Hedda Hopper

Pre-Code Essentials: Skyscraper Souls (1932)

Warren William Skyscraper Souls

Plot

There are only two things bank owner David Dwight (Warren William) cares about: women and his hundred story skyscraper in New York City. He’s married to Ella (Hedda Hopper), but as long as he keeps paying her bills, she doesn’t mind if he steps out. He’s been carrying on an long-term affair with his secretary Sarah (Verree Teasdale), who really wants to get married, but David has no interest in doing anything more than give her a trust fund. Instead, David is far more concerned with protecting his prized skyscraper from bank inspectors, who are after him for taking out a huge loan from his own bank to pay for the building.

To get the investigators off his back, David merges the bank with another one and conspires with the president of the other bank to inflate their bank’s stock, then sell it short, even though it would ruin the other investors. Meanwhile, Sarah’s secretary Lynn (Maureen O’Sullivan) has been dating bank teller Tom Shepard (Norman Foster), although she’d much rather be married to a rich man. After Lynn and Tom have a fight, Sarah talks to him and gives him a tip about investing in the bank, not realizing what David plans to do. Hoping to get enough money to marry Lynn, Tom buys the stock only to end up being just one of many people financially destroyed by David. Everyone is angry at David, except for Lynn, who David has been setting up to replace Sarah as his next girlfriend. But Sarah cares too much about Lynn to let David ruin Lynn the way he’s ruined everyone else.


My Thoughts

Before there was Michael Douglas in Wall Street and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, there was Warren William in Skyscraper Souls to serve as the cinematic poster boy for corporate greed. Considering what a contemptible person David Dwight is, it’s rather baffling that this is such an overlooked movie nowadays when people start talking about portrayals of corporate greed in film. Over 80 years later and I’d say Warren William remains the king of playing cold, ruthless characters. But as great brilliant as Warren William is in this, I also really love Verree Teasdale as Sarah. I love how in the end, as devoted as she was to David, she was even more devoted to and protective of Lynn. You just don’t see that kind of relationship often enough in movies.

The movie on the whole is very much worth watching. It has a bit of a Grand Hotel vibe to it, but on a smaller scale. It really deserves to get more credit for being a great movie in general, and not just for being a great pre-code.

And be sure to keep an eye out for a particular dress worn by Anita Page. Perhaps you might recognize it from another certain MGM hit from 1932…

Anita Page Joan Crawford Dress


The Definitive Pre-Code Moment


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Murder, suicide, unscrupulous businessmen, prostitutes, cursing, womanizing…let’s just say that if we had a game of Pre-Code Bingo going, you could fill up your card really fast by watching Skyscraper Souls. Pretty much the only ways this movie could get more pre-code is if they had worked in some drug use, gay characters, or some kind of blasphemous statement.

The Common Law (1931)

When Valerie West (Constance Bennett) grows tired of being Dick Carmedon’s (Lew Cody) kept woman, she decides to try to make it on her own, even though she has no skills and no work experience.  One thing she does have is good looks so she starts looking for modeling gigs.  When she goes to visit painter John Neville (Joel McCrea) to see if he needs a model, it proves to be kismet for both of them. Valerie just happens to be exactly the kind of model he needs for a painting he’s working on so he hires her on the spot.

As John works on his painting, he and Valerie become very good friends, which eventually turns to love.  Valerie even becomes John’s muse and he wants to marry her.  However, one thing he doesn’t know about her is that she used to be Dick’s mistress. When John does find out, he’s extremely jealous and she’s hurt by his reaction and leaves him.

After spending some time apart, Valerie and John run into each other again at a party and Valerie tries to patch things up. Before long, they’re living together and John once again has marriage on his mind, but Valerie wants to be sure both of them are absolutely sure it’s what they want. Meanwhile, John’s sister Claire (Hedda Hopper) has heard about John’s relationship with Valerie so she sends John a letter telling him to come home to their sick father. After a while, Claire gets in touch with Valerie to invite her to join her, John, and their father for a yacht party. Valerie goes, but when she and John realize that Claire has also invited Dick and Stephanie, John’s ex-girlfriend, to the party, they realize what Claire’s true motives are.

For the most part, I liked The Common Law.  Constance Bennett and Joel McCrea were excellent together, it’s got plenty of classic risqué pre-code moments, but I got a little bored with the movie about halfway through.  I had no problem paying attention in the beginning, but it just couldn’t hold my interest. The scenes involving the party on the yacht were a bit tedious and dragged on longer than they needed to. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s one I’d only recommend to people who are already interested in the pre-code era.

Little Moments I Love: Hedda Hopper’s Look of Pity

Sunset Boulevard is chock full of memorable moments.  But one moment that has always stood out to me isn’t one of the obvious ones.  As Norma Desmond is making her infamous trip down the stairs, there is a brief shot of Hedda Hopper watching with a look of absolute pity.  I’m obsessed with that little shot.  It’s always made me wonder if there possibly could have been some kind of back story between Norma and Hedda.  As a gossip columnist, Hedda was known for being pretty ruthless.  Her column earned her a swift kick in the rear from Spencer Tracy and Joan Fontaine once sent her a skunk as a Valentine’s Day gift.  So such a pitiful reaction from Hedda seems a little unusual unless there was some kind of history there.  Before becoming a gossip columnist, Hedda was an actress and worked during the time that Norma would have been at the height of her career.  Perhaps they could have been in some movies together or had been friends during that time.  Or maybe she just thought that Norma Desmond’s story was too tragic to revel in the way everybody else was.  Either way, I’ve gotta hand it to Hedda for making the most out of her cameo appearance.

Downstairs (1932)

Downstairs 1932 John Gilbert

If you work for Baron Nicky von Burgen (Reginald Owen) and Baroness Eloise von Burgen (Olga Baclanova) long enough, you will be treated like family.  So when their longtime butler Albert (Paul Lukas) marries Anna (Virginia Bruce), their maid, the Baron throws them a lavish wedding.  During the reception, the family’s new chauffeur Karl (John Gilbert) shows up and we know right away he’s up to no good when he runs into Countess De Marmac (Hedda Hopper), his former employer with whom he had an affair.  Little do we know just how evil he really is.  That night, Albert is called into work on his wedding night after another butler gets drunk on the job.  When Anna is alone, Karl makes his first move on her by telling her a made-up story about how she reminds him of his dead mother.  But Anna isn’t the only woman in the house he tries to start something with.  He also sleeps with Sophie, the cook, and the Baroness.  He’s not terribly interested in Sophie, though, he only uses her for money.  He makes friends with Albert, but continues to pursue Anna.  One day, Karl gives Anna a piece of the Baroness’s jewelery.  When the Baroness confronts her about wearing her jewelery, Karl steps in and says he gave it to her as a gift and subtly reminds her that he’s got dirt on her.  The Baroness drops the subject and Karl endeared himself closer to Anna with that move.

The Baroness is now keen to get rid of Karl.  So when she knows Albert is listening, she mentions to the Baron that she thinks Anna and Karl are having an affair.  Later, just before the Baron and Baroness are set to leave on a boating trip, she tells Albert to go ahead and get rid of some of the staff while they’re gone.  But before they leave, the Baron changes his mind and decides he wants Albert to come on the trip with him, leaving Anna and Karl alone for the duration of the trip.  Karl takes Anna out for dinner, gets her drunk, and finally gets her to give into his advances.  When Albert comes home, he fires Karl and Anna admits to what happened.  But before he leaves, Karl goes to the Baroness and threatens to reveal their affair unless she keeps him on board and she relents.  Humiliated, Albert goes to the Baroness to resign, but she tells him what Karl has done and begs him to stay.  Karl plans to leave the next day, but not before he gets more of Sophie’s money.  He tries to convince Anna to leave with him, but she refuses.  Karl and Albert end up getting into a huge fight and when the Baron is in the room, Anna forces Karl to give Sophie her money back.  Karl finally leaves, but he only moves onto another victim.

Wow!  I have to say, there are a lot of extremely unlikable characters in pre-code movies, but John Gilbert as Karl is one of the most impressively deplorable characters I’ve ever seen.  He is just so incredibly shameless and ruthless!  And John Gilbert plays him extraordinarily well!  And he should, considering he wrote the story himself.  If you only really know John Gilbert as a silent film actor, then you should definitely check out Downstairs.  His performance here dispels the widely spread story that John Gilbert had a terrible voice and acting style for talkies.  Clearly his lack of success in talkies had more to do with him daring to cross Louis B. Mayer because, as can be seen here, there is nothing wrong with his voice or his acting.  Considering he had to resort to writing a story and selling it to MGM for $1 just to get a good talkie role speaks volumes of just how much Mayer had it out for him.

Virginia Bruce was also great, gotta love the very pre-code scene where she confesses to cheating on her husband and blames him for it.  I also liked seeing Olga Baclanova playing a fairly honest and likable character since the only other movie I’ve seen her in is Freaks, where she was anything but honest and likable.  All in all, a darn good movie.  Not only one of John Gilbert’s best talkies, but a real highlight in his whole career.

Skyscraper Souls (1932)

Skyscraper Souls 1932 Warren WilliamDavid Dwight (Warren William) is a man who only cares about two things: the hundred story skyscraper he’s built and women.  Lots and lots of women.  He’s married to Ella (Hedda Hopper), but only technically.  He pays all her extravagant bills and she doesn’t mind the many other women in his life.  There’s Sarah Dennis (Verree Teasdale), his long-time secretary and mistress.  Sarah wants him to divorce his wife and marry her, but he says Ella won’t divorce him.  The truth is, he’s never even asked for a divorce.  And then there’s Lynn Harding (Maureen O’Sullivan), Sarah’s secretary.  Lynn’s has been seeing Tom Shepard (Norman Foster), a bank teller, but she’s more interested in marrying a rich man.  So when David tries to phase things out with Sarah and make Lynn his new girl, it’s hard for Lynn to resist.

When David isn’t trying to manage all the women in his life, he’s desperately fighting to save his bank and his building.  Bank examiners are investigating him for taking out a massive loan from his own bank to build his skyscraper and to save his bank, he arranges a merger with another bank.  When Tom gets a tip about the merger, he buys up stock thinking that once the stock went up, he’d have enough money to make Lynn want to marry him.  Lots of other people have the same idea, not knowing that David has worked out a plan to get the price of the stock to soar, then get out and leave everyone else holding the bag.  When the stock plummets again, many of the shareholders are completely ruined, including Tom.  David couldn’t possibly care less about the jilted shareholders, though.  Now he owns his building outright and he’s got Lynn willing to go to Europe with him.  When Sarah finds out about what he’s done, she refuses to let him destroy Lynn’s wife the way he destroyed hers.

Skyscraper Souls is really a lot like Grand Hotel.  Only instead of a fabulous art deco hotel, it takes place in fabulous art deco offices.  There’s even a scene where Anita Page’s character wears the same dress as Joan Crawford in Grand Hotel:

But despite the similarities between the two movies, Skyscraper Souls never feels like a cheap imitation of Grand Hotel.  If you know someone who claims they don’t like old movies because they’re cheesy and unrealistic, Skyscraper Souls is a good one to show them to try to change their mind.  It’s definitely a movie that could still be made today.  People who think old movies were all like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland musicals would definitely be surprised to see David’s very open marriage, murder, suicide, Anita Page playing a prostitute, and how virtually everybody is trying to use other people to get what they want.  There was nothing even remotely safe about this movie.  It’s even got a little bit of cursing, if you listen carefully:

Warren William gave an outstanding performance as such an incredibly ruthless and unethical business man.  I loved how he was able to walk the line between being a horrendous jerk but remaining charming enough that you can see why all these women were attracted to him.  Maureen O’Sullivan did a great job of remaining quite likeable even though she played a self-confessed gold digger.  I thought Sarah was quite an interesting character, especially in regard to how she was torn between being a jilted lover and protective of Lynn.  She and Lynn were very close friends and Sarah would do anything to see that Lynn was happy.  But then when David’s all set to run off with Lynn instead of marrying her, Sarah had very good reason to wash her hands of Lynn forever.  In many other movies, this would have played out differently and more predictably.  But this one takes the less-traveled path and ends with the ex-mistress trying to save the new mistress.

My only complaint about Skyscraper Souls is that some of the subplots felt kind of tacked on.  I like Anita Page, so I really would have liked to have seen her in a bigger part here.  Especially since her acting here was much better than it was in The Broadway Melody, so she had really grown as an actress for talkies.  If I had a star rating system, I’d give it three out of four stars.  Not perfect, but it’s certainly something I’d gladly watch again.