Every month, my friend Karen of Shadows & Satin and I go Pre-Code Crazy and pick one gem from this era that’s showing on TCM.
TCM is airing some great pre-Codes I’ve written about before, The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) and Double Harness (1933). For this month’s pick I’m highlighting a fun, light newspaper comedy starring Paul Muni and one of my favourites, Glenda Farrell. In Hi, Nellie! (1934), the “Heart Throb” advice to the lovelorn column is the The Times-Star’s doghouse, a job to which one is demoted or banished for hazing or punishment. The Heart Throb office always has shades drawn to keep outsiders from discovering that “Nellie Nelson” is actually a pseudonym for whatever poor sap is currently holed up in there, sifting through towering stacks of letters, getting mercilessly ribbed with shouts of “Hi, Nellie!” and having their door slammed at every opportunity. When the movie begins, Heart Throb’s been written for almost a year by Gerry (Farrell), a sharp city beat reporter who deserves better but is stuck playing Nellie until further notice at the whim of former flame and managing editor Brad (Muni).
Brad’s competent, professional and riding high but his ethics get him in trouble when he refuses to sensationalize or jump to conclusions during a bank scandal that coincides with a V.I.P.’s disappearance. His decision to underplay the story gets him busted down to Nellie’s office, and all the predictable mockery and humiliation ensues, but Brad’s talent is such that he turns the lonelyhearts column into the paper’s most popular feature. In a too-coincidental but entertaining turn of events, a woman desperate for Nellie’s relationship advice provides the vital clue that Brad needs to solve the mystery of the vanished bank official, prove he was right about the bank story, and regain his place behind the editor’s desk.
It’s all enjoyable silliness in a bustling newsroom full of fast-talking personalities jockeying for scoops and promotions, and a nice cast that makes the most of their quirks. Douglass Dumbrille plays the impatient, incompetent colleague who temporarily gets Brad’s job; Ned Sparks is the delightfully prickly and deadpan investigative reporter who continues to work the bank story; Hobart Cavanaugh reminds Gerry of all the times he’s asked her out and been politely rejected (it’s well into the 500s); Donald Meek is sweet, diplomatic and wise, and is the paper’s lifelong mail “boy,” and Berton Churchill is the publisher who gleefully traps Brad, first contractually and then in the circulation boost that comes from his great lovelorn column. All the early bits of character info play out and nicely weave together as they end up involved in gangster intrigue at Marinello’s Mortuary, the Merry-go-Round club (featuring a working carousel as the bar!) and a body mix-up at the cemetery.
Muni does well at comedy, and he and Farrell make charming sparring partners. When a reader asks to meet “Nellie,” and Gerry is the only female handy, she puts on a fun show of going into Brad’s office, introducing him as her secretary and watching him squirm and fume as he takes down details and reads them back to her. When 3 months of writing as Nellie causes Brad to crack, destroy the office and go on an epic bender, Gerry reminds him she was Nellie much longer without this much fuss or complaint, and that kind of patience and hard work to prove yourself at a lower position takes real guts. And so Nellie’s column is an interesting thing, raising questions of what’s woman’s work and what’s respectable writing, as it goes from the lowest rung at the paper to the center of activity, and by the movie’s end, a reward for the paper’s most loyal, reliable employee.
A great moment worth mentioning: Sparks rushes to a phone booth with a slight, nearly imperceptible twitch of his scowl, and a passing reporter asks him, “what are you smiling about?!”
Catch Hi, Nellie! on TCM Sept. 21st. It’s also available from Warner Archive.