When pre-codes go Bad #2

Number two in our short, possibly two-part, study of those unsettling moments when the edgy interplay of cute and spicy in pre-code Hollywood cinema of the ’30s takes a sharp downturn into moral horror.

The film is PROFESSIONAL SWEETHEART, a strangely shrill comedy with no likable characters. Ginger Rogers plays a radio star, frustrated by her own squeaky clean image and entourage of managers etc, all preventing her from having a good time in Harlem for fear of scandal. When she learns that marriage might allow her greater freedom, she accepts a stage-managed wedding to a country galoot who’s written her a touching love letter. He’s initially presented as an appealing innocent caught up in the schemes of these big-city sophisticates (Frank McHugh, Franklin Pangborn — devilish conspirators to a man), then this scene comes along and pretty well wrecks any chance he has of hoovering up our free-floating sympathies ~

OK, so the sight of Ginger in her scanties is… not displeasing. Taunting her new hubby with her unabashed semi-nudity… I can get behind that. The spanking… well, it was a different era… this is really just softcore porn, isn’t it, though? … kinda hard to defend because it’s a co-mingling of porn and domestic violence… not light s&m play, she’s definitely not a consenting party… still… HEY!

He shouldn’t ought to have done that.

Granted, NOTHING SACRED has a moment where Frederic March socks Carole Lombard into slumberland — but that scene’s playing on our shock, his character is something of a sonofabitch already, and she does get to slug him back soon after, with equally devastating effect.

Further developments in PROFESSIONAL SWEETHEART — after this rocky start, Ginger and her hubbie settle down in connubial bliss in her cabin, and in desperation, the A&R guys hire her maid, Theresa Harris, to replace her. The black girl’s sultry, hoochy-coochy delivery affects hubbie strangely. As he sways his body dreamily to the radio’s rhythms, he momentarily snaps to full consciousness: “Say, they oughtn’t allow that on the radio!”

The spectacle of a black woman arousing a white man, even by voice alone, is a startling one. Ginger, smitten with jealousy, returns to her old career, and Theresa Harris, the most enjoyable performer in the film, disappears from the movie — flung back into obscurity and domestic service, presumably.

A couple things of further note —

(1) The screenplay is by newspaperwoman Maurine Dallas Howard Watkins, who originated Chicago. In that thrice-filmed hit play, MDH’s savage portrayal of her female characters feels like a satirical critique. Here, it nudges over into misogyny. The director’s fault, or uncredited rewriting, or Howard’s own sensibility?

(2) Theresa Harris is uncredited, despite having more lines and a more significant role than, say, Pangborn. She had a thirty-year acting career, making 78 movies in which she received screen credit thirteen times. Her debut is as the Black Cat Nightclub’s singer in Sternberg’s THUNDERBOLT, and you can also see her in I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and OUT OF THE PAST. She’s always a full-on, radiant presence, grabbing whatever moments of immortality she can. Even if nobody learned her name, there was a chance they’d remember her smile.

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31 Responses to “When pre-codes go Bad #2”

  1. That’s Maurine Dallas Watkins.

    Back in 1997 the Southern University of Illinois Press published the text of Watkins’ play “Chicago,” along with the “Chicago Tribue” articles she wrote that inspired it. Watkins was assigned to cover the courts for “human interest stories.” Discovering a number of women were in the hoosegow for murder she proceeded to galm them up for photograph shoots and presented them as “Chicago’s most fashionable murderesses.” In other words it was acon job created out of whole cloth — and only a step and a jump away from the world of Sweet Smell of Success.

    Watkins wrote other palys but never duplicated her success with Chicago (which Hect and MacArthur essentially ripped off for The Front Page)

    Among her movie credits there’s the screenplay for Libelled Lady with William Powell, Myrna Loy, Spencer Tracey and Jean Harlow. Directed by Jack Conway it’s quite marvelous.

    As for Professional Sweetheart I’ve always found it snarky fun.

  2. david wingrove Says:

    Ginger Rogers in PROFESSIONAL SWEETHEART?

    Some titles can be more revealing than the film-makers intended.

  3. David Boxwell Says:

    Th’s best and biggest role was as Dietrich’s maid and confidante in Rene Clair’s THE FLAME OF NEW ORLEANS (41).

  4. David Boxwell Says:

    Norman Foster was the El Brendel of pre-Code male ingenues. It strikes me as the height of improbability that he was married to Claudette Colbert when he made PS. It is less improbable that he then married Loretta Young’s sister, and stayed married to her for 40 years.

  5. David Boxwell Says:

    It is also improbable that Foster had anything to do with Welles’ JOURNEY INTO FEAR, but there he is: credited as the director. I wonder what Welles did with him except maybe smack him around (figuratively speaking), but I need to see what Welles’ biographers had to say about him.

    Of course, I am basing my remarks solely on his whiny, doofusy early 30s screen persona. He could, in real life, have been a sophisticated megatalent.

  6. Thanks for the correction, David E — can’t believe I seem to have conflated Maurine Dallas Watkins with Bryce Dallas Howard!

    Foster was a well-traveled adventurer and he-man, apparently. His Mr Moto films are stylish and funny and show the same talents as can be seen at play in Journey into Fear — add Welles and Cotten’s puckish screenplay and that film is wholly explicable.

  7. I’ve no doubt that everything in Journey into Fear was done under Welles’s overall supervision, but realzing he couldn’t be in (at least) three places at once he had Foster take over the actual execution of the film. Journey into Fear is a lot of fun, but clearly nowhere near the same league as The Magnificent Ambersons or the unfinished It’s All True.

    But then what is?

  8. La Faustin Says:

  9. La Faustin Says:

    Theresa Harris disappears unceremoniously from BABY FACE too. But when we last see her, she’s still on the Paris-bound liner Stanwyck booked, with several trunks full of Orry-Kelly gowns.

