Saturday, May 5, 2018

Three Broadway Girls, a.k.a. The Greeks Had a Word for Them (Samuel Goldwyn Pictures, Feature Productions, Atlantic Pictures, United Artists, 1932, reissued 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I showed Charles last Thursday evening a quite fascinating film from 1932 called The Greeks Had a Word for Them. It started out in 1930 as a hit play by Zoë Akins called The Greeks Had a Word for It, though even in the so-called “pre-Code” era the Production Code Administration had enough clout to force producer Sam Goldwyn to change the title to The Greeks Had a Word for Them — which Charles thought sounded dirtier than the original. In 1938, in the post-Legion of Decency period of strict Code enforcement, Goldwyn was able to reissue the movie and did not have to make any cuts in it to satisfy the new, tougher censorship — but he did have to change the title again, to Three Broadway Girls, and that was the version we saw. The film was directed by Lowell Sherman, who’s also in it as a lecherous star classical pianist named Boris Feldman — he was both an actor and a director (he “made his bones” as an actor by playing Lillian Gish’s evil seducer in D. W. Griffith’s 1920 film Way Down East and pretty much played evil seducers for the rest of his career, though his best performance as an actor was as the alcoholic director Maximilan Carey in the 1932 romantic drama What Price Hollywood?, the prototype for the three later versions of A Star Is Born) — from an adaptation by Sidney Howard of the Akins play. Howard’s best known screen credits are Dodsworth and Gone with the Wind, classy projects that don’t all suggest he’d be the right author for a raunchy comedy about three young women living together in a ritzy Broadway apartment and setting out to put on an affluent front in order to score rich men. If this plot sounds familiar, it should; 20th Century-Fox bought the remake rights and in 1940 turned it into the Betty Grable musical Moon Over Miami, and later in 1953 did the best-known version, How to Marry a Millionaire, in which Grable again appeared but the reason for its success, then and now, was Marilyn Monroe. 

But Three Broadway Girls captures the cynicism at the heart of the story far more effectively than the “softer” later version, and though Joan Blondell is the star the three women in the leads — Blondell as the down-to-earth Schatzi Sutro, Madge Evans as the relatively innocent Polaire Quinn, and Ina Claire (best known for her role as the “other woman” who loses her kept-boy Melvyn Douglas to Greta Garbo in Ninotchka) as the most blatantly obvious gold-digger of the bunch, Jean Lawrence — create a marvelous ensemble. The film opens with Jean on an ocean liner returning from Paris; though her male companions have footed all her other expenses she finds she can’t get off the boat unless she pays a $43 bar tab. No problem: she just turns on the charm to a man passing her as he gets off the boat and persuades him to give her $50 for the bar bill, including a tip. It’s one of the few times other actresses got to keep up with Blondell (she was always the second lead in the Dick Powell-Ruby Keeler musicals but she always played a much more interesting character than Keeler — and obviously Dick Powell agreed with me, since the scripts had him falling in love with Keeler but it was Blondell he married for real!) and a movie filled with wicked wit the actors spit out so fast it’s really an ancestor of screwball comedy and looks more like a movie from 1938 than one from 1932. The main men in Our Anti-Heroines’ lives are Feldman and his relatively innocent friend Dey Emery (David Manners — referencing The Miracle Woman and Dracula, I joked that he’d be saying to the other characters, “Well, my last two girlfriends were an evangelist and a vampire”), and at a party given by Feldman, Polaire shows off her own skills as a pianist and Feldman immediately makes her an offer: if she’ll become his mistress he’ll give her private piano lessons, take her around the world for two years and ultimately launch her on her own career as his protégée, She’s willing to accept when Jean gets Feldman to give her a mink coat, wiggles out of her dress so she’s naked under it, then gets Feldman alone while Polaire is waiting outside Feldman’s apartment and seduces him more directly than the basically decent Polaire dared. Then Jean dumps Feldman and sets her vampiric (in the Theda Bara, not the Bela Lugosi, sense!) sights on Dey’s father, Justin Emery (Phillips Smalley), and the two are about to get married in the last reel when Schatzi and Polaire save Emery père from their gold-digging roommate by hustling her off to Paris, with Dey joining them on the same boat to follow through on his intent to marry Polaire and make an honest woman out of her. 

There’s also another sugar daddy in the mix, a man named “Pop” whom we never see who at different times had cash-and-carry relationships with all three Broadway girls, though when he dies we get to hear his voice because he recorded an audio codicil to his will in which he describes Schatzi and Polaire as having treated him reasonably, but then says, “As for Jean … ,” and launches into a tirade against her. “That’s a lie!” she screams — and the record answers her, “I knew you were going to say that!” That’s the best line in a film that’s full of them, and it’s by far the best movie Lowell Sherman ever directed — at least among the ones I’ve seen; he did Mae West’s star-making vehicle, She Done Him Wrong, but that can’t be counted a directorial triumph because no matter who got the director credit, Mae West was always her own auteur. He also directed Katharine Hepburn’s first Academy Award-winning performance in Morning Glory (1933) — also from a script by Zoë Akins — though it was a pretty standard comedy-drama about an up-and-coming actress and the weakest performance of the three she gave that year (Dorothy Arzner, who directed Hepburn’s immediately preceding film, Christopher Strong — also from an Akins script — got a beautiful, multi-faceted performance out of her, as did George Cukor in her immediately following film, Little Women, while Sherman just stood back and let Hepburn posture, starting her tradition of winning Academy Awards for her weaker movies and being passed over for her great ones) — and in 1930 Sherman had starred in and directed The Pay Off, an intriguing RKO gangster movie that got a better remake as a 1939 “B” by Lew Landers as Law of the Underworld. So I was surprised at how well Sherman directed the tough, brittle comedy of Three Broadway Girls and created a real ensemble comedy instead of relying on a legendary woman’s star persona. This wasn’t one of the films Sam Goldwyn was proudest of — he let it slip into the public domain, which was something he rarely did — but it’s a great comedy, a real “sleeper” from the so-called “pre-Code” era and a fun movie that deserves to be better known than it is. Certainly it’s a lot more fun than the later, more famous but also more anodyne versions of the story!