Friday, November 15, 2013


With Ginger Rogers leading the charge, fresh from 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, and Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins following close behind, this William A. Seiter comedy looks like a Warner Bros. invasion of RKO. However, Professional Sweetheart has a certain cartoonish amorality to it that's more characteristic of RKO itself than of Warners. It's a sendup of radio reflecting the already widespread awareness that real-life personalities didn't live up to the personas broadcast over the wireless. Ginger plays Glory Eden, the "Purity Girl" who sings for the Ippsie Wippsie Washcloth company. We recognize immediately -- contemporaries probably caught it as soon as Rogers appeared on screen -- a discrepancy between the performer and her radio image. Sotto voce, she threatens the MC that she'll close the program with some unscripted if not unprintable words if she doesn't get the "doodads" she was promised earlier. In a nice juggling of sound and image, we hear the Purity Girl sing her inane tune while the MC frantically runs around outside the studio trying to secure delivery of the doodads and protesting Glory's grasping nature to anyone he can grab. The doodads finally arrive; they seem to be lingerie that Glory's patron Mr. Ipswich (Gregory Ratoff) displays by holding them against his crotch. This only temporarily satisfies her; Ippsie Wippsie will have to do more if they want her to sign a long-term contract. Her main beef with the contract is all the morals clauses in it. Plucked from a small-town orphanage, Glory dreams of doing the town and indulging herself, but her employers won't even let her eat foods they deem inconsistent with her the Purity Girl's wholesome image. Her fantasies of Harlem are fueled by her maid Vera (Theresa Harris), an aspiring entertainer in her own right. Ipswich and his team (McHugh plays Speed the press agent) won't relent on most of the clauses, but figure that if they allow her a boyfriend she'll be happy. They seek out an Anglo-Saxon type ("Say, he's white!" Ipswich exclaims on seeing his picture) and find Jim, a fan from Kentucky (Norman Foster) with a performing bug of his own -- he enjoys reciting bad poetry. As Ippsie Wippsie starts a publicity buildup for an on-air wedding, the company's great rival, Kelsey Dishrags (Edgar Kennedy's the boss, Jenkins his minion), tries to entice Glory away with a contract free of morals clauses. Her enthusiasm for this offer disillusions Jim somewhat, but he decides to elope with her to Kentucky in order to tame her.

Rogers has already spent a good part of the film in her underwear, and there's been much fun made of Franklin Pangborn's effeminacy, but things get even more Pre-Code from here. While the Ippsie Wippsie people wonder where Glory went, Vera brazenly proposes herself as the new Purity Girl; her impromptu audition is a decidedly more sensuous rendering of Glory's theme song, "Imaginary Sweetheart." Meanwhile, in Kentucky, Jim attempts to discipline his angry new spouse, but Glory won't take the archetypal spanking sitting down. She fights back -- we saw her fury earlier when she hurled a library of unwanted books at Ipswich and friends -- until Jim lays her out with a sock on the jaw. Chagrined, he draws water to revive her. Already revived, Glory decides she'll enjoy the attention and plays dead a while longer. McHugh and Jenkins are dispatched to the hills by their respective masters to lure Glory back. McHugh gets the idea that if they actually do hire Vera as the Purity Girl and put her on the air, jealousy will draw Glory back to New York. It's a good plan, better even than Speed thought. His idea was that Glory would be jealous of Vera taking her spot. He did not reckon on the way Jim would respond to hearing Vera sing. "Her voice sure does ... hey, they shouldn't oughta put that on the radio!" he sputters, but soon he's swaying uncontrollably to Vera's rhythm. And remember, he's been captivated by the voice of a black woman who's just taken over a white woman's spot on the air. Glory's definitely ready to go back to work, but now she wants Jim to share air time with her. However, Jenkins has stolen a march on McHugh and the Ipswich team. Having seen earlier how they'd tricked Jim by letting him recite his doggerel into a dead microphone, Jenkins has signed Jim to a contract to do his thing for Kelsey Dishrags. Since Glory won't work without Jim anymore, what's Ippsie Wippse to do? Since this is a romantic comedy, a merger of souls is echoed by a merger of companies in one program. Poor Vera is lost in the shuffle, admittedly, but what else is new?

This little picture is such an embarrassment of comic character actor riches that they don't have time to find something interesting for Zasu Pitts to do. She shows up early as a reporter seeking an interview with Glory ("You can trust me," she says, "I eat with the stars, I sleep with the stars" -- at which point she has Glory's complete attention) and is supposed to become some sort of confidant of our protagonist, but disappears for big chunks of the picture, though she does get the last word. Edgar Kennedy is also relatively underutilized; there's little time to get his slow burn really going. Given all the talent in front of the camera, Professional Sweetheart is inevitably less than the sum of its parts, but it's such a good-natured whirlwind of exuberant irreverence that it's hard not to be amused. It was the start of a second tour of duty for Ginger Rogers at RKO, this one securing her place in movie history, and while she comes off a little more obnoxious than normal, as a comedienne she got off on the right foot. That would prove a useful skill.

1 comment:

VP81955 said...

I wrote something on this film some years back: