give it reach throughout the U.S. The problem is that the chain’s founder, John Rarick (Richard Bennett), has become so wrapped up in his business that he’s neglected the rest of his family, whom he has just moved from Kansas City (where his stores first started) to New York. His wife Jenny (Irene Rich) is secretly dating a gold-digging gigolo named Ramon (Theodore von Eltz) — we barely see him but we can tell just from the pencil-thin moustache he wears and the prissy notes he writes her that he’s up to no good — while his son Avery (Kent Douglass, who later became Douglass Montgomery — not much of an improvement) is a wastrel whom dad somehow thinks he can whip into shape as a suitable heir to take over the stores when he finally retires or croaks. (There’s a nice bit of “pre-Code” cheekiness in how we — though not John — learn that his wife is cheating on him; just as John is dictating to an official biographer and insisting that success hasn’t changed either him or his family at all, Jenny receives a note from Ramon telling her to come to him or “I will be very disappointed.”) John’s daughter Jennifer (Marion Davies) seems like the most sensible one of the bunch, but she’s got her own obsessions: like her mom, she’s determined to have New York’s old-money society accept the Raricks as equals instead of writing them off as Midwestern parvenus. So it’s yet another story of the clash between old money and new — a conflict which rings false to modern-day audiences accustomed to worshiping anyone with money, no matter how (or how recently) obtained; as I noted in my comments on the most recent version of The Great Gatsby, the old money-new money clash at the heart of that story, and the element of it I think meant the most emotionally to its creator, F. Scott Fitzgerald (whose real-life relationship with Zelda Sayre was largely the model for Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan), was the part modern audiences were least likely to relate to.

Jennifer weasels a $5,000 check out of her dad to contribute to a charity ball — “What’s the charity?” he asks, and she doesn’t know — and at the ball she meets and immediately falls for aspiring, but not too aspiring, architect Berry Rhodes (Leslie Howard). Rhodes is a well-to-do young man with a penchant for partying and women, but he’s about to settle down and make a socially advantageous marriage with Muriel Preston (Mary Duncan) — only once he lays eyes on Our Marion he’s smitten. He rather obliquely offers to make Jennifer his mistress once he ties the knot with Muriel, but Jennifer virtuously insists that she’s not going to be satisfied with a part-time relationship with a man married to someone else (dialogue that’s almost unbearably ironic coming from William Randolph Hearst’s long-time mistress!). She decides to make him a success by getting her dad to commission him to design the huge Rarick Tower he plans to erect in New York, and when dad protests that he’s already given the job to an established architectural firm, she insists that they partner with Rhodes on the design. There seems to be some uncertainty as to what Rhodes’ first name is, because when he finally gets married to Muriel he’s addressed throughout the ceremony as “Benedict,” of all things. Rhodes gets the job and, on the night the building is scheduled to open, sneaks in and takes his own private tour to see if the established architects used any of his design. He and Jennifer end up locked in for the night in the observation room at the top of the building, and while nothing Code-threatening happens it’s enough to create a scandal. In a pretty preposterous scene Muriel shows up to John Rarick’s home and says that if he gives her $100,000 she’ll divorce Berry and Jennifer can have him — only Jennifer herself hears what’s going on, grabs the check from her dad’s hand and tears him up, saying she’s not going to have her dad buy her a husband. Meanwhile, Jenny (Jennifer’s mom, remember?) finally gets tired of being ignored by her business-obsessed husband and writes him a note that she’s leaving him because she’s lonely — only the note is intercepted by son Avery, who, having already got plastered on his dad’s brandy when he discovered his mom was having an affair, responds to his mom’s decision to leave his dad by taking up his airplane and deliberately crashing it. (Until this scene we’ve had no idea Avery had a plane or any interest in flying, which in their post-film commentary Ben Mankiewicz and Leonard Maltin cited as an example of the narrative economy of 1930’s films. Today plot points like that get over-explained — though two years later the makers of the marvelous 1933 film Sensation Hunters also had a rich character die in a plane crash, either a suicide or a drunken accident, and that story by Whitman Chambers did carefully “plant” that the character was interested in aviation.) Though Avery doesn’t die immediately, he ends up in the hospital in critical condition and lasts just long enough to see his family reunited — mom thinks better of the gold-digging gigolo, dad cuts back on his business activities and agrees to a vacation, and Jennifer gets a note from Berry telling her that Muriel is in Reno getting a divorce and therefore they’ll soon be together.

Five and Ten is an intriguing movie, compelling in some ways and flat and ordinary in others; Marion Davies’ performance is quite competent (though I found myself wondering through much of it how the young Katharine Hepburn might have fared in the role; whereas Kate would have been edgy and Barbara Stanwyck heartbreaking, Davies is believable but not emotionally stirring) and she and Leslie Howard have real chemistry together. One big-time irony is the casting of Richard Bennett (father of Constance and Joan Bennett) as Davies’ father; needless to say, Mankiewicz (whose family has an Orson Welles connection since Herman J. Mankiewicz co-wrote the script for Citizen Kane) and Maltin couldn’t help but mention in their introduction to the film that Marion Davies was really quite a good actress in the right sorts of parts. Various versions of how the character of Susan Alexander Kane came to be exist, but the one they told before screening Five and Ten was that Orson Welles had deliberately made his character completely untalented so people wouldn’t think he was modeling her on Marion Davies (and he had a real-life model in mind, too: Ganna Walska, a would-be diva helped to an opera career she didn’t deserve by her sugar daddy — there’s a memo from Welles to his music director, Bernard Herrmann, not to make Susan Alexander’s voice sound utterly terrible because “even ‘G.W.’ had something of a voice”). Instead people thought the character was Marion Davies, and since there are a lot more people who’ve seen Citizen Kane than have ever seen a Davies film start-to-finish, the impression has persisted that Marion Davies had no talent and got slogged through a series of inept and money-losing films because her boyfriend had money. The irony involving Richard Bennett playing her father is that he had a Welles connection; his last film, made when he (like the character he was playing) was fatally ill, was as old Major Amberson in The Magnificent Ambersons! The basic problem with Five and Ten isn’t the acting or Leonard’s hacky but serviceable direction; it’s the story itself, one of Fannie Hurst’s big worm-turning tales that simply isn’t interesting until she really piles on the miseries for the Rarick family in the final reels and the tale finally achieves some emotional depth — too late for the viewer, though, as it is too late for Avery Rarick!