Now available on demand are two scrappy Warner Brothers comedies from 1931, well before the 1934 Production Code crackdown on films deemed “scandalous.” Both have plots that wouldn’t have been permitted afterward, and both demonstrate how the early talkies imported Broadway musical stars for brief film careers.
The brash heroine of Gold Dust Gertie is Gertie Dale, a professional “gold-digger” who marries innumerable men and divorces them in order to be supported by a settlement. She’s played by a game comedienne named Winnie Lightner, a Vaudeville and Broadway musical star typecast in such roles. Lightner radiates energy and confidence despite being slightly plump and not conventionally attractive by Hollywood standards, more a manic and slapstick equivalent of Mae West. Life might have imitated art, because Lightner retired from films after marrying her fourth husband, director Roy Del Ruth.
Gertie’s ex-husbands include two executives in a bathing suit company who have recently remarried at the behest of their uptight old boss (Claude Gillingwater), who believes in marriage but not divorce, although he happens to be an old bachelor. The saps are played by the comedy team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, the former of whom emits piercing squeals of laughter as if constantly goosed. Their new wives are twin sisters played by Dorothy Christy and Vivien Oakland, and the honeymoon’s over fast when they find out their husbands are damaged goods who are still paying divorce settlements.
This story’s about dominating women who manipulate and control their men, either by sugar or violence. It’s “funny” to see guys getting brained by bric-a-brac in a way that it wouldn’t be had the genders been reversed. The larger point, if there is one, is that the old-fashioned fuddy-duddy is seduced by Gertie into reforming his ways and agreeing that divorce is okay and new-fangled one-piece bathing suits are better than “modesty”. Thus, the movie’s all in favor of fun modern immorality, at least as far as marriage and swimsuits are concerned, and with women coming out on top.
The saucy elements are pretty much nonstop, and consist of a gangly model (Virginia Sales) almost removing her bathing suit, Gertie changing in silhouette behind a screen, and such moments as the boys pretending to try on Gertie’s silken underthings while Olsen teases “Nothing’s too small for you!”
William K. Wells, Ray Enright and Arthur Caesar scripted Gold Dust Gertie from a play with a great title, The Wife of the Party by Len D. Hollister. Professional merrymaker Lloyd Bacon directs with his typical pace and pizzazz, even though the humor is more raucous than actually funny by today’s standards. At one point the screaming boys are dangling out of a ship’s porthole, and the climax is on a speedboat with many slapstick gags about fish and eels in one’s pants. Arthur Hoyt, Charley Grapewin, Charles Judels, George Byron and Virginia Sale add comic support.
Viewers may wonder why they keep hearing the popular theme “You’ve Got That Thing”, which nobody ever sings, and why the film runs a tight 65 minutes. The answer, according to Wikipedia, is that this was shot as a musical, but the numbers were cut for the US release because of an oversaturated musical market. However, the American Film Institute entry on this film makes no such claim, although it confirms that a working title was Red Hot Sinners. It’s hard to see where the songs would go, although it’s true that the big swimsuit parade is over in an blink.
Just as Lightner is forgotten today, so is the traditionally sweet and perky leading lady Marilyn Miller, who also had multiple husbands but proved a more tragic case. Big on Broadway in the’20s and ’30s, she made three films and then died at 37. Judy Garland and June Haver later played her in the films Till the Clouds Roll By and Look for the Silver Lining.
Here we have Miller’s last film: Her Majesty, Love, written by Robert Lord and Arthur Caesar (of Gold Dust Gertie), is a remake of a German movie from the same year. The semi-musical Hollywood version is still set in Berlin, where it opens with plenty of popping balloons and fizzy champagne before settling into the predictable ups and downs of a romance between a rich boy (Ben Lyon) and a cabaret bartender (Miller). At one point she invades a snooty dinner party, overturns the table and tells everyone to “Go to — [crash].”
It’s a trivial movie, but three elements remain important. One is that the ending, in which the heroine marries a comic-relief baron (Leon Errol) and instantly deserts him when her true love comes back into the picture, would never have been acceptable under the new Production Code, which didn’t condone frivolous attitudes to marriage and divorce.
More important is the presence of W.C. Fields in his first talking feature. He steals all his scenes as the heroine’s father, a barber and former circus juggler with a bushy mustache. In fine form, he tosses a few plates and utters absurd drolleries like “When I was in Vaudeville, once my assistant handed me a porcupine instead of a rabbit.”
Finally, we have the wonderfully fluid and visually focused direction of William Dieterle in one of this German immigrant’s first Hollywood features. He sets the camera spinning across floors and constantly looks for fresh angles with photographer Robert Kurrle (including an overhead shot of a waltz) while also coming up with many clever visual transitions for jump-cuts by editor Ralph Dawson.
The DVD package notes that Mordaunt Hall praised this element in his New York Times review (“Mr. Dieterle accomplishes even greater wonders by his joyous manipulation of the camera”), so the vitality was appreciated at the time. Again and again, early talkies directed by creative people give the lie to the conventional wisdom that this era was visually static, even though there are prominent examples of that as well.
Also filling the picture are Ford Sterling as the hero’s uptight brother, silent comedian Chester Conklin (very briefly) and comic character Clarence Wilson as wacky relatives, and the same gangly horse-faced comedienne who stole one scene in Gold Dust Gertie, Virginia Sale, glimpsed even more briefly as an undesirable girlfriend.
The prints on these Warner Archive DVD-R’s are in very reasonable shape for being 85 years old, and the only extras are very ragged trailers.