Friday, January 10, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: PAID (1930)

Joan Crawford is a pioneer woman-in-prison in Sam Wood's Pre-Code adaptation of a 1912 chestnut, the Bayard Veiller play Within the Law. As Mary Turner, Crawford is sent up for shoplifting on the job at a department store. Mary says it's a frame-up but who'll believe her, especially after she uses her sentencing hearing as a platform to rant against her employer for his cheap, heartless ways. There's a nice bit of early cross-talk as Mary, her boss and his lawyer all try to make themselves heard in the courtroom. Crawford gets a very early prison shower scene noteworthy, alas, for its whiff of racism. Unlikely as it seems, there's only one black woman in prison with Mary, and maybe for that reason Mary reacts like that woman is carrying plague when they end up side by side, naked, in the shower. The wall of the stall covers the naughty bits, but the sight of bare black and white legs in such proximity no doubt titillated or scandalized many in the original audience. Happily, the black prisoner gets the last word, gently mocking Mary's revulsion. "Don't worry honey," she says, "It all goes down the drain!"

Paid doesn't linger in prison, since its real subject is Mary Turner's pursuit of revenge against her oppressors. With no opportunities for an honest living on the horizon after her release, she falls in with a gang run by Joe Garson (Robert "Carl Denham" Armstrong). Mary and other women seduce, entrap and extort wealthy men with threats of breach-of-promise suits. Mary hits the law books and is able to tell the cops off when Garson's schemes are within the letter of the law. Meanwhile, she pursues her own agenda, seducing the son of her former employer. The object this time, however, is to humiliate the old man by actually becoming his daughter-in-law. But you know how it is. The kid is handsome and doesn't care that he was only a pawn in her plot, and she has real feelings for him. Meanwhile, the cops come up with a preposterous plan to trap the Garson gang. Their plant tries to convince Garson, who has extensive burglary experience, that the Mona Lisa is being kept in a local mansion. Garson himself is skeptical at first; he knows about the 1913 theft of the famous painting, but the plant assures him that a fake was returned to the Louvre, while the real Leonardo came to America. It doesn't take much to convince Garson after all, but the break-in ends in predictable disaster, with Mary's husband blundering into the middle of it while the plant gets killed.

The film's final act is a melodramatically psychological cat-and-mouse game pitting the cops against the members of the Garson gang. Mary refuses to rat out Garson, while her husband, not wanting Mary to take the rap for the killing, claims responsibility himself. Mary backs him, believing that he can dodge the chair by claiming self-defense. Mary's wise to the cops' tricks, alerting her husband to a bug in the room where the detectives expect them to incriminate themselves. Finally, Garson himself is brought in and made to believe that his cohorts have already confessed. Ultimately, however, Garson succumbs to the Pathos of Renunciation. He's had feelings for Mary, too, and he realizes that the only way to spare her another term in jail, or to give her a chance at a fresh start with a husband who loves her, is to take the rap himself, even if it means the chair. He puts on a brave, blithely hard-boiled face, but neither he nor the detectives are fooling Mary by assuring her that he won't burn. Fortunately, she has hubby's handsome shoulder to cry on. All of this shows the source story's age by the time Paid winds up; it may have seemed as hokey in 1930 as it does now. The film earns just about all its Pre-Code points in the prison scene, but Crawford's intensity keeps things watchable throughout. Her smart, tough-minded antiheroine is a more compelling criminal than Armstrong's old softy, and deserved a slightly better showcase.

No comments: