Man Unwanted

“I’m your… secretary.” David Manners is quick on the draw.

One of the pleasures for the code-literate viewer watching movies from the post-1934 classic Hollywood era is figuring out how the writers are going to come up with an ending which pulls off a dramatic surprise, satisfies viewer requirements (not necessarily a happy ending, but an apt one) and gets by the production code. If the protagonist commits a crime, for instance, morality demands that they be punished, but box office demands they be somewhat sympathetic or anyhow compelling, so there’s a potential conflict of interest.

In pre-codes it’s different. Not only are subjects verboten in later years frequently dealt with or at least hinted at, the films’ attitudes to them are rarely predictable. Some of the movies are shamelessly sexist or racist, others would seem unusually sophistic, nuanced and acute if made today. In MAN WANTED, Kay Francis plays a magazine editor whose playboy husband is always urging her to take it easy, like him. But Kay loves her job. And does she lover her husband? The arrival or male secretary David Manners tests that proposition.

This is one of the slowest pre-codes I’ve seen (well, after we get past the early talkie slump, when everybody was enunciating like classically-trained zombies), but that works for the picture. The general rule seems to have been that rich folks led languid, relaxed lives, and so their stories have an easy-going, meandering approach, whereas the working class were all fast-talking go-getters, so a rambunctious tone and a rat-a-tat pace were compulsory. Here, the working stiff is Manners, who never had much rat-a-tat in him, poor boy, so the overall feel is elegant rather than hectic. Andy Devine rasps comedically in the background. The slow pace suits the story: a gradual creeping-in of illicit sexual attraction allows sympathy to be maintained even as everybody is cheating on everybody else.

Best of all, without the Production Code’s floor plan, we get lost in the story and have no trail of moralistic breadcrumbs to lead us out. Is divorce occasionally the lesser evil, and do some women like to earn a living outside the home? These conclusions are at least up for discussion in films of this period, and you might guess from my enthusiasm that the movie gets things right, but I don’t want to spoil anything…

“It’s too lovely an evening to wun down womance.” The writers entertain themselves by giving Kay Francis a lot of lines with R in them.

A more problematic, but nevertheless invigorating case is SHE HAD TO SAY YES. Loretta Young is in peril again! How could we say no? That title leers suggestively at you.

A movie which basically preaches that men are all fucked up could be accused of stacking the decks in its favour by casting Regis Toomey and Lyle Talbot in the lead roles, and indeed Toomey, though looking less like a plain-clothes circus clown than usual, is vile and pinched, but Talbot actually achieves sympathetic moments. The premise: young exec Toomey suggests that his firm use girls from the stenography department to “entertain” out-of-town clients. But he doesn’t want his own girl, Loretta, taking any part in that. At least until he starts an affair with office floozy Birdie (Suzanne Kilborn, in mysteriously her only movie role) and then it seems like a good idea to keep Loretta busy. Once Loretta becomes a hit entertainer, the unjust suspicion that she’s going all the way with clients provokes Toomey into breaking up with her, although he’s soon tormented by doubts. He’s the kind of paranoid-jealous type who seemingly NEEDS to believe his lover is cheating.

Meanwhile Loretta has met Talbot, one of the out-of-town clients, who drunkenly paws her. She tells him she doesn’t go for that stuff. “Perhaps you just haven’t been pawed properly! It’s really very nice.” Sober, he apologizes sweetly, and starts to win her heart. Talbot is actually quite good at the vulnerable stuff. God knows, he can’t carry off cockiness without provoking bemusement (“What’s this chump so cocky about?”) The early 30s was a thin time for genuinely attractive leading men, it seems to me. Cary Grant was still learning to act, the young Ray Milland looks like an Yves Tanguy abstract (cloth draped on sticks), and John Wayne’s mouth was still a Pandora’s Box, spoiling everything by opening. David Manners is easy on the eye, but he has a Ken doll’s sexuality.

A glance through Marlene’s roster of screen squeezes illustrates the problem neatly: yes, there was Gary Cooper, who makes up for a lot, but there’s also Victor McLaglan, for whom nobody can possibly atone. Cesar Romero, Clive Brook, Lionel Atwill… possibly Sternberg was just seeing how far he could push a grotesque private joke…

SHE HAD TO SAY YES is a pretty ferocious attack on the kind of man who wants a desirable woman, wants other men to desire her, and becomes psychotically jealous whatever happens next. And it classifies that type of men as ALL MEN. Which may have some degree of truth in it, or at least be a relevant analysis of a certain trend of male-female relations in the early 1930s in America. What it doesn’t lend itself to is the kind of happy ending where the hero gets the girl and the audience feels happy. The screenwriters attempt to be true to the box office formula of boy meets girl and produce an awkward, unconvincing and disturbing finale where Loretta joyously accepts a marriage proposal from Lyle minutes after he has tried to rape her. In between, all he has to do is punch out Regis Toomey to win her over. Admittedly, he earns our eternal gratitude for doing so, but it’s fair to say we don’t quite trust him yet.

