Every month, Karen of Shadows & Satin and I pick our favourite Pre-Code movies for you to watch on TCM.
On January 6th, TCM is airing a number of Loretta Young’s Pre-Codes. I’m a fan of hers in any era but I always like to recommend her Pre-Code movies to people who don’t think they like Loretta, as those were years and movies that capture Young’s luminescent beauty and gave her material that showcased her as spunky and steely, even delightfully or rightfully nasty. Having said all that, the movie I picked this month is one where she plays a relatively smaller role in one of Warren William’s best showcases.
William plays the general manager of Franklin Monroe, a massive department store where, as the elevator man tells his passengers, you can buy everything from “abdominable” bands to socks to furs to furnishings. Just as you can buy anything, you will also see pretty much everything, because as depicted in this movie it’s less a store and more a sociological study, a lab where different specimens with varying drives, levels of hunger and desire clash and shape each other’s lives.
Warren’s character Kurt Anderson is introduced in the scenes before his actual appearance in a way he’d love, through statistics proving his success and conversations revealing him as a formidable, even fearsome man driving the store’s explosive growth. Of course when we finally see Warren enter the boardroom he commands it, living up to all the hype of his intro and stacking on more arrogance, ego and bravado as he demands control of the company. He’s made himself so indispensable he’s in a position to ask for anything he pleases, and get it.
That Napoleon bust in his office says a lot about him. William’s philosophy is smash or be smashed, always be climbing, and business is no place for feelings. He’s ruthless, harsh, abrupt and single minded, but such a good, efficient businessman, and William’s acting so skillful and his presence so charismatic, that you can’t help but find something to like in the character, and a lot to love about the performance. Even when he says people who no are no longer productive should leap off tall buildings. Even when he wrecks other people’s businesses so they have to come work in lowly positions at his store. Even when he tosses a cute little dog in the wastebasket (no animals were hurt in the making of this picture).
It helps that the script gives William several moments of humanity and warmth, a backstory of understandable ambition born out a will to climb out of poverty, a hint of regret and sacrifice in his life choices, and a fatherly regard for his assistant and mini-Warren-in-training, Wallace Ford. He even gets some funny scenes like testing out children’s toys with clinical coldness (“get the factory to change the label from Made in Germany’ to ‘Made in Japan’– it’ll sell better”), or making faces at the annual employee party. It also helps that William runs an operation so large and profitable that, heartless or not, his jobs provide for many, where a soft boss who values friendship over efficiency would not. He destroys people in the course of his dealings and is thoroughly disgusted by weakness, yet when he’s impressed by one of his victims’ survival skills, he gets generous, offering a job or investing in them, his way of “rewarding” them for learning from him all about survival of the fittest and natural selection. It’s a tricky balance for an actor to include and balance all these seemingly contradictory elements, and in a very short (75 minute) movie to boot, but if you know Warren William at all, you know he makes complication plus ruthlessness plus a heart of gold, even just a tiny nugget where a heart should be, look like an easy formula.
One night on his rounds inspecting the upper floors of the store he hears piano tinkling coming from the model dream home and finds Loretta Young planning to stay the night there, since she has no decent place of her own and wants to stake out the first spot in the store employment line the next morning. They have an easy rapport, flirting over the wax banana and paper mache poultry, and sparks are still between them after Young realizes who he is. William warms to her with something more than lust, takes her to dinner (and…?) and gets her a job as a model.
But William has no time or desire for more than flings, and soon Young and assistant manager Wallace Ford strike up a romance, in a cute scene where he holds up sheet music so that the titles ask her out across the busy store. Their relationship runs parallel to Ford’s rise in responsibility, Young’s growing distaste for William’s methods and reputation. Ford gets more closely involved with, and torn between, both of these important people in his life. They marry but have to keep the union a secret, as it’s an unwelcome distraction from work, according to William. At the aforementioned wild employee party, Young argues with Ford, then has a drunken fling with William (plus a hilarious moment where she tries to pop a man’s bald head with her cigarette). Her ensuing guilt and William’s desire to break up her marriage makes for a tense situation, especially when William’s power comes under threat of ouster by the company’s board of directors. With the success of the whole store and all those jobs in danger, William gets desperate; he briefly entertains the idea of going on a trip with one of his female employees (Alice White), but you can’t imagine he’d be satisfied with the lounging life. When Young’s affair with William leads to him staring down the barrel of a gun, he seems ready to accept that as a fate far preferable and more honorable than facing the failure of the business he’s built. Bears repeating how great William is that you can feel for him at this moment while also wanting him to get his comeuppance.
I just love how fast this movie goes, and there’s so much going on that seems like effortless storytelling, it plays like the best episode of a well-oiled hit TV soap. Besides the triangle of the leads, there’s a sad episode where a longtime employee is turfed for not being modern and vital anymore, and commits suicide. Alice White starts out as the model who helps train Young, but gets a unique and well-paying promotion when William employs her to keep his supervisor “busy” playing “chess” (I’ve used up my suggestive quotes in this post) so William can have a free hand running the company. Plus there’s Frank Reicher, Ruth Donnelly as William’s secretary who regrets her decision to shop at another store, and Allen Jenkins as head of security. All well drawn and engaging characters under the direction of Roy Del Ruth, and the result is a great Pre-Code movie that you should catch on TCM January 6th.
Click here to see what movie Karen chose for you to watch this month.