Every month, Karen of Shadows & Satin and I pick Pre-Code movies for you to watch on TCM.
This month my first choice for a Pre-Code essential would be Trouble in Paradise (1932), but I recently wrote about that here. Another one I enjoy is For the Defense (1930), which you can read about here. So I’m picking Ruth Chatterton and George Brent living with the effects of The Crash (1932), not only of the market but of their marriage. As they struggle to accept losing everything, they show us a very strange but somehow endearing relationship. This William Dieterle picture is no era essential, nor is it a great movie, but I recommend it because of the fun of watching Chatterton, a Warner Bros. superstar, acting opposite her then-husband Brent (in one of their four movies together), and the way their real-life rapport helps make their complicated onscreen marriage easier to believe and understand.
The Crash begins with the wealthy Chatterton and Brent enjoying all the perks of wealth. Chatterton also enjoys the attentions of several men, all with inside knowledge of the stock market. Brent sends Chatterton to use her “charm” (a word suggesting different levels of attention), to wine and dine these gentlemen and bring home the hot stock tip du jour. Up to now it’s worked beautifully, put the pair in a huge fancy house where they give decadent dinner parties, and it’s wrapped Chatterton in jewels and furs. But the material gains come at the cost of their happiness. I’m wrong to say Chatterton “enjoys” the attention of those men; she feels sick with shame at what she does and tells Brent so. But she likes the proceeds just enough to do it for him. She really loves Brent, but is so terrified of returning to poverty that she’d rather err on the side of shallow materialism. Brent is probably the only man that understands his conflicted and shallow wife but he thinks he’s giving her what she wants most, a lavish, luxurious and comfortable life. Told you they were complicated.
The predictable course of a tale like this would be to have the couple ride that wheel of fortune all the way around, back down and then get run over by it, and mature as they rediscover the value of the love that brought them together. But that’s not quite how The Crash works. In this case, success is difficult and messy, their love tainted and tense, life empty and boring because it was all built on an obsession with getting and keeping “money, safety and a good time,” by questionable means. So at their most secure and excessive they’re already more mature and wise, fully aware and openly discussing what they’ve paid and lost to get there, and why they’re so miserable. When the crash comes, they struggle to find how much they’re willing to give up and if their love is strong and unique enough to hold them together in the face of easy options like a loveless but lavish romance, or getting money from selling the most private items.
They surprise you, not only because they often act inconsistently, but also because in better scenes, their cynicism falls away to reveal the innocent young lovers somewhere under all that fur and jewelry and pretense. Chatterton could hold it against Brent that he basically pimped her out to get trading tips, but he feels horrible about that, and he can’t bring himself to hate her for (what he misunderstands as) her infidelities. He’d rather sell his most prized possessions than her beloved items. She could run away with richer men but still considers Brent a gentleman deserving of her respect and courtesy. She’s a selfish coward for sailing away from their difficulties to lounge on the beach in Bermuda and find romance while Brent stays in New York to deal with unpaid bills, estate auction and foreclosure. But she’s pained to see he sold heirlooms to buy her ticket to Bermuda and likely touched that he doesn’t make a big deal out of the gesture. All the while, Brent wants her back and Chatterton’s heart is also not fully into the fling with the Australian sheep rancher (Paul Cavanagh). They seem to be immature and without morals, but they forgive each other a lot, and seem to understand that all their warped actions come from decent motives.
Early in the film, as we see storm warnings in the ticker tape concern and the random unexplained sell-offs, Chatterton vows she will never ever, ever return to poverty. But she comes to accept that it might not be so bad if it brings her and Brent down to earth and clears out all the phoniness along with the excess possessions and the bank account. She’s brought totally around by witnessing the love shown by her maid (Barbara Leonard) who steals Chatterton’s last necklace to help her boyfriend (Hardie Albright), in jail for “borrowing” from his company to invest in the wrong shares. Chatterton is also shown kindness and generosity from a former boyfriend’s wife (Lois Wilson) who earlier wished her the worst, saying, “it might make a living person out of you.”
An interesting part of this movie is how deeply everyone is “invested” in the market, obsessed with day-trading, fluctuations and reading the tea leaves to time transactions. All of Brent’s servants have their ears peeled for dinner party chit chat, and then line up to frantically phone friends and connections who’ll turn that financial gossip into dividends. When it’s taken over everyone’s lives to this extent, a badly needed wake-up call cannot be far off. The irony here (spoiler ahead) is that all the loss is caused by Chatterton’s white lie and honest intentions. She couldn’t bear to sell herself to the demanding, blackmailing Henry Kolker, and then she couldn’t bear to tell Brent she failed to get him the information or the money he desperately needed. So what harm could it do, that one time, to make up a stock tip? What harm other than everyone acts on it, and she causes the poverty she so wanted to avoid, but probably needed to revisit in order to find the real valuables in her life.
The Crash is on TCM TUESDAY, JUNE 30. Now go find out which movie Karen has picked for June.