Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Pre-Code Parade: THREE WISE GIRLS (1932)

A girl walks home alone at night, but it's not that kind of a vamp. It's Jean Harlow and her date didn't go well. She left him in his car, presumably passed out, possibly knocked out based on what we see later, and she took his key with her, which she gives to a would-be samaritan driving the other way. In William (One-Shot) Beaudine's picture Jean is Cassie Barnes, a small-town soda jerk who lives and sleeps with her mother. Stop those thoughts right now; Pre-Code isn't that extreme and, anyway, women aged so much more rapidly in those Depression days that Cassie's mom (Lucy Beaumont) looks to us like Cassie's grandma. On top of that, Cassie's a good girl, in her sometimes surly, sometimes violent way, and what she really wants is to make enough money to make Mom's declining years more comfortable. When an old friend who found work in New York buys a new car for her aged mother, Cassie resolves to try her luck in the big city. Soda jerking is tougher there; the customers are more eccentric, the employers more grabby. She has to sock one of the latter, and one of the former, a hungover millionaire who ordered Bromo-Seltzer, has to intimidate that employer into paying Cassie her time when she quits ahead of getting fired. The drunk, Jerry (Walter Byron), gallantly drives Cassie home -- I should say he has his driver do that while he shares the passenger seat with her. Cassie still thinks he's a bit of a creep but she'll warm to him eventually. For now, she's got to find another job to hold up her end of the rent -- which is probably the lioness's share since roommate Dot (Marie Provost) actually has one of those envelope-addressing jobs you always used to hear about and throws a fit every time someone has a polysyllabic name.

Since that old friend of hers, Gladys (Mae Clarke), is doing well as a fashion model, Cassie decides to see her and Gladys decides to give her a tryout against the will of her manager, who changes his mind once he sees how Cassie can fit a gown. Gladys is living very well, beyond a model's means, because she's the mistress of a millionaire. She's impatient for her man Arthur (Jameson Thomas) to dump his wife and will warn Cassie for the rest of the picture not to hook up with a married man. Jerry proves persistent, however, and he's even willing to clean up his act to impress Cassie. One problem, though; Jerry's married, too, as Cassie discovers when the wife goes shopping to see her model clothes and surprise Jerry. Meanwhile, Dot's having better luck making time with Jerry's chauffeur (Andy Devine).

Is the title Three Wise Girls meant ironically? Possibly. We encounter women who get wise and women who think they're wise, but wise to what? This is a film pretty much without a moral, despite Gladys's attempts to impose one. She says don't hook up with married men and kills herself to make the point after her paramour publicly reconciles with his wife. On the other hand, a later newspaper heralds Jerry's divorce from his wife and signals a happy ending for Cassie. All this proves is that hooking up with a married man is a lottery. Cassie won and Gladys lost, while Dot probably had the sure thing all along by sticking with the chauffeur. Sure, it's Andy Devine but this was probably as young and hunky as he was ever going to be, and Provost was no prize compared to Harlow and Clarke. In any event, that lack of moralizing, the film's refusal to accept Gladys's fatalistic view of things, is a point in its favor. It scores additional points by being briskly written, without seeming rushed, and well shot by Beaudine, who's not bad at all when he has a real studio behind him, and cinematographer Ted Tetzlaff.  This is one of two features Harlow made at Columbia before settling into M-G-M stardom, and it whets the appetite for more Pre-Codes from that studio, from which most of us have seen little from the period other than Frank Capra's films, including Harlow's Platinum Blonde. Three Wise Girls is definitely a film of its period and a pretty good representative of it. It's tragically dated, in fact, since five years after its release two of the wise girls would be dead.

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