Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: GOLD DUST GERTIE (1931)

Winnie Lightner was Warner Bros.' original gold digger, at least in the talkie era. Warners had been making "Gold Diggers" movies since 1923, but Gold Diggers of Broadway, a musical that surivives today only in fragments, was a big hit in 1929 and made Lightner a star. She was a different kind of gold digger than the ones we remember from a few years later, the predatory hotties like Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell. Lightener was no hottie, but got by on pure aggression. There's a ruggedness to her that marks her as a creature of early talkies more than of Pre-Code proper. Her star vehicles are slapstick comedies with a lot of the "nut" comedy -- she herself was "Wild Winnie" -- that was in vogue in those transitional years. She may have been a victim of the increased sexuality of Pre-Code as audiences found the Blondells and Farrells more plausible or appealing gold diggers. Maybe Lightner's characters were too mercenary for audience tastes. Ads called her the "Alimony Queen," and that's what she is in this Lloyd Bacon film: twice married, twice divorced, on the hunt for number three while demanding her money from the first two. Gold Dust Gertie is a follow-up to Lightner's hit The Life of the Party, and is based on a play called The Wife of the Party. That title sounds like a natural but Warners may have worried that audiences would think they'd seen the picture already. In it, Gertie makes life difficult for her ex-husbands, who have married twins, neither of whom knows that their men were married before. Nor does their employer know this, and he has all kinds of morals clauses for his workers. The old man (Claude Gillingwater) is as unsuited to his business as possible: he manufactures women's swimsuits, yet remains scandalized by any change in fashion since the nineteenth century that exposed more female flesh. This unlikely suspect becomes Gertie's new target -- whatever his faults, he sure is rich. Pretending to be a virtuous young woman, she'll take over as the old man's designer and put over her exes' ideas, thus assuring that they'll keep their jobs and she'll keep getting alimony until she reels in the big prize. Naturally, she needs to hide her past relationship with them from her new paramour, but just as her efforts appear to end with another trip to the altar, who should be waiting to perform the ceremony but the same minister who had married her off the two previous times....

Gertie's ex-husbands are played by Olsen and Johnson. They were among the ultimate nut comics, best known for anarchic live shows whose comic effects were hard to reproduce on the scripted screen. Here, seemingly, was a threat to Lightner: two Durantes to her Keaton, or a Polly Moran to her Dressler. Lightener could hold her own with rival comics, though, having to deal with a fast-rising Joe E. Brown in two previous pictures. Better still, if not for the men themselves, Olsen and Johnson are quite submissive in their supporting roles. Johnson (I think it is) still has that horrible high-pitched self-amused laugh, but otherwise they come probably as close to vanishing into their roles as they ever would. They have one fun bit of knockabout with Lightner as they strive desperately to hide her, before she conceives her imposture, from their boss. They try stuffing her into every possible nook or cranny of their office -- even under the rug is a possibility, before cramming her into a crowded closet. More typically Lightner is the dominant figure. When all the characters are on an ocean liner, and it's her turn to hide them from the boss, she tosses them through a porthole. They dangle from a rope over the churning water in convincing discomfort. The film has that knockabout spirit, an inheritance from Life of the Party acknowledged by a cameo from Charles Judels, a maniac comic whose destructive tantrums were highlights of the earlier picture. Judels has a single scene in Gertie, playing the original swimsuit designer who blames Olsen and Johnson for the rejection of his designs and goes berserk on them in classic "I keel you!" fashion until they lock him in a washroom. He embodies the insane energy these comedies have at their best, before Pre-Code comedy got, dare I say, more refined.

Gold Dust Gertie addresses the sensitive question of spousal battery in the manner of Laurel and Hardy. Was the violence wrought on husbands by wives in these comedies some form of guilty projection by male comics, or does it express the anxiety of a bachelor audience? I don't know if one-sided violence against wives was ever considered funny, but around 1930 or so one-sided violence against husbands must have seemed hilarious. Like the wives when Laurel and Hardy are married men, Olsen and Johnson's wives (Dorothy Christy and Vivien Oakland) aren't exactly unattractive -- they're better lookers than Lightener -- but they're relentless, unforgiving monsters of jealousy and avarice. O&J get in trouble with Gertie in the first place because their new wives, taken on only to please their boss, are taking all their money so there's none to spare for Gertie's alimony. Once Gertie re-enters their lives with threatening letters, illusions of marital bliss are shattered with violent force. The hubbies show up to work the next day scarred and bandaged. Compared to the old fogey boss, the wives are irredeemable and implacable. Once the boss learns the truth about Gertie, he forgives her, feeling that their adventures have given him a new appreciation of life. He even forgives Olsen and Johnson for their indiscretions, figuring that if Gertie had married them, they can't be all bad. These epiphanies follow a somewhat overdone waterborne chase scene with motorboats, the wives following behind in a rowboat. Will the wives be as forgiving as the boss? Of course not: Gertie advises the boys to swim for China as the wives approach, each wielding an oar like a weapon. Striking as one, the women pound their spouses through the beach with such force that they pop up in the ocean, resolved to take Gertie's advice. It's cartoonishly brutal and funny for that reason, but it's the sort of humor that has you questioning your laughter afterward. But the slapstick of Gold Dust Gertie is on such an absurd scale that you really shouldn't. It's not as good as Life of the Party (I've seen it but have yet to write about it) but its exuberant amorality may still win you over.

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