Every month, Karen of Shadows & Satin and I pick Pre-Code movies for you to watch on TCM.
On the train bound for their new ritzy life in New York, we meet the Rarick family and learn about their personalities and ambitions. Five and dime store King, Mr. Rarick (Richard Bennett), his wife Jenny (Irene Rich), daughter Jennifer (Marion Davies) and son Avery (Douglass Montgomery, billed as Kent Douglass), are introduced as motivated, bright and lively, self-admittedly undignified hicks at heart, and excited about their big move into the upper class.
Their new home is massive and impressive, but their emotional lives and personal connections increasingly empty. Their egos may remain small and unassuming, but their imposing reputations get in the way. Right from the first big event in their new digs, when Rarick is having his bio written, we see the source of their troubles. He’s nice, but a workaholic. With obvious regret he recounts to his biographer several big personal moments he’s missed. He values and loves his family deeply and openly admires how good, how unspoiled, humble and upright they are. He knows how to express his admiration by providing all this luxury, by being generous and unable to say no to anything material they want. But ask him for time and personal interaction, and he always puts things off for “sometime soon,” or plans to relax when all his work is done. The family’s guilt, gratitude and the possibility of disappointing him keeps them silent about their unhappiness and need for attention.
The only one who seems at ease speaking her mind is Jennifer. She’s the strong one, the playful, smart, direct and impulsive one who wants it all, including a place in the society column and happiness for the family. She’s the kind of girl who orders a taxi driver to get into an accident so she can “bump” into an attractive man, will draw a cartoon of herself looking like a cow, knows how to play her daddy’s heartstrings like a virtuoso and can work out company finances and commissions in no time flat. Jennifer is a fascinating mix of bold and insecure, perceptive and dense, which makes it risky when the family looks to her as the girl with the level head who’ll take care of them all. She’s so much their pillar that when she’s shaky or falls, they tumble down after her.
While Rarick is busy building his company and the world’s highest skyscraper, he’s oblivious to the emotional roller coaster his family is on. Wife Jenny has an affair and constantly gives her husband chances to save the marriage before walking out on him. Sensitive son Avery is dutiful, but his heart isn’t in the business at all. He can’t bear to disappoint dad, and broaches the subject under the guise of addressing the family’s estrangement and reckless behaviour. He works his way up to a panicked plea to get away from it all before it’s too late, which is met by another patented Rarick “later, sometime soon.” Avery’s surrender, his resignation to being the reluctant Rarick clone and successor to the empire is nicely enacted by Douglass through a drinking binge, during which he reads back his family’s glowing bio with mockery and sarcasm and theatrically instructs the servants to recreate for him all his father’s routines. Douglass’ performance is a huge part of why I picked this movie, he’s riveting and I wish he had more screen time.
Into this brewing storm wanders ambitious architect (and good piggy cartoonist) Berry Rhodes (Leslie Howard), who “meets cute” with Jennifer at a benefit. She instantly decides the charismatic Berry is the love of her life and tries to get him work with her father’s skyscraper project. They seem to me to always have a strangely tense, unbalanced relationship, which starts through negotiations what they mean to each other, discussions about what their merger would be like and what kind of woman and man they are, to make each other forget he already has a fiance.
Raised with wholesome values and a strong work ethic, Jennifer pushes Berry to create and produce instead of pulling him away to party. Her “cold Rarick willpower” motivates her desire to make him a success. She goes cold in another way when he turns down her marriage proposal and proposes an affair instead, rather caddishly promising her a spot after his divorce. She backs away from such an arrangement, saying it goes against her moral code, and insists on marriage, but then pursues him further. She almost breaks him away from his loveless but professionally advantageous engagement, before her impulsive nature comes back to bite her and her intentions are misunderstood as being motivated by class and money.
After the married Berry tries again to start an affair, after a night spent locked out on a chilly skyscraper rooftop, after both Rarick women finally give in and go with their passions instead of family honour, things fall apart. Avery can’t stand to be the only one left living a lie and attempts suicide (and again doing some great acting). It’s going to take that level of tragedy to pull them back together, to teach Rarick that there are some things money can’t fix, and that the most meaningful gestures, the ones that can set things right again, cost nothing.
Marion Davies does fine with this big part, believably playing out all this social and emotional climbing and falling, coming to accept compromises and live with impossibilities while remaining likable. She’s fun and daring when she’s busy flirting and grabbing everything that seems to go with her new status as “the Rarick girl.” But because she has good intentions, she’s also wounded and lost when things don’t break her way, when money and love won’t mix, and when Berry challenges everything she knows about herself by calling her cheap. Based on a Fannie Hurst novel and directed by Robert Z. Leonard, Five and Ten is most interesting as a family melodrama about the price of success.
Five and Ten is on TCM Sept. 28. Now go find out which movie Karen picked for you this month.