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.