Verree Teasdale

Fifth Avenue Girl

Fifth Avenue Girl (1939)

On the surface, Alfred Borden (Walter Connolly) might seem like he has it all. He runs his own business, he’s rich, and he lives in a beautiful home on 5th Avenue. In reality, his business is going through some difficulties, his wife Martha (Verree Teasdale) isn’t faithful, his son Tim (Tim Holt) is too busy partying to be of any help at the office, and Katherine (Kathryn Adams) is too wrapped up in her own world to pay attention to her father. Alfred’s family doesn’t even remember his birthday.

Rather than spend his birthday at home with his servants, he heads over to the park, where he meets Mary Grey (Ginger Rogers), who happens to need a job. He invites her to join him for dinner at a swanky restaurant and the two have a swell time drinking and dancing all night. Martha and her boyfriend are at the same restaurant that night and when she sees Alfred cavorting with Mary, he suddenly becomes a lot more interesting to her.

The next day, Alfred realizes that being seen with Mary got him more attention from his family than he’s gotten in a long time. He hires Mary to pretend to be his girlfriend and the two of them pretend to go out every night. Alfred’s family is dismayed by his behavior and tries to get Mary out of the picture. Although Tim loathes Mary at first, it isn’t long before he starts to fall in love with her while Martha is falling in love with her husband all over again.

5th Avenue Girl may not be a musical, but it is a good representation of a lot of other reasons why I love Ginger Rogers. She was so good at playing these smart, funny, likable characters and that’s exactly what she does here; although a bit more deadpan than usual. She has great co-stars in Walter Connolly and Verree Teasdale, but I wasn’t too wild about Tim Holt as Ginger’s love interest. The writing isn’t perfect, but it’s still strong enough of a movie to be well worth watching. I wasn’t wild about enough to call it an underrated gem, but it’s certainly not a mediocre movie, either; it’s somewhere between those two levels.

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.

Come Live With Me (1941)

Come Live With Me 1941After fleeing Nazi-occupied Austria, Johnny Jones (Hedy Lamarr) comes to America, starts a career as a showgirl, and starts dating book publisher Barton Kendrick (Ian Hunter). But when her passport expires, she continues to stay in America illegally and eventually, the government catches up with her. When an agent comes to see her, he tells her she’ll have to leave the country unless she marries an American citizen. But the real problem is that she can’t even marry Barton, he’s already married. Later that night, she goes out to a restaurant and meets Bill Smith (James Stewart), a writer going through a rough patch and in dire need of money. Since Johnny has money and Bill is an American citizen, she suggests a marriage of convenience: he marries her and she pays him $17.80 a week to be her husband. Bill agrees.

Two months go by and Johnny is happy with the arrangement. She keeps seeing Barton, but he’s clueless about how Johnny solved her citizenship dilemma. At least Johnny is happy with the arrangement until Barton tells her he’s leaving his wife Diana (Verree Teasdale) to marry Johnny. When Johnny tells Bill she wants a divorce, he’s reluctant to agree to it. Not because he wants the money, but he’s become infatuated with Johnny and has started writing a book about his unusual marriage.

When Bill finishes his book, he sends it to several publishers, including Barton. Both Barton and Diana read the book and want to publish it. But during a meeting with Bill, the Kendricks realize what’s really going on. Bill uses the money from his advance to buy a car and take Johnny on a trip before he’ll agree to the divorce. He wants to get to know her better before they divorce and hopes she’ll reconsider. During a visit to Bill’s grandmother’s home, Johnny realizes that maybe Bill is the one she really wants to be with after all.

People getting married for the sake of solving a citizenship problem is hardly a unique plot device for movies or TV shows, but Come Live With Me manages to stand out from the others. Come Live With Me offers enough twists and charm that it doesn’t feel like you’re watching something that’s been done time and time again. Jimmy Stewart and Hedy Lamarr are so likeable together, it’s easy to want them to end up together at the end. It’s all very sweet, gentle, and extremely enjoyable. Come Live With Me is exactly the type of movie I talk about when I call a movie a hidden gem — not exactly well known, but with a great cast, good writing, it’s anything but mediocre.

Fashions of 1934

What do you do when the investment firm you own goes under?  Why, naturally you decide to get into the fashion game!  Well, at least that’s what Sherwood Nash (William Powell) does.  When he meets aspiring fashion designer Lynn Mason (Bette Davis), Sherwood, Lynn, and Sherwood’s partner Snap (Frank McHugh) decide to start making copies of designs by famous designers and selling them to discount shops for a fraction of the cost.  When the owners of shops that sell the real deals find out about this, they want to put a stop to it, but Nash smooth talks them into selling his knock-offs, too.  Not only that, he gets them to send them to Paris to better copy the designs.

To get in to see the designs, Lynn pretends to be interested in buying something while Snap stealthily takes pictures.  But when their film gets confiscated, they have to come up with another plan.  By pure chance, they find out that the famous designer Oscar Baroque (Reginald Owen) turns to old costume design books for inspiration.  So they get some costume design books and let Lynn design some pieces based on what she finds in the books, then forge famous designers’ signatures to them.  The stores back in New York buy the designs up like hotcakes, but Sherwood can’t resist an opportunity to make money.  When he meets a man with an abundance of ostrich feathers, he gets an idea.  He buys up the feathers and goes to see Baroque’s fiancée Grand Duchess Alix (Verree Teasdale).  He knows Alix is no Grand Duchess, she’s really just Mabel from Hoboken.

Since Alix doesn’t want Sherwood to tell Baroque who she really is, he blackmails her into convincing Baroque to design a musical show full of ostrich feathered clothes that Alix could star in.  He agrees and the show is a big success, so then he decides to open his own boutique.  But Lynn is getting fed up with Sherwood’s schemes.  Also, she’s fallen in love with him and is jealous of all the attention he’s giving Alix.  Even though her designs are once again hugely popular at the boutique, the idea of running off with Jimmy the piano player sounds pretty appealing to Lynn.  But by now, Baroque has found out about the forged designs and calls the police on Sherwood.  Sherwood gets arrested, but he has one more trick up his sleeve to get out of jail, get Baroque to buy the boutique from him, and get Lynn.

If I had a rating system, I’d give Fashions of 1934 2.5 out of 4 stars.  William Powell is pretty good in it, but poor Bette Davis is woefully out of place.  It’s pretty well-known that Warner Brothers really didn’t know what to do with Bette Davis when she first started working for them.  She wasn’t a glamour girl, but Warner’s insisted on trying to make her into one and this was their biggest attempt to shoehorn into that type.  She had blonde hair and was decked out in all sorts of fancy Orry-Kelly gowns, it was so not her style.  At least in movies like 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, even though they tried to make her somewhat glamorous, her part still had some grit to it.  There’s nothing gritty or raw about Fashions of 1934.  It’s a fun and entertaining little movie, but think of it as a William Powell movie more than anything else.  Bette isn’t outstanding here and although Busby Berkeley was involved, there’s only one musical number.  But at least he made the most of his one number, Spin a Little Web of Dreams is a really beautiful scene.  And if you’re interested in costume design, there’s a lot to appreciate here.

Payment Deferred (1932)

William Marble’s (Charles Laughton) financial problems are hardly a secret.  He can’t go anywhere without someone asking him to pay up on a bill or someone whispering about how he can’t afford to buy his own drinks.  Things really come to a head when his boss finds out about a lawsuit against him and threatens to fire him if he can’t get it straightened out fast.  William thinks he might have found a solution to his problems when he gets an unexpected visit from his nephew James Medland (Ray Milland).  William doesn’t really know James, but he quickly notices that he has money.  First William tries convincing James to act on a financial tip he’s gotten, giving William a 10% commission of course.  James doesn’t like that idea, so William tries just asking him to lend him some money.  Again, James says no and William decides it’s time to move onto Plan C — murder.  He slips some Cyanide into a drink and offers it to James, then buries the body in the backyard.

The next day, William is wracked with guilt and his wife Annie (Dorothy Peterson) and his daughter Winnie (Maureen O’Sullivan) notice something is off about him.  When he goes to work, he takes James’ money and uses it on that hot financial tip and comes home a rich man.  All their debts can be paid off and William is able to quit his job.  Of course the family could also afford to either move or completely renovate their house, but obviously, William doesn’t want strangers poking around the place.  Instead, he sends Anna and Winnie off on vacation for a few weeks.  But while they’re gone, he gets a visit from Marguerite Collins (Verree Teasdale), a local shopkeeper.  Her visit isn’t purely social, though.  She’s there to get some money from William.  She seduces him and the two of them carry on an affair while Annie and Winnie are away, but Winnie finds out about them when she and her mother get home a day earlier than expected.

Not wanting to hurt her mother, Winnie keeps quiet about seeing Marguerite in the house.  But the idea of an unfaithful husband quickly proves to be the least of Annie’s problems when she figures out that William had poisoned James.  She doesn’t turn him in, though.  Life goes on, but Winnie starts hanging out with some more upper class people and becomes a real snob.  After fighting with William one night, she runs away and Annie goes chasing after her in the rain.  She doesn’t catch Winnie, but she does get horribly sick.  William takes care of her and she appears to be making steady progress.  At least she is until Marguerite pays another visit to blackmail William into giving her more money.  Annie overhears their conversation and, heartbroken, poisons herself with the Cyanide he used to kill James.  William doesn’t know she’s killed herself until a doctor arrives and finds her dead.  He is convicted of murder and put on death row.  Even though he didn’t kill Annie, he sees it as payment for killing James.

Payment Deferred was a very solid little movie.  Charles Laughton was pretty darn good in this.  He had some great sinister moments while interacting with James and I loved the scenes where he was paranoid and on edge.  This was a pretty early Ray Milland role and he doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but he does well with what time he does have.  Maureen O’Sullivan really didn’t make much effort to use a British accent, but Dorothy Peterson made a great loyal wife and Verree Teasdale was pretty wonderfully evil.  Plus it’s not even an hour and a half long, so it’s one of those great “short but sweet” movies.  I’d definitely recommend checking this one out next time it’s on TCM.

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.