    Shadowplayers, what happens then? Cast/script/director/DP/music suggestions?

  10. The idea of keeping your spouse in line with a little physical violence was considered pretty banal back then, apparently. It was often used for laughs. How many times was Oliver Hardy clocked with some utensil by his wife? This scene is unsettling since this is not slapstick. Seemingly, Foster played two sorts of parts, the hick, and the irresponsible husband (usually to Loretta Young).

    I have this film, but when I went to watch it a while ago, I saw Norman Foster in the credits and put it aside. I’d seen too much of him and I like my Foster in small doses, widely spaced. Maybe Mr. Boxwell has something – he’s the El Brendel of romantic juveniles. I will say he’s pretty likable in State Fair, but there we don’t get too much of him.

  11. There’s not a huge amount of him here, the film is busy with supporting players. If you enjoy Frank McHugh’s laugh, you’ll find plenty to appreciate in this one.

    I just wish there were a full Theresa Harris star vehicle. Maybe I should just edit all her maid appearances together and make one?

  12. I thought it was pretty clear what Welles personally directed in JOURNEY INTO FEAR: 1) the opening scene with the assassin played by producer Jack Moss and the repeating phonograph record; and 2) every scene in which Orson Welles appears.

    You get far more of Welles’ direction – and far more of Welles the performer – in BLACK MAGIC (credited to Gregory Ratoff).

  13. Black Magic is pretty lovely — if he’d only had complete control over it, it could’ve been great.

  14. Christopher Says:

    awww.the video ends before the guy says..shes baaad..but i love her..Thats a hilarious clip…that actor is definately from the Joe Cobb school of acting.I bleive Theresa Harris appears in one more Val Lewton…Either Cat People or The Seventh Victim as a turban headed waitress in some fancy little cafe.

  15. Ah, could well be… Yep, Cat People it is. Lewton and Tourneur both strike me as progressive in their attitude to race, as a lot of the emigre filmmakers were too.

  16. I watched the film, and the knockout punch (and its resolution) really does make it go askew. The best part was watching Foster keeping that idiot grin on his face while he’s listening to Theresa Harris, even after he complains about her style. Ginger protesting that she’d like to “get in trouble” e.g. pregnant was also a bit unusual as RKO comedies outside Wheeler & Woolsey aren’t really the precodiest of precodes from what I’ve seen.

    Weird note – is it me, or do both seem dubbed while singing? I wonder why, since both Ginger and Theresa could sing.

  17. Maybe they just discovered playback?

    I think it was important to keep Foster’s character a lovable kick idiot, and the punch ruins that, so there’s no longer anybody left to like — except Harris, who the film considers of so little importance it drops her without comment. She’s like the Fool in King Lear, only sexier.

  18. I love that scene with the spanking. Suddenly takes some very stylized actin and makes it very real with Ginger biting his leg and slapping him. Weird stuff. I looks like she didn’t know it was going to happen.

  19. Anything’s possible, especially pre-code — but I think the action is too complicated for it to have been entirely a surprise. She presumably knew the fake punch was coming.

  20. Theresa “Because I measured it myself!” Hariis is also in OUT OF THE PAST. Very winning there, too.

    … and, of course, Foster is also one of the two abortionists in Perry’s PLAY IT AS IT LAYS. The other one is Chuck McCann.

  21. Perry’s film is just stuffed with odd cameos, it seems. The most recent one I became aware of is Arthur Knight, author of Playboy’s Sex in the Cinema column. Although recent information leaves me uncertain if he’s in fact the same AK who directed My Bare Lady.

  22. La Faustin Says:

    mndean: Ginger Rogers, although she had been in musicals on Broadway, was dubbed – she notes this with pique in her autobiography. Theresa Harris’s voice, while sweet and and sexy (“Daddy Won’t You Please Come Home” in THUNDERBOLT – yow!) didn’t have the deep queen-of-the-blues moan needed to put the joke across, so her “My Imaginary Sweetheart” was dubbed by the wonderful Etta Moten (“My Forgotten Man” in GOLDDIGGERS OF 1933).

  23. Wow — thanks for the gen! That makes so much sense re Harris’s voice.

    You know, my project to create a Theresa Harris star vehicle out of offcuts would be immeasurably helped by the fact that she practically always wears a maid’s uniform.

  24. La Faustin Says:

    But she always looks fabulous in it! Sort of reminiscent of George Raft, who got his tailor to whip up some bespoke prison stripes for his Warner Bros. stint.

  25. It’s a good look on George.

    It’s like the maid’s uniform ought to be a deplorable symbol of TH’s lowly social status… but she makes it fetishwear.

  26. I know that the onscreen credits on most films weren’t as comprehensive in the studio era as they are today, but it’s still absolutely astonishing how many of Theresa Harris’s film appearances were uncredited.

  27. Absolutely. We can guess that a number of them may just be walk-ons, but when the role is as substantial as this one, no innocent explanation will cover it.

  28. Manohla Dargis has a lengthy piece about Theresa Harris in Baby Face, which appeared online just today; what timing!

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/24/theater/theresa-harris-a-black-actress-who-left-an-impression.html?hpw

  29. I did an entry about “Professional Sweetheart,” a film I generally enjoyed, in March 2010…
    http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/288720.html

    I also want you to know that “Carole & Co.” will be running its first-ever blogathon, “Carole-tennial(+3)!”, from Oct. 6 (the 103rd anniversary of Lombard’s birth) to Oct. 9. We’d love to have you participate; you can learn more (and grab a banner promoting the event) at http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/427564.html and http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/428554.html.

  30. Blogathon sounds great — there are still a few films in my Lombard box set (purchased just so I could own Hands Across the Table) that I still have to watch…

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