Nevertheless, an ending that sits so uncomfortably can’t fail to provoke thought: one thought being that it’s perhaps impossible to make a solidly feminist piece with the underlying assumption that the girl must always end up as half a couple, no matter what. That darkened-bedroom moment, with Lyle Talbot in the throes of fervid lust-hate, wanting to believe Loretta is good so he can love her, but wanting more to believe she’s bad so he can screw her, and Loretta stopping him with the plaintive words, “Is that all you think of me?” is a pretty strong scene. I guess we’re meant to think he’s an OK guy at heart because he’s capable of stopping himself. I’m not convinced this is a sign of the film’s age, I think audiences have always had a higher ideal for their leading men characters than that.

Still, Winnie Lightner is around to provide snappy put-downs, and Hugh Herbert plays things surprisingly straight as a cheating husband, apart from a high-pitched laugh signaling the character’s sexual arousal/anxiety.
MAN WANTED is directed by William Dieterle, with shapely compositions and lots of art deco. SHE HAD TO SAY YES is directed by George Amy, a successful editor who only helmed a few films.

28 Responses to “Man Unwanted”

  1. I’m not sure if I have posted this before:

  2. On the subject of Marlene’s leading men…

    What about the lovely John Lodge in THE SCARLET EMPRESS, with his luxuriant flowing locks? A case of Czarist Russia meets Woodstock. OK, so he couldn’t act. But why bother when you look like that?

  3. Kay Fwancis was gweat.

  4. Lodge is distinctive among Marlene’s leads because he wasn’t a big star, and wasn’t grotesquely unappealing. All the others are either one or the other or both. I guess they had Sam Jaffe on hand, so some contrast was required.

    Next time I watch the film, I’ll be watching out for Ruthelma Stevens, a fascinating presence in her few other movies, but somebody who seems to disappear amid the sumptuousness of that film.

  5. Ruthelma Stevens? Great name, but who is she?!

  6. David Boxwell Says:

    Kay Fwancis is vewy, vewy demanding of her secwetawies in MAN WANTED. Manners’ character is over-qualified for the job, but it was the depth of the Depression, so he had to take any job he could get.

  7. David Boxwell Says:

    Proof of your thesis: Wallace Ford (!) was the romantic male lead in several MGM films circa 1932.

  8. I love Kay Francis in Stolen Holiday — the first version of the Stavisky story with Claude Rains as the charming grifter. Curtiz directed.

    Mr. Cukor always used to reassure Judy that she did a good take on A Star is Born by saying “Better than Kay Francis.” The bad takes were “Too Kay Francis.”

  9. Ruthelma (the only person ever to be called that, it seems) plays “Countess Lizzie” in Scarlet Empress. She brings a rare thoughtful quality that’s totally out of place in The Circus Queen Murders, but she seems to vanish in SE.

    Surely “better than Janet Gaynor” would make more sense on A Star is Born, but maybe Judy wouldn’t see that as enough of a compliment.

    Wallace Ford sets the screen ablaze with his topless scene in Freaks.

  10. Speking of Kay, here’s an exceprt from my longtime S.O Bill Reed’s memoir Early Plastic:

    “The year was 1949, a pre-TV time when the last resort of faded movie glamour queens d’un certain age was something called the “white telephone circuit. ” These were summer stock productions typified by a small cast of mostly local players appearing in marital melodramas, murder mysteries, and drawing room comedies said to be in “pre-Broadway” tryout, with a “name” player in the lead. In such affairs, the star spent a lot of time “in one” (theatrical terminology for center stage, solo and in the spotlight), horizontal on a chaise lounge, spewing forth loads of exposition, as often as not into a white telephone and therefore undistracted by such petty inconveniences as, oh, plot or too many other actors. Occasionally the butler might walk on, announce something like, “Hark, I hear the cannons roar!”; to which Constance Bennett, Miriam Hopkins, or (if the straw hat impresario was really lucky) Tallulah Bankhead would reply, “Be that as it may,” and the servant would exit, leaving the star happily solo and center stage once again. Which, as you can imagine, was a setup appreciated by audience and performer alike. No, we’re not talking Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine here, but such long-­forgotten (by most) vehicles like The Last of Mrs. Cheyney; Good-bye, My Fancy; Mirror, Mirror; Portrait in Black; and A Night at Mme. Tussaud’s. And of all the ex-leading ladies of the cinema who trod the “white telephone” boards, none was more active than Kay Francis, the thirties-era Warner Bros. clothes horse with the fetching inability to pronounce her “R”s.

