Monday, February 5, 2018
Pre-Code Parade: MILLIE (1931)
With Joan Blondell showing up as a gold digger and Frank McHugh playing a friendly drunk, John Francis Dillon's film for RKO bears a strong resemblance to a Warner Bros. picture, but lacks the latter studio's irreverent attitude when those actors aren't on screen. Millie is a more overwrought melodrama and a vehicle for Helen Twelvetrees, a tawdry tragedienne. Millie Blake (later "Millie the Redhead" in a song written in her honor) is introduced eloping happily with a businessman who soon loses interest in her. Hooking up with her gold-digger pals (Blondell and Lilyan Tashman, shown sharing a bed as women often did, quite platonically despite the sapphic speculation of IMDB reviewers, during the Depression), Millie discovers hubby dating another dame at a niteclub and stages a marriage-killing confrontation. "Boy, can she sock!" Blondell warns as she charges hubby's table. From there, Millie becomes a liberated woman, the talk of the niteclubs, the protege of banker Jimmy Damier (John Halliday), rising from tobacco kiosk clerk to hotel concessions manager. Her heart belongs to humble newsman Tommy Rock (Robert Ames) until she learns that he's been seeing other women. It's diminishing returns from there ("She's Millie the Redhead, but nobody cares," the crooners sing) until her daughter Connie has grown into a teenager (Anita Louise)-- this is a film in which approximately 18 years pass with no discernible change in fashions or technology -- and Jimmy Damier's latest romantic target. Millie can't stand the thought of her child seduced by the old cad, so she pays a cabbie a $50 bonus -- that's considerable coin in 1931! -- to hurry her to the Damier place so she can shoot the banker. Comes the trial, martyr Millie plays dumb on the witness stand, unwilling to drag her girl's name through the courtroom even though the truth would guarantee her a justifiable-homicide defense. Fortunately, Connie's not so fastidious and arrives in court just in time to get Mom off the hook. At that point the film basically stops, with Millie's future still uncertain. I suppose she might get together with Tommy again, but she's seriously damaged goods by this point and I don't know if the audience believed in a happy ending for her beyond not being fried in the electric chair. I also get the impression that we're supposed to think Millie did something wrong somewhere, but I'm not sure when that happened. It's more likely that something went wrong with the screenplay. It's overlong for this sort of film at 85 minutes, with McHugh providing much of the padding with drunken comedy bits that have little to do with the main story. It has its moments, mostly provided by the genuinely talented Twelvetrees, but Millie is a melodramatic mess that other hands might have handled better.