Every month, my friend Karen of Shadows & Satin and I go Pre-Code Crazy and pick a movie from that era that’s airing on TCM.
Pre-Codes on TCM this month include The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), and The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), and for this month’s spotlight I’m choosing the sophisticated and fun comedy-mystery Penthouse.
Directed by Woody Van Dyke and adapted from a Cosmopolitan magazine story by mystery writer Arthur Somers Roche, the plot has criminal defense attorney Jackson Durant (Warner Baxter) being shunned by his law firm and his high society girlfriend Sue (Martha Sleeper) for defending a series of disreputable thugs and racketeers. Sue leaves Durant for “Park Avenue” Tom (Phillips Holmes), who dumps and angers the spiteful nightclub hostess Mimi (Mae Clarke), who then gets herself murdered. It all leaves Tom stuck in a frame-up and Sue begging Durant to sort out the mystery and save her new man. Enter Myrna Loy, playing Mimi’s friend Gertie Waxted, a potential source of inside dirt on the gangster Crelliman (wonderfully slick and sinister C. Henry Gordon). She’s attracted to Durant and risks her life to help him trap the real killer. Nat Pendleton is great as the likable (and in the end heroic) gangster Tony, who, forever grateful for his recent acquittal, chips in and taps his extensive network to help solve the mystery.
To me, that mystery is like a big MacGuffin; it doesn’t really matter whodunit or how, because all the fun is in enjoying this smooth and classy ride, the snappy banter, the colourful characters and great cast, their clever interactions and clashes, and watching Loy in her breakthrough role. She has some classic lines and delivers them in her best cool deadpan, like complaining about not having to defend her honour while spending the night at Durant’s, apologizing for having to knock out Durant’s butler Layton (Charles Butterworth) and trying to lure Crelliman out on his balcony for a climactic trap. Loy and Baxter have great, rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue exchanges and it’s a delight to follow their romantic repartee through to the end, when the scoundrel lawyer and the gritty dame cruise off together.
It’s a nice twist that the very undesirables who cost Durant his job and girl are the most decent and likable characters, and Durant’s loyal and dependable allies. They’re “good” underworld figures who get justice in their own legal system. And Durant’s no angel either, so he fits right in. There’s a fabulous scene where he wakes up with a massive hangover and no recollection of the night before, so Layton has to recount how he talked the female guests into leaving the grand piano and priceless etching Durant drunkenly gifted them. Oh, and he took care of the hot blonde himself, thank you, which gets a fun spit/choke take from Baxter.
See the excellent Penthouse on TCM March 29th, and now go to Karen’s blog to see which pre-Code she picked out for you to catch on TCM this month.