“He’s worse with a hat on!” I declared, and Fiona agreed with me.

The subject of discussion was Regis Toomey, star of the spicy pre-code triumph UNDER 18, which we enjoyed very much. And it was a strange discovery to make. I’d thought I just didn’t much like Toomey, didn’t like his face, like that of a juvenile clown whose makeup has become grafted to his skin; didn’t like his voice, a raspy instrument more suited for frightening cats than human speech. But when I saw him sans chapeau (a rare condition for a male actor in 30s movies), I found him not without a certain vulnerable appeal. Let once a cap, fedora or helmet adorn his brow, however, and repulsion, anger and intolerance made hay with my disposition.

I mean, look at this (UNDER 18) ~

And this (SHE HAD TO SAY YES) ~


And normally I like hats. I’ve never found an attractive one that would fit my bulbous, William-Hurt-sized head, but I like them on other people. Normally. It’s just that on Toomey, his pursed, shrunken clown face takes on a new and ghastlier hue when shaded neath the brim of an otherwise inoffensive lid, be it homburg, boater, fedora or Moorish tarboosh.

Still, that aside, Toomey is sympathetic in a difficult role in UNDER 18 (the title is an irrelevance): anybody who has to act cross with Marian Marsh is doing very well to not make the audience hate him. And she does well too — a peaches-and-cream cutie playing a naive ingenue type with big googly eyes, she could easily become punchable, but she holds the film together, aided by Warners Brothers’ typical no-nonsense approach, which hits story points hard and fast, and even manages to deliver sentimentality in a blunt manner.

Case in point: the movie begins with Marsh’s sister getting married (to future director Norman Foster, so we know there’s trouble ahead). Director Archie Mayo holds a long shot on the girls’ dad, as he slowly tears up. It’s sweet and gently funny, but it’s followed by a quick dissolve to the old guy’s gravestone, as we move into the future, the stock market crash, and marital difficulties which for the big sister which soon have Marsh questioning the viability of romance. And when a girl’s in that frame of mind, the arrival of a feckless millionaire played by Warren William is apt to represent a temptation.

WW, who gets to smirkingly emit the line he was born to say — “Why don’t you take off your clothes and stay awhile?” — is on very good form, as is Mayo, one of the less distinguished but still damn good Warners directors. Here, his attention to the bit part players is especially commendable.

“Watch your step,” says the elevator operator (Otto Hoffman) to Marian as she alights at Williams’ penthouse fuck pad. And then he drives his double entendre home with a meaningful look.

This delivery boy (name unknown) gets TWO looks, a bored/nosy/dopey one as Marian signs for her delivery, and an obsequious/lecherous one when he makes eye contact. The guy makes his mark.

The movie also finds space for sparky Claire Dodd, cadaverous Clarence Wilson, an unusually camp Edward Van Sloan, and many other attention-grabbing artistes.

And for 1931 this is a remarkably fluid piece of work, with long camera moves and expressive angles unhampered by the demanding microphone. Here, setting up Williams’ shagging palace, Mayo proves himself a regular pre-code Ozu with the three building-block establishing views he uses ~

Of all the pre-code parties, this may be the best, even if the host suffers a near-fatal injury.

For B. Kite.

12 Responses to “Headgear”

  1. Injury or illness? Or both? A good film, and I like Marsh better with Mayo than with Del Ruth. I found the ending rather perverse. where everything is closing in on the young couple and then it all just evaporates. I have less problem with Toomey’s look than you, but you are right about him and hats. That railroad cap in Other Men’s Women just seems unbelievable, Dickie Moore looked more convincing in one. I think Toomey’s face had to sag a good bit to get a hat to look reasonable on that head.

  2. Well, Warren W gets punched by Toomey and becomes seriously ill, like Houdini. So I guess it’s a little of both injury and illness. His liver was probably in the final stages of pickling anyway.

    Now I think of it, I’m not sure I even have a mental picture of what the older Toomey looked like, although I know for sure I’ve seen him in stuff.

  3. Caught Warren William in The Match King recently. Amazing performance. A shame he got typecast as a pre-code sleazebag. He could do a lot more.

  4. The writer Geoff Dyer has an essay about hats and men in depression era photography. Haven’t read it but saw him speak; the idea seemed interesting at least. Its in The Ongoing Moment, for what its worth…

  5. Toomey must’ve been a workhorse, there was a time when every time I put on a film there he was. In a career that spanned close to sixty years he had more than 250 roles behind him. He worked with Hitchcock (SPELLBOUND), Mann (RAW DEAL), Siodmak (PHANTOM LADY) Hawks (THE BIG SLEEP), and was even again in a film with Warren William, Ulmer’s STRANGE ILLUSION. I see him as an Everyman type actor, solid, dependable and none too flashy.

  6. From what I’ve seen, William got too many second-banana roles in dramas after the code. Behind guys like George Brent. It seems he only made an impression in B pictures in a guise I like to call “the other William Powell”, sleuthing around wittily.

    The line about William’s illness was so thrown away I disbelieved it and had to step the disk back and watch it again to make sure I heard right. Food poisoning. Or so his stooges said, relieving One-Punch Toomey of any guilt.

    Toomey was in a lot of TV, apparently, and I saw him in a few Richard Diamond Episodes as a plainclothes cop not too long ago. And of course there’s The Big Sleep and Spellbound, among others. Oh yeah, The Tall Target, too. I can pick him out in films pretty easily because his voice is distinctive.

  7. Selections from the Toomey CV:
    Detective Chewing Gum in Phantom Lady (how I wish that were his actual character name!)
    Windy in Illegal Traffic (how I wish that were his description rather than his name!)
    And some just goofy names: Milton Wing, Dustin Hotchkiss, Blackstone McDaniel.
    His role in Meet John Doe — Bert Hansen, soda Jerk — should’ve spawned a whole series.

    Via Facebook, Douglas Bonner comments: “I frequently find that one can be unhappy *before* saying ‘Regis Toomey.’ Or one can be unhappy *after* saying ‘Regis Toomey.’ But one can never be unhappy WHILE saying ‘Regis Toomey.'”

  8. As in REEgis TOOmey. Yes yes. Gotcha.

  9. David Boxwell Says:

    Toomey and William fight for lil’ Johnny Lydon’s soul in Ulmer’s STRANGE ILLUSION. William possesses Lydon’s MILF (Sally Eilers) and Toomey’s there, pipe in avuncular hand, to dispense sage advice. It’s kind of like . . . Hamlet! At PRC!!!

  10. David Boxwell Says:

    Supposedly JFK singlehandedly killed off the manhat by making it uncool. He had a thick head of hair so he could walk down Pennsylvania Avenue in the freezing cold on his Inauguration Day (Jan 1961). He looked so money, the fancy hat got put on ice, fashion-wise).

  11. Randy Byers Says:

    I know I’m not alone in admiring, in an agog kind of way, Regis Toomey’s five-minute death scene in ALIBI. Thank you for the image from THE FINGER POINTS, which makes this day a little bit happier.

  12. Watched Alibi recently for a forthcoming article. What a mixture of dynamite and torpidity that film is!

    Strange Illusion is still on my to-view heap, but I get ever-more psyched to watch it each time I hear about it…

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