Saturday, May 30, 2015


The Pre-Code Parade was over by 1935 but Warner Bros.' "Gimme Girls," Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell, soldiered on a while. This Ray Enright film was their last film as a starred team and a certain demoralization has set in. Under the Production Code, our heroines could not be the sort of gold-diggers they played so well so recently, despite what the poetic ad above tries to tell you. Instead, they run a struggling ring-toss concession on a San Pedro, California, amusement pier, and are less worried about landing rich husbands than about paying the $60 monthly rent on their apartment.They ought to make a killing when the Pacific fleet arrives in town, but their best customer proves to be their worst: "Kewpie" Wiggins (Allen Jenkins) of the USS Arizona, the middleweight boxing champion of the fleet and an uncanny ring tosser who spends his first day ashore cleaning our girls out of prizes. Jenkins either was skilled enough to do some of his own "stunts" here or else Enright figured out ways to fake his skill convincingly. If he comes back tomorrow he'll ruin them, so since he's staying conveniently across the street from their pad they contrive a scheme to lure him over only to get him arrested for harassment. Enter J. August Freytag (Hugh Herbert), the local business booster, a compulsive self-applauder and drinker who even keeps booze in plastic cigar containers. His latest big idea is to hold a "Miss Pacific Fleet" beauty contest, the idea being that people who buy from participating businesses will get votes to cast to choose the winner. To further drum up publicity, he recruits Kewpie to fight a local champ, the winner to get several thousand voting tickets. Having gotten the call from the girls, Kewpie invites the married Fretyag to go over with him, and when Kewpie makes a store run for cracked ice Freytag enters alone and falls into the trap. But as a business leader he has pull with the police, so it's Blondell who gets arrested. She can't pay the fine but a forgiving Freytag gets her sprung, on the condition that she raise the money in a certain time or go back to jail. Now the girls have that fine and the rent to worry about. Farrell's solution is to run Blondell for Miss Pacific Fleet, since the winner gets a big cash prize. Since Kewpie has a crush on Blondell, Farrell figures that once he wins that fight and those votes, victory will be a cinch.

But of course it's not a cinch. The big complication is that Blondell falls hard for a handsome, bland Marine (Warren Hull) and is dumb enough to show up with him for the big fight. Perhaps the most unconvincing boxing champ in cinema history, Kewpie is getting his ass beat until he sees Blondell snuggling with the Marine in the stands. Going into a poor excuse for a berserker rage, he kayoes his man with a series of devastating punches to the arm, claims his tickets, and gives them to a scatterbrained girl (Marie Wilson) who's been stalking him through most of the picture. That puts Blondell behind in the voting, but she still has chance enough to distress Freytag's wife (Minna Gombell), who suspects her of having an affair with her husband. Desperate to prevent her victory, she recruits an ex-con she just happens to know (Guinn Williams) to have Blondell kidnapped, to prevent her from soliciting any more votes. Big Boy's boys make their move in the midst of the confusion generated by a random catfight. Learning of the crime, Kewpie embarks on a seaborne rescue operation that looks like an inferior do-over of the water chase in the last Blondell-Farrell vehicle, We're in the Money. There's further confusion to clear up, but rest assured of a happy ending for everyone but Freytag, who exits pursued by his spouse.

You can see the demoralization on the co-stars' faces. They look tired and beaten and compared to We're in the Money, where they play process servers with some of their old aggression, they really have very little to do here. They seem a little like their old selves when they're bickering with each other, but otherwise the Production Code has tamed them, though Farrell would soon emerge re-energized as Torchy Blaine in a series of B pictures. Here, however, whatever the billing says this may as well be an Allen Jenkins movie. He and Herbert (later reteamed in the immortal Sh! The Octopus) get all the physical comedy and actually have good chemistry together, particularly in the running gag that has Herbert always beating him to the loose change in pay phones. Herbert is one of those oddities who always leave you wondering how his absolutely dysfunctional characters end up in positions of responsibility in the first place, but I suppose you're not supposed to ask such questions of comedies. I find him a guilty pleasure, while I admire Jenkins with fewer reservations. It's up to them to make Miss Pacific Fleet entertaining in the virtual absence of the stars, and they just about manage it. But you can't help feeling sadness and defeat in sympathy with the once-mighty Gimme Girls at the end of their tether as a team. This film may have been released at the end of 1935, but to look at Blondell and Farrell you'd think a depression was just getting started.

No comments: