Writer: Meville Crossman
Stars: Warren William, Bette Davis and Guy Kibbee
|This review is part of the Hot & Bothered: The Films of 1932 blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen and CineMaven's Essays from the Couch.|
Posts for 9th July can be found at this page at Once Upon a Screen and posts for 10th July are at this page at Essays from the Couch.
I love pre-codes because their stories feel so alive and so edgy for black and white film that my brain often rebels and believes I’m in a parallel universe where Americans actually acknowledge sex as well as violence. To over-generalise, pre-code heroes were all gangsters and pre-code heroines were all prostitutes; women had power, the races mixed and criminals tended to get away with things (or, at least, the tacked on Hollywood endings were so absurdly tacked on that you could often blink and miss them). It was the time of unjustly forgotten stars like Richard Barthelmess, Joan Blondell and Lee Tracy. It marked the arrivals on screen of stars we know such as Barbara Stanwyck, Clark Gable and Bette Davis. And it was the playground of my favourite actor, the unparalleled Warren William, little remembered today but the quintessential pre-code actor. He made two films in the twenties and two more in 1931, then took over in 1932 with no less than eight, including gems like The Mouthpiece, Skyscraper Souls and The Match King.
Kibbee was born to play this role, of a jolly fool who has slid through the halls of power without really understanding them. Hicks was a county coroner, but he resigned because he didn’t like his rest being constantly interrupted. Kibbee specialised in this sort of part, inept but good natured support for the leads, and Hollywood was happy to put him to work; never mind William’s eight, Guy Kibbee made eighteen pictures in 1932 alone, though he was rarely the lead himself. When he was, in films like 1934’s Merry Wives of Reno, the results were hilarious; RKO eventually gave him his own series and he made six Scattergood Baines movies in the early forties. Most people remember him from big pictures like Mr Smith Goes to Washington, in which he also played a governor, but for me it’s a whole slew of pre-codes: musicals like 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade and other films as varied as Two Seconds, Crooner and Lady for a Day. And, of course, this one, in which he plays the title character if not the lead role.
She plays Blake up sensationally as the ‘greatest campaign manager in the world’, ‘the greatest manipulator of public opinion this country has ever produced’ and ‘the fastest worker in the world’. The latter is quickly apparent because when the committee get to his jail cell (as he’s been locked up for non-payment of alimony), he already has the whole block eating out of his hand and even singing a campaign song for Zachary Hicks that he’s written on the fly! Of course, he doesn’t know who Hicks is either so, after he arrives at Progressive headquarters and inadvertently puts the candidate to work putting up his own campaign sign, he’s in for a shock. But, hey, this is Warren William. His assistant, Joe, played by Warners regular Frank McHugh, describes Hicks to his face as the ‘champion seacow of this planet’ and is promptly lost for words when he discovers who he really is; Blake, on the other hand, doesn’t miss a beat after a similar mistake, charms Hicks in a moment and has him volunteer to go right back and fix that sign.
A quintessential William moment here arrives during the first public debate between Zachary Hicks and his competitor, the Hon William A Underwood. Because Hicks has as much political savvy as the shoes he cut up, Blake has him memorise one of Lincoln’s speeches that paints him as a man of the people, dumb but honest, in keeping with his campaign slogan of ‘Hicks from the Sticks’. Unfortunately, Underwood beats him to the punch by launching into precisely the same speech, so Blake, as sharp as ever, takes the stage to expose Underwood as an unashamed plaguarist, accusing him of ‘the vilest of crimes, filching thoughts from a dead man’s grave’. We ought to be horrified, watching a campaign manager destroy the opposing candidate for doing exactly what he had trained his own candidate to do, but we’re with him all the way. Of course, this is merely the 1930s version of the attack ad, a polite creature indeed to what we see during prominent American election campaigns today.
All of these things would be believable actions for Hal S Blake, who goes to incredible lengths towards the end of the film to block his candidate from being arrested in the final days of the campaign in a sting set up by the floundering Underwood camp. Even in more personal actions outside the campaign itself, he stoops to some serious depths. Maybelle is his ex-wife, the one who had him locked up at the beginning of the film for non-payment of alimony. He’s been slipping on that again, so she shows up at campaign headquarters to collect and he actually goes to his girlfriend to get the cash, ostensibly for ‘a little bill I overlooked’. As you might expect for a character played by Bette Davis, she’s sharp and sees through much of what he does, to the degree that she continues to rebuff his proposals of marriage because she knows that he’s all about the chase rather than the catch; she’s more than happy to be chased but not willing to be caught in matrimony, as Blake would move on once she was conquered, as if she were a mountain.
William dominated every pre-code he was in but in very different ways to contemporaries like Cagney, Bogart or Robinson. Take a look at an early post-code, The Case of the Lucky Legs, the third of his Perry Mason movies, to see the perfect example of that. He’s a whirlwind of energy and it’s often difficult to acknowledge that anyone else is even in the film. He’s somewhat restrained here, by his standards at least, and he leads a strong cast indeed. Bette Davis, second billed, could have been given a much more substantial role, given that Kay Russell is clearly a very capable young lady, but she does what she can with it before it falls into mush. It’s not fair to dismiss all her roles before, say, Of Human Bondage in 1934, but they certainly tended towards less substance. Guy Kibbee was perfect as Zachary Hicks and it’s surprising how well he enforces his presence here, given that he’s inherently playing a character easy to overlook. Frank McHugh is the capable support he always was; I often watch early Warners just for him and Allen Jenkins.