Franchot Tone

Sadie McKee 1934

Sadie McKee (1934)

Sadie McKee (Joan Crawford) works as a part-time maid in the home of the Alderson family, where her mother has worked as a cook for years. The Alderson’s son, Michael (Franchot Tone), has long had a crush on Sadie, but Sadie is in love with Tommy (Gene Raymond), who has just been fired from his job working for the Aldersons. While working at a dinner one night, she hears disparaging remarks about Tommy, tells them all off, and runs off to New York City with Tommy to get married.

Once they get into town, Sadie and Tommy meet Opal (Jean Dixon), an older, hardened nightclub performer who helps them get a room at a boarding house. They plan to marry the next day, but need to spend the morning looking for jobs. While Sadie is out job hunting, Tommy is taking a bath at the boarding house and when Dolly (Esther Ralston) overhears him singing, she recruits him to join her nightclub act. He accepts, but has to leave town immediately, leaving a heartbroken Sadie behind.

With some help from Opal, Sadie gets a job dancing in a nightclub and one night, a very drunk (and very rich) customer named Jack Brennan (Edward Arnold) insists that she join him at his table. It turns out that Michael is there with him that night. Michael warns Sadie to leave Jack alone, but she doesn’t listen and it isn’t long before they’re married. Although the marriage gives Sadie a boost in social status, she’s forced to deal with Jack’s alcoholism, which is on the verge of costing him his life. And although she deeply cares about Jack, her heart still hasn’t forgotten Tommy.

Sadie McKee is a pretty quintessential 1930s Joan Crawford movie. She plays a working class woman who finds herself moving into a higher class, she gets to wear some fabulous Adrian gowns, and it was directed by Clarence Brown, who worked very well with Joan. Plus it also starred one of her most famous co-stars, Franchot Tone. In addition to Tone and Crawford, Gene Raymond, Esther Ralston, Jean Dixon, and Edward Arnold are all great in their supporting roles. I thought Esther Ralston and Jean Dixon were particularly great in their respective roles; I loved the scene between Ralston and Crawford when she goes to confront Dolly. Sure, Sadie McKee may be a bit heavy on the melodrama, but it is entertaining and that’s exactly what I wanted from it.

The Bride Wore Red 1937

The Bride Wore Red (1937)

Count Armalia (George Zucco) has few illusions about his wealth — he firmly believes that being wealthy instead of being poor is a matter of sheer luck. To prove his point, he decides to send Anni (Joan Crawford), a singer in a seedy nightclub, to an exclusive resort where his stuck up friend Rudi (Robert Young) is staying. He agrees to pay for Anni’s stay at the resort, buys her new clothes, and has her pretend to be the aristocratic Anne Vivaldi.

When Anni arrives at the resort, she succeeds in getting everyone to believe her rouse, but it isn’t long before she finds herself in the middle of a love triangle. When Rudi sees Anni at dinner during her first night at the resort, he’s immediately drawn to her, even though he’s already engaged to be married. At the same time, Anni has caught they eye of Giulio (Franchot Tone), a postal worker who, unlike all the elite society figures around, has no interest in having money.

Although Anni is more attracted to Giulio, she’s really grown to love having the best of everything and now she doesn’t want to give it up. If she married Rudi, she could keep the lifestyle, so she decides to try everything she can to get Rudi to propose to her. Meanwhile, some of the other guests at the resort send for information about Anni and when the truth about Anni arrives at the resort, Giulio is the first one to find out who she really is and loves her anyway. Before her time at the resort is up, Rudi proposes to Anni. But what happens when other people at the resort finally find out the truth about Anni?

During a certain period of Joan Crawford’s career, she, quite famously, found herself labeled as “box office poison.” Although she certainly had some good company on that list (Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, and Fred Astaire also made the list), the film that reportedly earned her that notorious “box office poison” label is The Bride Wore Red. All I have to say to that is, “…Really?”

The Bride Wore Red isn’t anything earth shattering; this is not a Mildred Pierce or Humoresque caliber movie and it never tries to be that. But when you’re talking about someone like Joan Crawford, whose career had so many highlights, saying a movie doesn’t live up to the highest high points isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And in the case of The Bride Wore Red, it’s certainly not something to label someone “box office poison” over. (Even if you only look at her 1930s films, this isn’t one of the best, but it’s hardly one of the worst, either. Movies like The Bride Wore Red were meant to be light bit of escapism and that’s all. Sure, it’s a bit formulaic, but sometimes that’s exactly the sort of thing you want. You can be formulaic but still pull it off well and that’s what The Bride Wore Red does. It’s a pure “1930s MGM era” Joan Crawford role — she gets Franchot Tone as a love interest, she dreams of going from rags to riches, and there are excuses to get her into some Adrian gowns. But, what can I say? I like the formula.

