Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Pre-Code Parade: HAVANA WIDOWS (1933)

"How many times do I have to tell you, find out who a guy is before you slug him."
- Joan Blondell to Glenda Farrell 
Contemporary movie reporters for local newspapers, presumably guided by studio publicity, treated Ray Enright's comedy as a kind of prose sequel to Busby Berkeley's musicals of 1933, which made gold diggers a hotter topic than ever as well as revolutionizing film choreography. Joan Blondell had appeared in two of the Berkeley musicals, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade. Havana Widows marked the formation of the greatest female comedy team of the era when Blondell joined forces with Glenda Farrell. Not yet dubbed the "Gimme Girls," they more or less earn that epithet here. Widows establishes the template for future Blondell-Farrell films with Glenda as the more hard-boiled and mercenary of the two and Joan as more of a softie and a romantic. They're usually indistinguishably hard-boiled at the start of a story, as they are here as showgirls down on their luck. Glenda has been fined five bucks, a big chunk of her weekly pay, for scratching her itchy back on stage. Joan has been suspended without pay for a week because she wouldn't go to a "smoker" in Passaic and "show them something." The wolf, or at least the landlady is at the door -- but the old lady isn't after the rent today. Instead, she announces that a former co-worker has come to see the girls. They fear the worst, that their old colleague has come to touch them for money they can't spare. They're shocked to find she's struck it rich by going to Cuba and luring a rich American tourist into a breach-of-promise trap with the help of a trusty shyster. Naturally our girls see that the road to riches goes through Havana, but they need a grubstake. They decide to put the touch on their old pal at her hotel, but when they see a long line of showgirls with the same thought in mind they decide to seek alternate financing. Fortunately, Glenda's dolt of a boyfriend (Allen Jenkins) is the bodyguard and good-luck charm of a local gangster. The girls convince Jenkins to come up with the $1,500 to set themselves up in Cuba as the titular widows, albeit by telling him that Joan has to pay for a relative's operation in Kansas; he comes up with it by borrowing from his boss. Jenkins can't lay off the roulette wheel, however, and promptly loses all the money. Luckily, insurance salesman Hobart Bosworth has alternate financing for Jenkins: if the dumb lug will take out a life insurance policy, Bosworth will kick him back $1,500 out of the big commission he'll earn. Jenkins delivers the money but sees a newspaper headline about a notorious forger and starts to worry.

The girls promptly blow their roll on clothes and a fancy hotel room while they hunt for men. They're plagued by a drunk who keeps coming into their suite to use their door latch as a bottle opener. This lush turns out to be Duffy the shyster (Frank McHugh), who when functional helps the girls entrap a suspicious Guy Kibbee, even as Joan falls for Kibbee's son (Lyle Talbot). Time is running out, however, since Jenkins has figured out where the girls have actually gone, following them to Cuba so he can get his money back to repay his boss, who follows Jenkins to the island in turn. This sets up a would-be farcical slapstick finish -- highlighted by Kibbee's infantile panic at the prospect of a "Frame-up!!" -- but Havana Widows isn't really that perfectly plotted. Intended as a showcase for almost the entire comedy division of the Warner Bros. stock company (Hugh Herbert is conspicuously missing, though some might not miss him) as well as launching the Blondell-Farrell team, it has a few too many characters to juggle and not enough motivation to keep all the balls in the air. What makes it worth watching is the comic chemistry of the Gimme Girls. Here are two actresses who did not benefit from the supposed female empowerment, as described by David Denby in his recent New Yorker essay, that allegedly came with Code Enforcement and the rise of the romantic comedy. Blondell and Farrell may not be feminist role models in their capacity as gold diggers, but their main job was to be funny together, and in that capacity they're outstanding. For what it's worth, like many a Depression film Widows is grounded in economic reality and the struggle to get by, if not get ahead. It might have been more admirable in retrospect if the girls decided to start a business for themselves instead of gold digging, but they're characters in a comedy and the idea was to make people laugh at the lengths other people might take to find economic security and some comfort in their lives. The Gimme Girls have no less spunk or sand for trying to land a sugar daddy (though neither does in the end) than if they'd tried something more honorable, and their way is simply funnier in a way their audience appreciated.

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HiToplay said...
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