Thursday, January 28, 2016

Goin’ to Town (Paramount, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Goin’ to Town, a 1935 Mae West vehicle for Paramount (oddly, the page on it credits it to “Emmanuel Cohen Productions,” an in-house unit set up for former Paramount studio head Emmanuel Cohen, supposedly the model for Sammy Glick in What Makes Sammy Run?, after Paramount fired him from that position, though the on-screen producer credit goes to former RKO studio head William LeBaron, whom Paramount hired as an in-house “independent” producer when RKO fired him in 1932) and the first film she made after the Legion of Decency, a committee set up by the American branch of the Roman Catholic Church, started their successful campaign to “clean up” American movies by getting the studios to enforce the 1930 Production Code seriously. Though plenty of other movies made during the so-called “pre-Code” period of relatively loose enforcement of the Code between 1930 and 1934 featured similarly salty dialogue and relatively honest treatment of sex, Mae West became Public Enemy Number One for the censors and would-be moralists who wanted to tame the American screen. Indeed, her reputation as censor-bait lasted so long that in 1949, when Paramount asked the Production Code Administration (PCA) for permission to re-release West’s 1933 masterpiece I’m No Angel, they got a letter back from PCA head Joseph Breen saying that, while it would be possible to edit the movie and get it in “technical compliance” with the Code, the re-release of a Mae West movie would undermine everything Breen and the PCA had tried to accomplish. The censors had struck while West’s immediately previous movie, filmed first as St. Louis Woman and then It Ain’t No Sin (Paramount had trained hundreds of parrots to say “It ain’t no sin!” so they could put them in theatre lobbies as a promotion for the forthcoming film; I read that years ago in a 1934 movie magazine and have no idea what happened to the parrots once Paramount was forced to abandon that title) before finally being released under the anodyne title Belle of the Nineties, was awaiting release — and the extant prints of Belle of the Nineties suffer from some quite obvious cuts, including the all-too-jarring deletion one whole verse of West’s song “When a St. Louis Woman Comes Down to New Orleans.”

Paramount was in a quandary about what to do with Mae West after that — her films She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel had been huge hits and helped save the studio from Depression-driven bankruptcy (though the less censor-problematic hits of Bing Crosby had also helped) but all of a sudden she was a liability with a particularly influential part of the movie audience even though there were still a lot of people out there who found her entertaining. So they concocted this film, based on a story by other authors (Marion Morgan and George B. Dowell) even though West insisted on her contractual right to write her own screenplay (she’s credited with “adaptation and dialogue”) and have her writing credit 75 percent the size of her billing as star. Goin’ to Town is a movie that changes tone so often it seems at times to be anticipating the Preston Sturges genre-benders Paramount would make a few years later (the pairing of Preston Sturges and Mae West is yet another fascinating cinematic might-have-been!). It starts as a Western, with West as Cleo Borden, holding forth in a saloon rather pretentiously named “Le Danse Pavillion” — though we don’t get to see her sing a song from the stage, just mutter one under her breath as she dances on the club’s floor — and fending off various suitors who, like every male in a Mae West movie, are utterly gaga over her. One suitor she doesn’t quite fend off is Buck Gonzalez (Fred Kohler), who owns a large ranch and an oil field but is also considered an outlaw because he’s suspected of increasing his herds by rustling cattle from other ranchers. Buck proposes to marry her, and Cleo challenges him to a dice game; if he wins he’ll marry her and get all his properties, while if he loses she won’t marry him but will get all his properties anyway. She rolls snake-eyes and he rolls a 9 (there’s a hint that Cleo, being a Mae West character, fixed the game so she would lose), only just before they’re supposed to get married Buck is surrounded by an armed gang — law enforcement? A posse? Freelance vigilantes? West doesn’t tell us, and we don’t really care — and killed. Nonetheless, the transfer of his properties to Cleo is ruled legal, so she’s suddenly a multi-millionaire — and she drives onto her newly inherited land in a fancy 1935 car, the first intimation we’ve had that this movie is taking place in the 1930’s present instead of the 1890’s (when West set most of her films because that was the time when her zaftig proportions were considered the epitome of female sexiness).

She also has the hots for the foreman of her oil wells, Edward Carrington (Paul Cavanagh), but he’s not interested in her — at least until the fade-out. Cleo discovers that among her new holdings is a stable of race horses, one of whom (trained by a couple of Native American stablehands, one of whom also is the horse’s jockey — and Charles gave West points for her non-stereotyped treatment of the Native characters) shows enough promise that in order to establish her credentials as a society woman instead of a saloon girl who just lucked her way into money, she decides to enter him in a big race in Buenos Aires. The next few reels turn into a surprisingly close anticipation of the 1940 20th Century-Fox film Down Argentine Way (the one which made a star of Betty Grable in essentially the role West plays in these scenes), as she and her attorney/advisor Winslow (Gilbert Emery) take up residence in Buenos Aires, and Cleo attracts the attentions of gigolo Ivan Valadov (Ivan Lebedeff). Cleo’s horse wins the race but she still isn’t accepted by society, so she encounters a young man named Fletcher Colton (Monroe Owsley) when he’s lost all his money at the Buenos Aires casino and is about to commit suicide. Cleo makes him a proposition; she’ll marry him and thereby gain a Social Register last name and family connection, while he’ll have access to her money. The film then moves to the Colton family home in upstate New York, where Cleo plans a huge party (she sets the date for August 17, Mae West’s real-life birthday — she would be a Leo!) during which she’ll not only present a full-dress opera company performing Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila, she’ll sing Delilah herself. Only Colton is still gambling his way through much of her money, and she’s decided to cut him off and not pay his debts. The film then hints at the real-life story of tobacco heir Zachary Smith Reynolds and his marriage to torch singer Libby Holman in 1931 — the marriage only lasted six months before Reynolds was found dead of a gunshot wound, an apparent suicide, though Holman was suspected of murdering him for his money (the D.A. in charge of the case declined to prosecute for lack of evidence, but didn’t officially clear her, either) — which had already been the thinly veiled “fictional” subject of two previous movies, Sing, Sinner, Sing (1932) and Brief Moment (1933) — only when Mae West is about to make her debut as an opera singer at her own party it suddenly becomes a premonition of the Susan Alexander sequences in Citizen Kane: the not-bad singer in way over her depth, the vocal coach and costumer both incessantly screaming at her, and the singer finally going on before an audience reluctant at best and apprehensive at worst.

She makes it through the big aria “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice” in a pinched voice that’s obviously Mae West’s own — no one would mistake her for a professional opera singer but she does well enough to get by — only to find the body of her husband after she finishes the act, and she notices that the scene has been faked to look like suicide but the killer made the mistake of putting the gun in Colton’s right hand: he was left-handed. Cleo guesses that Ivan Valadov, whom she found standing over the body, was the real killer, but after the cops decide she didn’t do it they rule the killing suicide and Cleo is free to go back to South America, this time to Brazil to supervise her latest oil discovery, with Edward Carrington finally ensnared in the Mae West web and along for the ride as, at the fadeout, she sings the Sammy Fain-Irving Kahal song “Now I’m a Lady,” whose lyric incorporates the famous catch-phrase “Come up and see me sometime,” introduced by Mae West in her play Diamond Lil and its film adaptation, She Done Him Wrong (though in She Done Him Wrong the line is considerably racier: “Why don’t you come up sometime, and see me? I’m home every ev’nin’!”) and bows to the audience just before the film fades out. (Bows had been a regular feature of the early Vitaphone shorts — people were actually applauding in the theatre and the bows were inserted as a pre-programmed response. Then the audiences stopped applauding and the bows just looked ridiculous, so it’s a bit surprising to see one at the end of a 1935 feature film.) Goin’ to Town is an odd movie that starts out promisingly with one of the great Mae West dialogue exchanges that’s as audacious as anything from She Done Him Wrong or I’m No Angel — Cleo confesses, “Yeah, for a long time I was ashamed of the way I lived.” “You mean you reformed?” asks the man she’s talking to. “No,” she replies. “I got over being ashamed.” (Take that, Legion of Decency!) Through much of the rest of the film, though, it’s apparent she’s pulling her punches, getting her risqué message across less through the actual words and more the way she inflects them. She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel are Mae West’s masterpieces not only because they were “pre-Code” and she had virtually total control over their content but because her leading man was Cary Grant, and his comic exasperation over her outrageousness was just the right counterpoint; aside from W. C. Fields in My Little Chickadee (a very special case), she never had a major co-star again, and her attempts to make leading men out of character actors like Roger Pryor (in Belle of the Nineties) and Paul Cavanagh here just fall flat and don’t give her characters someone powerful enough to be worthy to go up against her in the battle of the sexes.

The director of Goin’ to Town is Alexander Hall — a good comedy director who made what’s probably Bob Hope’s best movie, The Great Lover (1949), in which he plumbed depths and levels of darkness that were implicit in Hope’s movie persona but more complaisant directors like George Marshall and Hal Walker had basically ignored — but with West so totally the auteur of her films, just about anybody (including the Paramount office boy) could have directed and had the same effect. (The one time she worked with a truly major director — Leo McCarey in Belle of the Nineties — she didn’t get much more out of him than the hacks like Lowell Sherman and Wesley Ruggles she’d worked with before, though maybe if McCarey’s pre-censorship cut of Belle existed it would show more of his personality.) Goin’ to Town is a perfectly O.K. movie, at its funniest and most entertaining when West breaks free of the censors (and their on-set “minder,” John Hammell, listed as “censor adviser” on the film’s page), a neat comedy with a nice worm-turning ending. It’s just not what Mae West fans either expected or wanted in 1935, and it was too “moral” to give Mae’s fans the sexual frisson they wanted and still way too dirty to attract the moralists. Within two years West had lost her berth at Paramount after the financial failure of Goin’ to Town and her subsequent films — Klondike Annie, Go West Young Man, Every Day’s a Holiday (though the last is worth watching not only for her but also Louis Armstrong’s appearance in the final parade sequence singing and playing Hoagy Carmichael’s “Jubilee” and a plot line by songwriter Sam Coslow that (along with one of the songs) was recycled nine years later for the 1947 film Copacabaña) and she’d make only two more films, My Little Chickadee at Universal in 1940 and The Heat’s on at Columbia in 1943 (featuring a plot obviously ripped off from the Warner Bros. Busby Berkeley musical Dames in 1934, though given how much Mae West’s career had suffered from censorship it’s a delight to see her in a story about censorship, and one in which the censors are the villains!), before her ill-advised comeback attempt in the 1970’s in Myra Breckinridge and Sextette (based on an original story Mae West had written for herself to play — decades earlier!). In short, Goin’ to Town is fun and worth watching, but it’s nowhere close to what its star had proven she could do in her earlier films!