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…
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.