Time once again for the monthly Pre-Code Crazy pick, where Karen of Shadows & Satin and I each choose a movie from this era that’s showing on TCM.
This month I picked a new-to-me pre-Code and was rewarded with this fun comedy about a couple of gold-digging ex-cons played by Constance Bennett and Pert Kelton. The ladies waste no time using men to get ahead, whether it’s for a ride, some cash or a sweet apartment. They work their way up the man ladder and seem set up in a lush life with rich sugar daddies until Bennett falls hard for one man she robbed, the handsome and noble but poor barge captain Joel McCrea. Well, she does return the money she stole from him, thereby winning his respect and admiration. The closer they get the more dissatisfied Bennett is with her riches, but she also believes happiness with McCrea is out of reach since she can’t bring herself to tell him the truth about her racy ways and past.
It’s delightful to watch Bennett work the men, then realize what a high price she’s actually paying for all those supposedly lucrative transactions. She goes from being a willingly kept woman to feeling like a prisoner all over again. The always dependable McCrea is all endearing modesty and genuine charm, with enough sparks between them to give Bennett lots of reasons to regret and change her ways. She catches a case of integrity that makes her a misfit in both worlds, so she walks away from sugar daddy and goes to work as a shopgirl.
Kelton does a fine saucy Mae West bombshell bit with choice insults and comebacks; the writing is sharp throughout and gives us some unpredictable and touching character moments along with the memorable zingers. The millionaire bachelor publisher (John Halliday) Bennett traps by acting like a girl fresh out of the convent, is at first horrified by his predicament and her presence, then turns mean and threateningly possessive, then is refreshingly frank about Bennett’s poor chances with a young idealist like McCrea. They have an adult conversation about what kind of man would accept her if he truly knew what she was. Halliday says he would– he’s grown fond of her, misses her when she’s gone and makes a sweet attempt to win her back during a fun Mardi Gras sequence.
Other fun things:
Jane Darwell as prison matron. “Save your wind,” Bennett stops her as she launches into a lecture, “you might want to go sailing sometime.”
The foggy steamboat trip where Kelton and Bennett prey on and rob their first victims. Bennett jumps off to escape arrest and swims to McCrea’s barge, where they meet screwball style. He spots her in the water and deadpans “look, a mermaid,” and they taking turns tossing each other into the river.
Luckily love conquers all. Watch it happen on TCM January 19th, and now go see Karen’s pre-Code pick for this month.