Pre-Code Essentials: Midnight Mary (1933)

Midnight Mary 1933

Plot

Mary Martin (Loretta Young) just can’t get a break in life. She was orphaned as a child and spent time in reform school for a crime she didn’t commit. When she get out, she tries to get her life back on track, but there aren’t any jobs and she ends up getting mixed up with a bunch of gangsters led by Leo Darcy (Ricardo Cortez). She helps him out with their robberies and while they’re planning to rob a casino one night, she catches the eye of Tom Mannering (Franchot Tone). He helps her escape when the police arrive at the casino and they have a wonderful evening together. She tells him that she wants to be on the straight and narrow and he helps send her to secretarial school and gets her a job working at his law firm. Their romance comes to a screeching halt when her criminal past catches up with her and she ends up being sent to jail.

By the time Mary is released, Tom has married another woman, finding a job hasn’t gotten any easier, and it isn’t long before she’s mixed up with Leo’s gang again. When Mary happens to run into Tom one night, Leo becomes extremely jealous and plans to kill him to get rid of the competition. But Mary will stop at nothing to protect Tom and kills Leo before he can get to Tom.


My Thoughts

Midnight Mary is a truly first-rate pre-code drama. Mary is such a wonderful character and Loretta Young has an absolute field day with the role. Loretta Young was one of the great actresses of the pre-code era and this is my favorite of her pre-codes. Fast paced and gritty enough to consistently make me forget that this was an MGM movie, not a Warner Brothers. Is it melodramatic? Absolutely, but it’s high quality melodrama.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

When Tom brings Mary back home and definitely has one thing on his mind.


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

The pre-code era loved movies about fallen women and Mary is one of the women who falls the hardest. Being able to take a good girl and drag her into a deeply sordid world, but still give her hope for a happy ending is pre-code gold. For another great fallen woman story, don’t miss Clara Bow in Call Her Savage.

Pre-Code Essentials: Dancing Lady (1933)

Dancing Lady 1933

Plot

When wealthy playboy Tod Newtwon (Franchot Tone) goes to take in a show at a two-bit burlesque hall, he happens to be there the same night the police raid the joint. Some of the dancers, including Janie Barlow (Joan Crawford) are arrested for indecency and taken to night court for sentencing. Since Janie can’t pay the fine, her only option is to spend time in jail. Tod is attracted to Janie and bails her out. Once he gets to know her and sees the passion she has for dancing, he decides to help her land a gig on Broadway, despite her insistence that she do it on her own.

Tod makes an arrangement with producer Patch Gallagher (Clark Gable) to finance his new show if he gives Janie a chance. Patch is hesitant to accept her, but warms up to her when he sees her genuine talent and dedicated work ethic. Janie starts seeing Tod, but Patch and Janie also start falling in love with each other. Janie works her way up from chorus girl to being the star of the show, but when Tod begins to think that Janie wouldn’t have time for him if she becomes a big star, he pulls his funding for the show. But when Janie finds out what he’s done, she realizes where her heart really lies.


My Thoughts

Dancing Lady  is my favorite Joan Crawford pre-code. It’s so very emblematic of the early 1930s era of her career. Joan is great in it and she has the chance to work with two of her best co-stars: Clark Gable and Franchot Tone. An MGM movie with Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and Franchot Tone hardly sounds unusual, but Dancing Lady is noteworthy for the fact that it also features The Three Stooges and the film debut of Fred Astaire. Where else can you see Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, The Three Stooges, and Fred Astaire together in the same movie? The story isn’t anything remarkable, the musical numbers aren’t particularly memorable, but the cast is solid enough to make it worth watching. It’s the kind of movie that knows it’s entertainment for entertainment’s sake and it doesn’t try to be anything it isn’t, but it does exactly what it’s supposed to quite well. It’s great fun.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

At night court, the Judge calls Janie’s dancer friend to the stand:

Judge: “What’s your name?”

Rosette: “Rosette Henrietta LaRue! Occupation: hip swinging!”

When Janie goes to thank Patch for putting her in the show, he smacks her on the rear end and she enthusiastically replies, “Thank you!”


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

It doesn’t get much more definitively pre-code than having a major plot point hinge around a dancer being arrested for indecency. Janie is a classic example of a likable, sympathetic character who just happens to have an occupation that censors didn’t want audiences finding sympathetic. She may have worked at a burlesque joint, but most importantly, she’s a hard worker who was just trying to do the best she could and that’s something depression-era movie audiences could definitely appreciate.

Midnight Mary (1933)

Midnight Mary 1933 posterLife hasn’t been easy for Mary Martin (Loretta Young).  Her mother died when she was very young and as a teenager, she was sent to reform school for a crime she didn’t commit.  After getting out of reform school, she tries her hardest to find a job, but there aren’t any jobs to be had.  When Mary’s friend Bunny (Una Merkel) introduces Mary to Leo Darcy (Ricardo Cortez) and his gang, Mary can’t resist the prospect of having food and shelter, so she gets involved with them too.

While Leo and his gang are planning a robbery at a casino one night, Mary catches the eye of lawyer Tom Mannering, Jr. (Franchot Tone) and it’s love at first sight.  He knows that she’s tied up with Leo, but when the police arrive at the casino, he helps Mary escape.  He brings her to his place for dinner and the have a lovely evening together.  Before she leaves, she asks him to help her find a real job so she can go straight.  After she goes to secretarial school, he finds her a job as a secretary in his law firm.  But when they go out to eat one night, a cop recognizes Mary from the night at the casino and arrests her.  She refuses to implicate Leo, so she is sent to jail.

A year later, Mary is a free woman again.  Tom has since married another woman and Mary’s job prospects haven’t gotten any better.  It isn’t long before she’s involved with Leo and his gang again.  When Mary and Leo run into Tom and his wife at a nightclub one night, Leo becomes very jealous of Tom.  Even though Mary does everything in her power to convince him that she doesn’t care about Tom anymore, Leo still wants Tom dead.  He has some of his men try to do the job, but they only succeed in taking out Tom’s friend instead.  Leo decides to do it himself and Mary does the only thing she can do to save Tom — kill Leo first.

I just love Midnight Mary; it’s easily one of my favorite pre-codes.   And how could I not love it?  Midnight Mary is one bright, shining gem of a movie.  It has so many of the qualities that I love about movies from this era.  Fast paced story?  Check. Strong lead character? Check. Scandalous material? Check, check, and check!  But above all else, Loretta Young is fabulous in it.  In fact, the entire cast is wonderful with Franchot Tone, Ricardo Cortez, and Una Merkel, who are all quite perfectly cast in their respective roles.  And I can’t neglect to mention the first-rate direction from William Wellman!  It’s a winner in every respect.

Dangerous (1935)

Bette Davis Dangerous

Actress Joyce Heath (Bette Davis) had once been hailed as the most promising new actress on Broadway, the best thing since Jeanne Eagels.  But then her career takes a turn for the worse, leaving her a broke, alcoholic mess.  Virtually the only person who hasn’t lost faith in her is architect Don Bellows (Franchot Tone).  Seeing Joyce in a performance of Romeo and Juliet inspired Don to follow his dream of becoming an architect, so when Don finds Joyce getting drunk one night, he feels compelled to help her.

Don takes Joyce out to his country home to help her get her life back on track.  Even though Don is already engaged to Gail Armitage (Margaret Lindsay), Don starts to fall in love with Joyce.  However, Joyce believes she’s cursed to bring bad luck to anyone who gets too close to her.  Don’s willing to take his chances, though, and uses all his money to finance a play that would be absolutely perfect for Joyce to play the lead in.

Rehearsals for the play go very well and Joyce is on top of her game — she’s professional and her performance is a real knock-out.  The show is practically guaranteed to be a smash hit.  But just before the show is to open, Don proposes to Joyce and Joyce turns him down.  What Don doesn’t realize is that Joyce is already married to a man named Gordon Heath (John Eldredge).  Joyce would like to marry Don, but Gordon refuses to divorce her.  After asking him for a divorce, Joyce takes him for a drive and threatens to crash the car if he doesn’t divorce her.  Gordon still refuses so Joyce drives into a tree, leaving Gordon with serious injuries.

Joyce’s injuries were less serious than Gordon’s, but they’re enough to stop the show from opening as planned, leaving Don broke.  When Don finds out about Gordon, he tells her the only curse she has is being a very selfish woman.  Joyce realizes that Don is right and starts focusing on making things right with her life.  She lets Don go to reconcile with Gail while she gets the play back up and running.  The play does indeed become a smash hit and Joyce begins to reconcile her own marriage to Gordon.

Dangerous brought Bette Davis her first Academy Award for Best Actress, and it was well deserved.  Certainly one of her first great film performances, but as her career progressed, she would top her work in Dangerous time and time again.  On the whole, Dangerous is a very good, engaging, quick-moving drama.  I loved everything about it.  It’s one of those wonderful 1930s movies that manages to fit a lot a lot of action into a short amount of time (in this case, about 80 minutes), but never feels rushed. Franchot Tone made a great co-star for Bette and gives a fine performance as well.  I’d definitely recommend Dangerous to any Bette Davis fan or anyone who enjoys 1930s movies in general.

Recasting “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” (2008)

After being fired from her job as a governess, a very straight-laced Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) finds herself deemed unemployable by her employment agency.  But when she hears about a job for a woman named Delysia LaFosse (Amy Adams), she jumps at the chance to get it.  When she arrives at Delysia’s apartment, she expects she will be taking care of children.  Instead, she finds herself taking care of an aspiring actress tangled up in a love triangle.  First there’s the young theater producer, Phil Goldman (Tom Payne), who is putting on a play that Delysia desperately wants the lead in.  She’s trying to keep him interested in her and not her rival Charlotte Warren.  Then there’s Nick Calderelli (Mark Strong), who owns the nightclub Delysia sings at.  He’s the one footing the bill for her lavish apartment and expensive clothes.  And last but not least, there’s Michael (Lee Pace), the piano player who just got out of jail.  He isn’t rich and doesn’t have the influence Nick and Phil do, but he does genuinely love her.

Over the course of one day, Guinevere helps Delysia get out of various messes and Delysia, in turn, helps Guinevere learn to embrace life.  Delysia takes Guinevere to her friend Edythe’s (Shirley Henderson) salon and gives her a makeover.  It turns out that Edythe and Guinevere have a little dirt on each other.  They had bumped into each other on the street the night before Guinevere came to Delysia’s, so Edythe knows Guinevere isn’t really the social secretary Delysia thinks she is.  But Guinevere saw Edythe out with a man who isn’t her lingerie designer boyfriend Joe Blomfield (Ciarán Hinds).  When Delysia takes Guinevere with her to a lingerie show, Guinevere meets Joe for herself and the two of them are instantly attracted to each other.

Although released in 2008, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day was actually intended to be made as a movie in 1941.  Originally, it was a novel by Winifred Watson released in 1937, and she later sold the film rights to Universal Studios in 1939.  Universal held on to it for a little while and by 1941, had plans to turn it into a musical starring Billie Burke as Miss Pettigrew.  Watson was very eager to see “Miss Pettigrew…” turned into a movie, but unfortunately, the project was shelved after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  In 1954, Universal renewed the rights to the story, but again, nothing ever became of it.  Watson died in 2002 believing her story would never make it to the silver screen.

The novel was released in 1937, but I wish it had been released just a few years earlier because I think “Miss Pettigrew” would have made a great pre-code had it been around in 1934.  Delysia’s bed-hopping to further her career is hardly a secret, there’s lots of lingerie, and the book contains drug references.  I’m very curious about how Universal planned to get around some of these issues in 1941.  The drug references were gone in the 2008 movie, so those could easily been cut out in 1941, but whitewashing Delysia’s bed-hopping would have definitely been a challenge.  I also would have pegged this for an MGM movie rather than a Universal.

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Dancing Lady (1933)

Not being able to get any other kind of job, Janie Barlow (Joan Crawford) resorts to taking a job in a burlesque club.  When her club gets raided one night, she gets dragged into night court and the wealthy playboy Tod Newton (Franchot Tone) and his friends go along with them to see what happens.  Finding himself attracted to Janie, he pays her bail and once she’s out, takes her out on a date and sends her home with some extra money for a new dress.  She’s attracted to Tod, too, but is afraid he’s out of her league.  She also decides that she’s had enough of burlesque and is determined to get a job in a legitimate show.  She hears that Patch Gallagher (Clark Gable) is putting on a new show and starts stalking him, determined to get in.  Patch blows her off at every turn, but as anybody in showbiz knows, it pays to have connections.  Tod offers to send a letter of introduction to Jasper Bradley, Patch’s boss.  That letter gets her an audition and even though they try to brush her off, she proves to be a very talented dancer and gets in the show.

What Janie doesn’t know is that Tod also offered to help fund the show if she gets in.  She works very hard in rehearsals and even begins to win over Patch, who is starting to fall for her.  He even takes her out of the chorus and makes her a star.  Meanwhile, she continues seeing Tod.  Tod is very much in love with her, but with Janie’s career taking off, she’s not particularly interested in getting married.  But Tod sees an easy solution to this — buy the show out and close it so that Janie has nothing else to do but get married to Tod.  Janie isn’t just disappointed because she doesn’t get to be a star, but also because she had fallen in love with Patch, too.

