As Nora Charles in MGM’s Thin Man series of the ‘30s, Myrna Loy became the embodiment of an impossibly sexy, smart, classy and glamorous woman who’s also warm, likeable, and at ease in any situation. Before she got there, she paid her dues as an exotic vamp in what seemed like a thousand movies. Warner Archives made-on-demand service is releasing some of the early titles made by Loy on the road to her iconic breakthrough.
The Squall (1929) is an early talkie set on a farm in Hungary. Everything is sweetness and light in the household as young master Paul (Carroll Nye), who’s studying to be the greatest architect in Hungary, announces his engagement to sweet Irma (Loretta Young), while the maid Lena (ZaSu Pitts) intends to marry her man Peter (Harry Cording). Paul’s parents (Richard Tucker, Alice Joyce) beam upon them all. Then the title storm blows in Nubi (Loy), a Gypsy in half-torn top and frizzy fright-wig who talks about herself in the third person. “Nubi can’t help it if men want to kiss her!” Before you can say “libido”, all the men have their tongues hanging out. Their womenfolk compare them to children and “dogs fighting over a bone”.
All the characters are stiffly theatrical declaimers and posers, with Nubi bringing a breath of fresh sex into the stuffiness although she’s just as theatrical and absurd. She’s both an embarrassing stereotype and an embodiment of selfish pleasure. We can understand why young ass Paul would drop his insipid Irma as soon as Nubi shows up, and we understand why Nubi only cares about selling her body for jewelry. Nobody around here has anything else to offer! The movie’s subtext is that the family’s seemingly happy, old-fashioned, traditional life and prospects must not really have bred much satisfaction and contentment among the menfolk, or else the introduction of Nubi couldn’t have exposed the yawning hunger underneath it all.
The main trouble is that this pre-Code drama, based on a play, takes forever at an hour and 45 minutes, and the last half is pretty excruciating. One curious note is that there’s music throughout along with the sound effects and dialogue. Since it wasn’t possible to mix soundtracks at this time, it means everything had to be recorded at the same time, with an orchestra playing offstage. That’s a lot of trouble, and most early talkies simply dispense with music. It’s handsomely designed and shot under the direction of Alexander Korda.
Loy appears briefly as a French gal who sleeps with aspiring artist Robert Young in New Morals for Old (1932), based on an early play by John Van Druten. The set-up is that a pair of rich old fogeys (Lewis Stone, Laura Hope Crews) mutter about the younger generation while hovering over their adult son (Young) and daughter (Margaret Perry). Van Druten’s point is to reassure oldsters in the audience that although the younger generation has sex and goes to speakeasies, they know what they’re doing and will settle down.
That’s a radical point and would have been unacceptable only a couple of years later. The offspring enjoy sexual encounters outside of marriage without regrets; they’re even rewarded. The punishment falls on the parents for worrying themselves sick over it.
That wouldn’t happen after the Production Code crackdown in 1934, when sexual license had to be punished with babies, shame, and death. It’s so rare for the old “his wife won’t give him a divorce” ploy to work out well that you can count the examples on one hand. Another detail you wouldn’t see later: the film implies nudity via carefully shadowed silhouettes of models in the art classes. It’s not tucked away in a corner or behind a screen but boldly up front.
Loy finally emerges into her mature persona as the kind of sophisticated dame who can take care of herself and sling snappy one-liners in The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933).
She’s a nightclub singer and “friend” (wink wink) of a tender-hearted gangster (Otto Kruger), when she instantly falls for a big lug and marries him. Walter Huston plays a trainer who gave up a successful career as an alcoholic to groom this two-fisted phenom for a career in the boxing ring. And the object of all this devotion? It’s heavyweight champ Max Baer (yes, the father of Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies), who dominates the picture with his big mouth, big chest, and big persona.
Astoundingly, they even give him an elaborate song and dance number that must be seen to be disbelieved. He’s surrounded by hopping chorines, and at one point they all heave themselves up on gymnastic rings and twirl around. The point is that the boxer is being groomed as a multimedia star, and we’re witnessing the fiction (of his character) and the reality (of Baer) collapsed into one moment.
The conflict is that he doesn’t think marriage needs to be exclusive on his part, and it’s only a matter of time before the wife finds out he’s been “tom-catting” with every skirt. He’s quite amazingly unselfconscious about spreading himself around and looking entitled about it. She finds out of course, then gives him another chance of course, which he blows of course, so she splits.
She’s a strong character. This is all reasonably realistic and mature—and again, the kind of story that wouldn’t fly so well or be so frank after 1934.
The picture’s heavily promoted attraction is the long climactic bout with world champ Primo Carnera, with Jack Dempsey as referee. It’s as drawn-out and detailed as anything by Busby Berkeley, with primitive undercranking (fast motion) amid the shaky, sweaty motion. This is a long way from the smooth, arty style of ‘40s boxing pictures, but there’s something wonderfully authentic about the exuberant announcer and the hard-bitten wit of the radio reporter.
We won’t tell how the big bout comes out, never mind the romantic resolution you can see coming, but Baer was only a year away from taking the world championship from Carnera in real life.
New Morals for Old
The Prizefighter and the Lady