    Which brings us to: one night somewhere in the wilds of New England circa 1949, when Francis was then appearing in a typically featherweight piece of piffle called Let Us Be Gay; though, for all that the play actually mattered to the audience, the evening could just as well have consisted of their beloved Kay reading the proverbial telephone directory. Yes—I know—once upon a time Kay Francis had starred in one of the masterpieces of world cinema, Trouble in Paradise. But the people who had come to see her this evening were there for one reason alone: to see if she still looked as good as she had in such second string features as: Dangerous Curves, The Marriage Playground, Behind the Makeup, Street of Chance, Let’s Go Native, The Virtuous Sin, Transgression, The False Madonna, Street of Women, Guilty Hands, and. . .well, you get the picture.

    On the night in question, when the curtain went up on Let Us Be Gay, revealing Francis reclined on the regulation chaise, it was obvious to all that they had got what they’d come for. Yes, dear Kay still had IT. However, before she even had the chance to utter one line, she let out a thundering fart so loud that at first the audience thought surely it must’ve been the foghorn in the old lighthouse-turned-summer-stock theater itself, come back to life. Ever the pro, Kay stayed in place on the chaise like a pinned butterfly. The audience, however, was another matter. The first isolated titters quickly turned to outright laughter of such proportions, not even her previous season’s successful mirth provoking summer tour in the Noel Coward comedy, Hay Fever, could compare. The sight of the former icon of screen elegance displaying for all the world to see that, after having an especially rich pre-show meal, she could cut the cheese with the best of ’em, was simply a “showstopper.” Down went the curtain while the crowd of 300-or-so continued to “lose it.” Finally, several very long minutes later, when they had gotten it all out of their systems, the curtain rose once more to find—voila!—Kay Francis in exactly the same position, looking for all the world as if nothing had happened. The play began all over again and, thanks to a remarkable feat of self-control on the part of Francis, there were no further interruptions. Now. . .THAT is a star!”

  11. Impressive! The danger with these occurrences is that the audience can lose it so totally that the mere rising of the curtain could set them off in hysterics all over again. Kay’s commanding pwesence obviously silenced them.

  12. Christopher Says:

    …as one theatre goer turns to the friend next to him and happily says..now aren’t you glad you came?..”

  13. Dan Callahan Says:

    David, that is a truly hilarious Kay Francis story. I can’t believe it didn’t make it
    into either of the two recent Kay biographies!

  14. With regards to the last post and Faye Dunaway hitting her head on the car horn; I guess they could raised and lowered and raised the curtain on Kay Francis again and again, each time with a toot, starting as farce, but becoming more and more deadly serious….

  15. Dinner repeats itself, first as farce, then as tragedy…

  16. Christopher Says:

    ..as one theatre goer says to another..ah..do I smell Fwanks and Beans?”

  17. kevin mummery Says:

    Reading this post only reminds me that I have yet to see any film society or appreciation organization mount a David Manners Film Festival.

    Regarding Kay Fwancis and her superhuman composure, I can only guess that she must have had great fartitude to have gone on with the play after such a showstopper.

  18. Manners deserves honouring for his sterling work in The Last Flight, and he’s very good in Crooner (cruelly cast to take advantage of all his less appealing traits).

  19. Christopher Says:

    David Manners blended in really well in the Trenches in Journey’s End also!

  20. Well, I’ve had David Manners film festivals here at home… does that count? I’ve loved him for years.

    He had a fascinating life in the many years still remaining to him when he walked out on Hollywood in 1936.

  21. I thought Manners was well cast as something of a heel in They Call It Sin as well. Of course there are a number of films where I find him a bit annoying, and casting him against a strong woman is just asking for trouble.

  22. I’ll have to check out They Call it Sin. I think the set-up of Man Wanted is pretty suited to a strong woman and a slightly wimpy man. Adds a perverse frisson.

    Journey’s End is a good one, he’s ideal for that.

  23. From Wiki: ‘The acclaimed actor Marlon Brando, who was cast along with Manners in Maxwell Anderson’s play Truckline Cafe (1946), said of his colleague, “I owe him my entire career.”‘

  24. I need to see TCIS again myself since it’s been almost 3 years, I remember it as being one of Loretta’s better films (she doesn’t play the wilting victim throughout), and was impressed that Manners wasn’t typecast as an ambitious young pup with a permanent smile.

    As for Man Wanted, I kept recalling the line Ray Liotta said to Jeff Daniels in Something Wild as being apropos of a Francis-Manners hookup, “She could fuck you right in half”.

  25. Manners gets that with most of his leading ladies, with the exception of Helen Chandler, where it seems more like they’d both splinter into fragments on contact.

  26. Even Evalyn Knapp?

  27. Oh, she might work.

  28. […] Some of my favorite bloggers have long beat me to Man Wanted. If you'd like to read more about this title I recommend you check out Danny's post at Pre-Code.com; Dawn spices her look with some Kay Francis biography at Noir and Chick Flicks; Will grades it high in his look at the Forbidden Hollywood Collections 4 and 5 at Cinematically Insane; For a less positive look at Man Wanted be sure to check out Shadowplay. […]

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