Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: ANN CARVER'S PROFESSION (1933)

Fay Wray was the first and remains the greatest of Hollywood's scream queens. History has typed her as a damsel in distress, but this Columbia release proves that Wray's mighty vocal instrument could also be used as a weapon in a portrayal of a woman of power. Her Ann Carver works her way through law school as a short-order cook, while her boyfriend Lightning Bill Graham (Gene Raymond) is the campus football hero. She earns her law degree and passes the bar exam but appears satisfied with the life of a housewife while hubby struggles to bring home the bacon as an architect. His prospects for advancement are limited, and Bill limits them further by refusing an offer from his pal, now a niteclub owner -- to make more money as a singer. Perhaps clinging to an old code of amateurism -- he's a man of old codes -- Bill refuses to exploit his athletic celebrity to earn a living. Meanwhile, at a dinner party, Ann eavesdrops on a conversation about a high-profile legal case. It becomes clear that she's been following the story and her opinions are surprisingly expert and critical of the defendant's legal team, the leader of which is present at the party. Rather than offended, the old attorney is impressed, hiring Ann to take his place when illness keeps him out of court.

This case is dynamite. A young man of good family is being sued for breach of promise by a light-skinned "colored" woman (Diane Bori in her second and apparently last film performance, despite living until 2004, the same year Fay Wray died). He dropped her when he realized she was colored, but it's her contention that he knew she was colored all along, and it's the contention of her lawyer (Robert Barrat, straying off the Warner Bros. reservation) that "only a blithering idiot" would not have realized from the start that the plaintiff was colored -- he has her bare her shoulder in the witness box to illustrate the point. Unquestioned here is the implicit assumption that it would be OK for the defendant to dump the plaintiff if she had, in fact, deceived him about her race.

Ann declines to cross-examine the plaintiff, and asks for a recess when Barrat closes the case for his client. She returns to call Barrat as her only witness. Her first question to him is, "Are you a blithering idiot?" It's a highly irregular question, but Ann wants to prove a point. She does this by bringing six women into the courtroom. All have a similar complexion, but Ann announces that three of them are white, while three are black. Can Barrat tell white from black? His contention was that the average man should be able to tell, but while the judge spares him from answering, it's clear that he's flummoxed. All this testimony, and the six women, now stripped to their bathing suits, are thrown out, but Ann has introduced the necessary degree of doubt in jurors' minds to win the case for the defendant. We the audience are left to understand that the defendant honestly mistook the plaintiff for a white girl and was justified in dumping her once he realized his error. Does that make the film racist? Only insofar as it reflects the legal precedents prevailing in a more racist society than our own, and in any event the race angle is quickly eclipsed by the movie's sexual politics.

The newspapers report that a legal star is born, and Ann quickly becomes a full partner in the firm. She proves superhumanly versatile, masterful both in the "circus" tactics of the criminal courtroom and the subtleties of corporate law. Meanwhile, Bill continues to grind away at his architect job, increasingly self-conscious of who actually brings in the big bucks in the family. The last straw for him is when he lacks the cash on hand to pay the household servants, Ann having forgotten to write a check before heading to Washington to negotiate some big business deal. He can still make more money at his pal's niteclub -- the pal has an annoyingly "humorous" habit of cutting words off at the final syllab -- and now he decides to do so. If Ann's success has humiliated (not to mention emasculated) Bill, his plunge into show business humiliates her. She travels in elite company now, and having her husband sing for his supper on the strength of his athletic fame -- it sure isn't on the strength of Gene Raymond's singing; he stinks -- undermines her social standing. Ann Carver's Profession is often condemned as a sexist film, and it definitely is that, but Ann's classism arguably counterbalances Bill's sexism. Her contempt for his crooning is compounded by gossip linking him to the niteclub's female star, Carole Rodgers (Claire Dodd). Carole's "the hottest white girl in town," according to the niteclub's black ladies' room attendant, "She takes them there and brings 'em back alive." It doesn't help that Carole is aggressively pursuing Bill. Dragged to the niteclub by her new social set, Ann seethes as Carole plants one on Bill just offstage, but doesn't hear Bill tell Carole, "Never do that again!" While he sings his lousy number, Ann contemptuously throws coins at his feet and storms out.

The apparent end of Bill's marriage emboldens Carole, who attempts a drunken seduction of her co-star. Getting the cold shoulder, Carole manages to pass out on Bill's bed, crack her head on the metal bedpost, and strangle herself when her necklace gets caught on the post while she slides off the bed. It's hard to believe on screen, and in the movie itself Bill gets arrested for murdering Carole. Guess who represents him in court, whether Bill likes it or not? At this point, Ann Carver becomes a distaff Free Soul with Fay Wray in the Lionel Barrymore role as the defense attorney with a dysfunctional family. In A Free Soul, Barrymore defends his daughter's boyfriend by denouncing himself for having brought his girl up wrong so that she got in trouble with a gangster, which led to the boyfriend killing the gangster. Likewise, Ann Carver defends her husband by blaming herself -- referring to herself in the third person throughout and having first argued very persuasively that the prosecution has failed to prove either deed or motive -- for ruining poor hubby's life by having a career of her own. Barrymore's aria climaxes with the old man dropping dead in the courtroom; it's enough for Wray to have her character commit career suicide. "I have tried my last case," Ann declares, as Raymond beams with adoration.

The film's ending insults the intelligence not just because it accepts the necessity of Ann's retirement, but because somehow -- somehow in the way exposure to nuclear radiation somehow gives people super powers -- Bill now becomes a successful architect so they can live on his earnings after all. You hope against hope that we'll learn that Ann is acting as his legal counsel, since that seems like the only way he could get ahead -- but forget it; her destiny is to bear Bill's brats. She admires his design for their new home because it lets in sun and air; he answers that he's thinking of just that: a son and heir. Ha ha ha. The worst part of it all is that Wray's superwoman must surrender her career, and the world must do without a powerful legal mind, all for the sake of an utter loser. Gene Raymond is the blonde booby of Pre-Code cinema; the man makes George Brent come across like Gable. He does next to nothing in the picture besides pity himself and sing poorly. I can't help but think -- I guess I'd like to think, that even in 1933 audiences recognized that Bill was unworthy and undeserving of Ann, especially when Fay Wray is giving what probably is her greatest acting performance. Not most iconic, obviously, but greatest. She's as persuasive as an omnicompetent legal whiz as Ann is in the courtroom and boardroom. Weaponizing her verbal pyrotechnics, she blasts formidable character actors like Barrat off the screen and makes Raymond look even more like nothing than he normally does. The film itself concedes the point, given the evidence of Raymond, that men are the weaker sex, but it also argues, against all reason given the evidence of Wray, that women must sacrifice their ambitions and talents to take care of these big babies. It all makes you want to scream....

No comments: