Sunday, August 9, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: THE EASIEST WAY (1931)

For Adolphe Menjou 1931 was the crucial year of his transition from silent stardom to a sound career. He had spent most of 1930 working in French, either in European productions or in the short-lived genre of Hollywood-produced foreign versions of their big releases. As The Great Lover demonstrated, the passage could be a minefield, even after Menjou had apparently found his footing with The Front Page. Jack Conway's M-G-M picture appeared before either of those films and adapted a play still considered daring and censorable thirty years after its stage debut. Menjou took second billing after Constance Bennett, though you'll note that some newspaper advertising featured him alone. If Great Lover approximated Menjou's silent star vehicles, featuring the star as a loveable cad, Easiest Way is a Constance Bennett showcase in which Menjou is in no way lovable. To be fair, none of the men in the picture are particularly lovable, including Robert Montgomery as the actual romantic lead, and especially rising star Clark Gable as Bennett's self-righteous brother-in-law. In short, this is a women's picture and a true Pre-Code product if also dated, given the source material, in its reluctance to make a real heroine of its main character.

Like many Pre-Codes, it puts the Depression in your face by placing Bennett in a squalid, crowded, working-class tenement family in which, it must be conceded, she doesn't seem to belong. As Laura Murdock, she shares a bed with her sisters (Anita Page and Elizabeth Ann Keever), who compete to kick each other out of bed in the morning. We're treated to ample lingerie shots of Bennett and Page as they, the breadwinners of the household (which includes two younger brothers as well as parents J. Farrell McDonald and Clara "Auntie Em" Blandick), prepare for their workday. While the Page character looks destined for housewifedom as Gable's girl, he being a laundry delivery man, Laura Murdock toils away as a department store sales clerk until a customer advises her that she has a figure worthy of an artist's model. That sounds questionable at first, but the man means commercial art, so she'll get to keep her clothes on. In painted form, Laura catches the eye of ad-agency mastermind William Brockton (Menjou), a Mad Man of his time, who makes her his mistress. This makes most of her family happy -- her out-of-work dad is happy to sponge off her -- but alienates her from her sister, if only because Gable takes moral offense at her position and a different kind of offense at her showing up at his humble home in a chauffeur-driven car to bring her sister expensive gifts. He may seem more like a jerk now than he was meant to originally, but I suspect that some Pre-Code audiences saw him that way already.

When Brockton leaves her at a resort while he goes on to a business meeting, Laura falls for aspiring foreign correspondent Jack Madison (Montgomery). Presumably yearning for legitimacy, she agrees to marry Jack but must first wait for him to return from an assignment in South America. Brockton takes getting dumped with Menjou's usual insouciance, but he's actually playing a waiting game as Jack's sojourn runs on and Laura's money and pawnable goods run out. Facing a hotel bill that must be paid at once, and having lost contact with Jack, Laura meets Brockton again and gets a new proposition: he'll take her back, but she must dump Jack in writing. This, presumably, is his insurance against her returning to Jack or, more likely, Jack taking her back.

Laura hasn't yet written the letter after two weeks, by which time Jack has returned to the U.S. This sets up an overly theatrical climax underscoring the story's old-fashioned tragic sensibility. If Warner Bros. made this film, I could imagine a farcical resolution in which Laura had sent the letter and must race to retrieve it before Jack can open it, her success setting up a happy ending with Jack none the wiser about her last crisis. Instead, the Metro film goes for pathos and an apparently necessary punishment for Laura. She stupidly arranges to meet Jack at the apartment Brockton has set her up in, hoping to elope with him before he can ask what she's doing there -- but of course Brockton shows up like the lord of the manor that he is, which sets Jack straight about things. Inevitably Jack breaks up with her and goes somewhere to get plastered, while Brockton magnanimously offers to keep Laura in the manner to which he's grown accustomed. She refuses -- and in a coda that apparently was one of several Metro shot for different markets or different tastes, we cut to Christmastime at the festive Gable-Page household, as a furtive figure lurks outside. Gable himself pulls up to discover Laura peeping through a window as her sister and niece decorate the tree. Gable learns that Laura has been "working" lately -- we're invited to put the worst possible spin on that -- but this bourgeois boor must have been haunted by ghosts recently, because he's surprisingly forgiving and friendly, inviting Laura in out of the cold for a family reunion. The film ends on an oddly ambivalent note, probably dictated by the Hays Office, in which a happy ending is promised but left to our imagination. Gable somehow knows the score up to this point and predicts that Jack will forgive Laura once he recovers from his bender, and until then, Merry Christmas!

Pre-Code cinema was never entirely immune from Hollywood's custodians of morals, but prime Pre-Code isn't as compromised as The Easiest Way, which seems to have been targeted for special scrutiny due to its enduring reputation as an immoral story. If Laura doesn't reunite with Jack at the end, that's probably less because Robert Montgomery wasn't available than that the Hays Office, usually less persuasive than the succeeding Breen Office, wanted the film to end on a more probationary note. That scandalous reputation probably guaranteed that the film would turn a profit, but it certainly did Adolphe Menjou no favors. As an all-American businessman he's closer to his eventual character-actor persona than he would be in Great Lover, but Brockton is also an all-American creep and a role that gradually drains Menjou of whatever charm he brought to the early scenes. It doesn't seem like the role you'd take if you still hope to be a top-billed star in your own right, but at that Menjou still has more charisma than the soft-spoken and ultimately self-pitying Montgomery, who had already filmed a dozen substantial roles before this but still looks pretty green. As I said, none of the male actors come off well, and even Constance Bennett never really seems right for her role. She's so posh in voice and manner from the beginning that you wonder whether she's a changeling left behind when the fairies took the Murdocks' real daughter. It may have felt more real had Bennett and Anita Page switched roles, but by 1931 there was only so much, probably, that anyone could do with this hoary material. Columbia Pictures cried foul when it came out because the Hays Office had effectively forbidden them from filming the play a few years earlier. I suppose the easiest way, then and now, is always to film a proven property with a marketable title, but Columbia and Metro should have tried harder.

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