Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Young Man of Manhattan (Paramount, 1930)

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

Instead I ran Charles Young Man of Manhattan, a 1930 Paramount production (filmed at their New York studio in Astoria, Queens so they could use actors who were also appearing on Broadway — they could act in films by day and in plays by night) which, based on an ambiguous notation on the site I downloaded it from, I had assumed co-starred Ginger Rogers and Ethel Merman, who when this film was being made were co-starring on Broadway in the Gershwin musical Girl Crazy. (Merman introduced “I Got Rhythm” in this show, with Red Nichols’ orchestra in the pit backing her, and it was her star-making song.) As things turned out, Merman wasn’t in Young Man of Manhattan but Rogers was — it was her first film and she was still wearing her hair in its natural black color (later she would bleach it and go blonde), though you don’t see much of her hair since she’s wearing a helmet-like cap in most of her scenes. The film was actually more soap opera than musical (though Rogers sings two songs in it, “I’ve Got ‘It’ but ‘It’ Don’t Do Me No Good” and “Good ’n’ Plenty”) and it’s really a vehicle for Claudette Colbert and her then-husband, Norman Foster, and the opening is an interesting anticipation of the first Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn film Woman of the Year from 12 years later. They’re both newspaper reporters for rival papers — she does general coverage with a special emphasis on celebrity interviews for a morning paper, and he covers sports for an evening paper — and the film opens with a stunning overhead shot of a boxing match. It turns out that the fight is taking place outdoors in a driving rainstorm and everyone there is getting drenched (and according to the fight is represented by stock footage of the real 1927 heavyweight championship bout between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney). Toby McLean (Norman Foster) offers to give Ann Vaughn (Claudette Colbert) a ride home, and on the way he bets her that he’ll marry her that night. He does, and they set up housekeeping together and agree that no matter what happens between them, they won’t get jealous or possessive of each other. (The film, written by Robert Presnell and Daniel Reed based on a novel by Katharine Brush — best known at the time as an F. Scott Fitzgerald imitator — and stunningly directed by the usually hacky Monta Bell, has the refreshing and salty honesty about people’s real relationships, including their sex drives, that marks it as a product of the Hollywood glasnost, the so-called “pre-Code” era between 1930 and 1934.)

Of course, the exact opposite happens; Ann gets an offer from magazine publisher Dwight Knowles (Leslie Austin, in the sort of role Neil Hamilton played earlier and Ian Hunter played later) to write a series of six star profiles for $200 each, and while at an out-of-town game Toby’s “friend” and tempter Shorty Ross (Charlie Ruggles in a surprisingly non-comic role for him) introduces him to the so-called “gilded girl,” Puff Randolph (Ginger Rogers), a devil-may-care flapper with a voice like Helen Kane’s (whom Rogers actually replaced in Paul Ash’s dance band) and a cheerful disregard for traditional morality and anything connected with it. She immediately starts cruising Toby and isn’t going to let such minor details as his having a wife get in her way, and she also proudly announces that she’s going to be moving to New York so he’ll have easy access to her. Toby starts losing it not only because of Puff’s seemingly omnipresent temptations but also because he’s feeling “unmanned” because Ann is making more money than he is — which, as Charles pointed out, became a quite common clichés in movies of the later 1930’s but was still relatively novel when this one was made — and he responds by drinking too much, to the point where he’s missing deadlines and Shorty and his other sportswriter friends are covering for him by writing his columns for him. Things come to a head when he has to go to cover a baseball team’s spring training in Florida (actually a pretty chintzy-looking attempt to reproduce “Florida” on an Astoria sound stage) — he makes it onto the train, leaving an opened but undrunk bottle of bootleg booze on his kitchen table, but he’s pretty hopeless as a writer once he gets there — and meanwhile Ann, his wife (ya remember his wife? He’s pretty much forgotten her!), returns from doing celebrity interviews in Hollywood, pours herself a drink from the bottle her husband left opened but undrunk, and promptly goes blind.

This was actually a significant risk from bootleg liquor; to enforce Prohibition the government insisted that companies making alcohol for industrial or medicinal use add adulterants that could have near-lethal side effects if drunk, and the bootleggers’ chemists worked out ways to remove the adulterants so their products wouldn’t blind or kill their customers (which even in the free-wheeling 1920’s would have been bad for business). At least one other film from 1930, Puttin’ On the Ritz — a vehicle for Broadway star Harry Richman — also features a character becoming blind from drinking bootleg liquor whose makers hadn’t got the adulterants out properly, and one contributor to the Bix Beiderbecke online forum has suggested that Bix got at least two doses of adulterated hooch, one in November 1928 (which led to his significant impairment, increasingly erratic behavior and ultimate loss of his job with Paul Whiteman) and one about a month before he died in August 1931, which finally poisoned him. In Puttin’ On the Ritz it’s Richman’s charater, an egomaniac star, who’s blinded by the bad liquor and learns humility even as he has to rely on his wife (Joan Bennett) to support and care for him; in Young Man of Manhattan Toby responds to the news that his wife has gone blind from a bottle he meant to have himself and share with his friends by rushing home, sobering up, writing the novel he’s long wanted to do but never applied himself long enough, getting a $1,000 advance and using it to pay for the series of treatments that at least partially restore her sight. Young Man of Manhattan isn’t the sort of feel-good musical romp I’d have expected from the title and Ginger Rogers’ presence in it, but on its own terms it’s quite good even though Norman Foster is a bit too whiny for us to believe both the Colbert and Rogers characters find him irresistible, and a part of me wishes that Paramount had waited two years to make it until Cary Grant would have been available for the role — but the alcoholism plot thread anticipates The Lost Weekend (also a Paramount production) by 15 years and once again gives the lie to the oft-repeated legend that until The Lost Weekend Hollywood treated alcoholics and their disease only as the stuff of jokes!