Janie and Tod take a trip to Cuba together, but Patch is determined to have the show go on and puts his own money into it.  Janie and Tod return just before the show is set to open, but they run into a very drunk Patch in a nightclub.  Patch can’t resist telling Janie about what Tod has done and when she finds out the truth, she is horrified.  She goes to see Patch and begs him to let her back into the show.  Janie gets her job back, the show opens, and naturally, it’s a big success.  Tod makes one last attempt to win Janie back, but now she knows where her heart truly lies.

Dancing Lady was clearly MGM’s attempt to keep up with Warner Brothers’ Busby Berkeley musicals.  You clearly see the influence of Berkeley’s choreography, but even MGM couldn’t fully capture the brilliance of the real thing.  But that being said, it’s a very entertaining movie.  It’s got lots of fun, saucy pre-code lines and I loved the entire cast.  Actually, I think the cast is the most interesting thing about Dancing Lady.  First of all, you’ve got Joan Crawford with Clark Gable and Franchot Tone, two of her best co-stars.  But then you’ve also got The Three Stooges plus Nelson Eddy and Fred Astaire, both making their film debuts.  Yes, believe it or not, it is possible to see Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Fred Astaire, and The Three Stooges together in the same movie.  It’s a very unlikely bunch of people to wind up in a movie together, but I can’t help but love the fact that it actually happened.  All in all, a great movie, one of my favorite 1930s Joan Crawford movies.

Bombshell (1933)


It isn’t easy being a silver screen sensation!  Lola Burns (Jean Harlow) sure knows how hard it can be, she can’t go anywhere without someone wanting something from her.  She gets up in the morning and realizes that her fleet of cars is being used by everyone but her.  Then there’s her freeloading lush of a  father (Frank Morgan) who stays out all night and comes home still drunk from the night before.  Her father’s always hitting her up for money to bail her brother (Ted Healy) out of his gambling debts in Tijuana.  When she shows up at the studio for work, she’s greeted by fans wanting autographs, which she’ll gladly sign.  And then there’s E.J. Hanlon (Lee Tracy), the head of the publicity department, who never tires of concocting scandals about Lola to feed to the press.  It’s exhausting just trying to keep up with all these demands!

Deep down, Lola is ready to quit the movies and just be a normal woman.  After Hanlon comes up with a particularly ridiculous scandal for Lola, she writes to the studio head and threatens to quit if Hanlon isn’t fired.  In an attempt to make Lola think he’s truly sorry, he arranges an interview for her with Ladies Home Companion magazine to give her a chance to show her domestic side.  After talking to the woman from Ladies Home Companion, Lola really starts to feel maternal and heads down to the orphanage to look into adoption.  She finds a baby boy she’d like to adopt and sets up an appointment for people from the orphanage to come visit her at home.  Lola desperately wants to make a good impression, but Hanlon personally sees to it that their meeting is a total disaster.  He not only sends a bunch of reporters to her house, he also sends over a couple of Lola’s rival lovers over at the same time.

After a huge fight breaks out, Lola decides she’s had enough of everybody.  She announces she’s quitting the movies and sneaks away to a resort out in the desert.  But she soon finds out there’s no escape from Hanlon, who manages to track her down.  While she’s out horseback riding, she meets Gifford Middleton (Franchot Tone), who comes from a wealthy family in Boston.  He’s not into the movies, so he’s totally oblivious to who she is and her reputation.  Lola quickly falls in love with him and agrees to marry him.  Just as she’s ready to meet his very proper family, her father and brother show up at the resort.  Lola warns them to be on their best behavior, but of course, that doesn’t happen.  Then when the Middletons find out who she is, they want nothing to do with her and Lola is so furious that she decides to return to the screen out of spite!

Bombshell is generally regarded as one of Jean Harlow’s signature movies, but for me, it fell just a tad flat.  I love that Jean was game for making fun of herself and I think it was pretty bold of her to be in a movie that made fun of her own freeloading relatives.  I can’t help but think that she probably enjoyed living through her character in the scene where Lola tells off her parasitic family and staff.  Jean was good in this movie, but I felt the movie was sort of overtaken by the supporting cast.  Frank Morgan was particularly awesome as Lola’s father, but then when Lola’s brother comes into the picture and Frank gets to do some scenes with Ted Healy, they made an excellent pair of leeches.  And who can forget Lola’s pack of sheepdogs always being led in at the most inopportune times?  Bombshell is a screwball comedy through and through, so it goes without saying that it’s fast-paced and zany.  It’s one of those movies that movies that I had to watch a couple of times to catch everything that happens.

Overall, if you’re a Jean Harlow fan, Bombshell is definitely required viewing.  I didn’t think it was bad, just a little overrated.  It was funny, but Libeled Lady was a better comedy as a whole.