Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Pre-Code Parade: NO MARRIAGE TIES (1933)

On September 22, 1927, arguably the biggest sporting event in the U.S. during the 1920s took place: the rematch for the heavyweight championship between Gene Tunney and the man he had dethroned the year before, Jack Dempsey. The Chicago Reflector assigned star sportswriter Bruce Foster (Richard Dix) to cover the fight, but Foster is too busy getting drunk to see the famous Long Count. He's preoccupied with a novelty game that requires him to lift a little ball with his breath and latch it onto a tiny hoop. By comparison, arch film drunkard Arthur Housman is the model of sobriety as a sympathetic speakeasy bartender. By the following morning Foster has lost his job, but he makes a new friend in Peggy Wilson, one of those too-good-to-be-true movie dames, more like a screwball comedy heroine, who doesn't give a damn about anything and is only amused by Foster's erudite inebriation. Peggy's a lucky girl, winning a jackpot on one of the speakeasy slots on her first try, and she clearly has an instinct for befriending the right drunks, as Foster, though blackballed from journalism, soon finds himself an advertising executive.

Bruce just happens to be haunting the bar on a night when a real ad executive (Alan Dinehart) is chewing out an incompetent copywriter (Hobart Cavanaugh) who can't come up with a strong slogan for toothpaste. Bruce proves to have a knack for slogans, an instinct for fearmongering. He wins a job, and eventually a partnership, with something along the lines of "Don't Let Your Teeth Kill You!" Director J. Arthur Ruben and his writers clearly had in mind Listerine's long-lived ad campaign warning that halitosis could ruin anyone's career and social life. As a successful ad man, Foster applies that principle to all his clients, and just as he doesn't scruple at exaggerating the threats the products can remedy, he doesn't scruple at exaggerating the products' benefits. Peggy's along for the ride as the agency's new graphic artist -- her stuff is "pretty bad," but that's getting off lightly at company conferences -- but Bruce has his eyes on bigger game.

Told by his increasingly disillusioned partner that no truly classy client will sign with him, Foster picks a name at random and applies his personal brand of supersalesmanship on Deane Cosmetics. Adrienne Deane (Doris Kenyon) is an entrepreneurial superwoman in her own right, not only designing her own products but modeling in her own ads, but in Bruce's hands, after he sneaks into her office disguised as a chemist, she turns to emotionally needy mush. He confuses winning the account with winning the woman until he realizes that he's been a heel to Peggy, whose artistic ambitions can no longer be contained by advertising work. Foster decides that the right thing to do is break off his engagement with Adrienne, but he's hardly returned to his office before word comes by phone that Deane has killed herself. This drives home to our hero the pitfalls of false advertising, and lest the great agencies who presumably placed ads for RKO Radio Pictures in all the magazines take offense at this picture's portrayal of their trade, he delivers a numbing mea culpa in praise of the ad industry and its important contributions to the nation's economic growth, blaming any excesses of the profession on bad people like himself. And so Bruce Foster returns to his level, getting wasted at the same old speakeasy before finally figuring out the breath game. As if on cue, Peggy returns from a European sojourn and embraces the big slob once more. This "Mad Men of 1933" is interesting as a wishy-washy satire of advertising but unimaginative in its melodrama and preposterous in imagining a drunk Richard Dix as irresistible to anyone, much less two seemingly intelligent women. I suppose it was a kind of power fantasy of making a fortune through misanthropy and bailing out before any real comeuppance with the assurance that someone still loves your true pathetic self.  There probably was an audience for that sort of stuff during the Depression, and for all I know you could remake No Marriage Ties today and win over similar people.

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