Monday, September 5, 2016
DVR Diary: TRAVELING SALESLADY (1935)
It's been argued that the advent of Code Enforcement in 1934 liberated women in Hollywood movies. because they could no longer use sex as such a blatant survival tool, they gained the freedom to be romantic, whimsical, less carnal or crass. I suppose Ray Enright's Traveling Saleslady could serve as proof for that proposition. Here are Warner Bros.' "Gimme Girls," Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell, together again, but while the advertising would make you think this is another gold-digging adventure for the dynamic dames, they're anything but gold diggers in this picture, nor are they a team. Blondell is an heiress, the only child of toothpaste magnate Rufus Twitchell (Grant Mitchell). She wants to be Dad's heir and helper in business like the son he never had would have been, but the old man is conservative in more ways than one. Unwilling to try new things, he thinks women unfit for business. Angela Twitchell is determined to prove him wrong. Sympathizing with a dotty scientist who has waited in vain for three months to see the old man (Hugh Herbert, confusingly participating in a screenplay co-written by his near-doppelganger, F. Hugh Herbert), she decides to take a chance on his invention: flavored toothpaste. She buys into the scientist's insane notion that you can market toothpaste to adults by making it in alcoholic flavors -- one must hope the stuff is odorless -- and it tells you something about the time this film was made that the idea is a tremendous hit with the public.
Angela becomes a covert competitor to her father. Not having the capital to start her own company, she leases the rights to "Cocktail Toothpaste" to Twitchell's biggest competitor, on the condition that she be hired under an assumed name to sell the stuff to drugstores. This makes her a direct rival to Twitchell's biggest salesman, Pat O'Connor (William Gargan). Ironically, it's Pat who uses sex (so we presume) as a career-advancement tool. He runs up a big expense account entertaining potential clients, and one of the biggest clients is the Ruggles drug store chain. Angela, aka "M. Smith," tries to pitch flavored toothpaste to company president C. Ruggles, and there's a magic moment when she confronts Claudette Ruggles (Farrell). Each is so exceptional as an entrepreneurial female that neither expects the other to be a woman. There's no such thing as gender solidarity in the toothpaste business, however, and Ruggles gives Angela the brush off, mainly because Pat O'Connor is her boyfriend. Farrell is second billed, since she and Blondell were recognized as a team, but she's really the fourth most important character, at best, after Pat and the scientist. The main story is saleslady vs. salesman, not Blondell vs. Farrell, as Angela learns the cut-throat ropes of the business with streamlined quickness while flirting with her antagonist. Despite his business loyalty to Ruggles, Pat can't help falling in love with "Smith," and if anything this is the most implausible part of the picture. The budding romantic feelings are mutual, you see, but these two are dedicated to destroying one another professionally, and Angela is winning. Her victories are parricidal as well as betrayals of a potential lover, for as she drives up her company's market share, Twitchell is forced to lay people off. Fortunately -- and I don't know if this is a Code requirement or not -- we're told that every single person laid off by Twitchell is hired by Angela's employer.
The final showdown comes at the big drug store sales convention in Chicago. Angela gets the early plane there and humiliates O'Connor and Ruggles by setting them up to be flown there by a skywriter advertising for Cocktail Toothpaste. Pat and Claudette hope to schmooze the other buyers by holding a big party with free eats in Pat's hotel suite, but Angela cheats by putting a "Rehearsal in Progress" sign over his door -- which really should have been open to begin with -- and redirecting everyone to her pitchroom. The results are devastating for Twitchell; the company meets only 10% of its sales goal and is forced to the wall. Angela even succeeds in breaking up Pat and Claudette, and there's another magic moment when Claudette, conned by Angela, declares herself through with men after discovering Pat's apparent betrayal. "GIGOLO!" they shout together in the ultimate role-reversal from the old gold-digging days. After all this, it seems too good to be true when Angela saves her father's company by reminding her boss that the one-year lease is up and the rights to Cocktail Toothpaste have returned to her, to be leased anew on the condition that the rival companies merge on terms favorable to her old man. This act of filial piety apparently is enough to make Pat O'Connor forget all the defeats and humiliations meted out to him by Angela -- whose true identity he's just learning now -- and agree to a merger of a different sort. I think we know who'll wear the pants in that household.
In a way, Traveling Saleslady is a vindication if not apotheosis of Blondell and Farrell, since the same mercenary determination they showed in the gold-digging films makes them mistresses of the universe here. It's just a shame that the writers never considered having Angela try to win Claudette over after the first rebuff, since you'd like to see Glenda Farrell use her brain rather than some other organ for this important business decision -- though if Claudette Ruggles found booze-flavored toothpaste a hopelessly ridiculous idea I couldn't really blame her.