Douglas Fairbanks jr. and Frank Morgan are the Mad Men of 1934 in J. Walter Ruben's film version of John Howard Lawson's play Success Story. Lawson himself, a future member of the Hollywood Ten, collaborated in adapting his play which, as you may guess from the author's history, is not the most flattering portrait of the advertising business. But while Lawson takes predictable potshots at the marketing of junk as luxury goods -- the beauty cream flogged by the film's ad agency proves most effective for polishing doorknobs -- the film is more a portrait of a stunted personality than an indictment of an economic system. If anything, the film might create the unfortunate impression that low class will ultimately tell, that a silk purse could never come from the sow's ear played by Fairbanks, the sullen brother of a gangster recently killed as the story opens in 1927. Lawson and Ruben trace the rise of Fairbanks's character, Joe Martin (in the play he was Ginsburg) from clerking to control of a powerful agency. In time, Joe usurps both the mistress of his boss (Morgan) and his position in the firm. Joe has street smarts and a drive to succeed, as well as one crucial insight. The agency's having trouble putting ad copy together for that beauty cream. Joe proves at least a generation ahead of his time by recommending a mainly visual approach to the ads. The success of his campaign sets him on his way. Careful with money, he gets out of the stock market just in time to escape the Great Crash, while Morgan is forced to borrow to keep afloat. Joe ruthlessly gets control of Morgan's debt and control of Morgan's money. He doesn't have so much against Morgan as he does against the Ivy League types who started ahead of him and look down on him. But he wants what Morgan has, including the mistress (Genevieve Tobin), whom Joe courts and marries while neglecting his old girlfriend (erstwhile film flapper Coleen Moore), who got him his job in the first place. Joe gets everything he wants but doesn't know what to do with it all. This is especially true with his new wife, who quickly grows restless while Joe remains focused on business. There's a hint of Charles Foster Kane in Joe's soulless accumulation of stuff without emotional fulfillment, but Joe lacks even Kane's impulse to play the public benefactor. Instead, he's an abyss of narcissism who finally repels everyone in his orbit. Ruben (doesn't his full name sound like an ad agency?) stages a coldly brutal finish as a self-pitying Joe bemoans his fate to an exhausted Moore, who simply walks away while Joe keeps babbling. The denouement is more brutal as Joe, now irrevocably alone, shoots himself. This may be how Success Story ended, but whether or not that's the case, movies couldn't take such a close. So RKO had Ruben end the picture with a reversal of what we'd just seen, Moore returning to nurse the wounded Joe (he went for the body, not the head) back to health with a promise that she'll never leave him. Pure hokum.
If people remember Fairbanks jr. now it's probably as a swashbuckler in the image of his father thanks to movies like Gunga Din and Sinbad the Sailor. He was rarely like that, if ever, in the Pre-Code era, and the end of that era -- which for him was Success At Any Price -- was the end of a phase the 25 year old's movie career. For most of the Pre-Code era he was a Warner Bros. star and his persona suited the studio. The younger Fairbanks was often a nervy city boy and often poor, whether a gangster's brother, as here, or a gangster in his own right as Edward G. Robinson's sidekick in Little Caesar. There's something alive and hungry in his Pre-Code work, as if Junior were urgently aware of the challenge of proving himself as something different from his already-legendary father. After Success he made films in England, starting with an underrated villainous turn in The Rise of Catherine the Great, until returning to Hollywood to play a swashbuckling villain in 1937's The Prisoner of Zenda. By that point, to some extent, Fairbanks had surrendered to his heritage, and we hardly ever saw again the interesting young man of Pre-Code days. Code Enforcement itself may not be to blame for that, but the twists of Junior's career make his younger self a defining figure of the Pre-Code era. Thanks perhaps to studio tampering, Pre-Code Fairbanks takes his final bow in Success At Any Price, only to be reborn for future use as someone more benign and perhaps more bland.