Decisions, Decisions: She Had to Say Yes (1933)
In light of Loretta Young’s wholesome screen image in the 1940s and 1950s, it has been a real kick for me to discover her pre-Code films. I’ve already discussed two of them at Shadows and Satin – Born to Be Bad and Employees Entrance – and I’m also fond of several others, including Midnight Mary, Play-Girl, They Call it Sin, and Weekend Marriage. But I feel compelled to share with you 1933’s She Had to Say Yes – not because I reveled in its delightful naughtiness, but because it left me slack-jawed and shaking my head. And not in a good way.
The first time I saw this movie, about a year ago, I was in the midst of a pre-Code binge and I didn’t really give it a lot of thought. In fact, I merely considered it to be an entertainingly scandalous feature and filed it away in my memory as one I’d like to write about one day. But in watching it more carefully in preparation for this post, I was practically traumatized – one scene after another offered dialogue and behaviors that caused me to pause my tape and hit rewind, just so I could re-live my own incredulity.
She Had to Say Yes stars Regis Toomey as Tommy Nelson, a salesman in a women’s wear company, and Young as his adoring secretary and fiancée, Florence Denny. When we first see these two, they’re emerging from a telephone booth, Tommy with lipstick on his face and Florence with an unapologetic expression on hers. We learn from the head of the company that business is not exactly booming – the firm’s clients are looking elsewhere because they are no longer being properly enticed by the “worn-out, gold-digging customer girls” whose job it is to entertain the buyers. Tommy gets the idea to use the fresh-faced employees in the stenographic pool in this all-important role – but he draws the line when it comes to allowing the future Mrs. Tommy Nelson to participate in his scheme. “You’re the only girl in the world that means anything to me,” Tommy tells her, “and if there’s any manhandling going to be done, I’m the guy that’s going to do it – get me?” (In other words, it’s okay for the other stenographers to be pimped out to the lecherous buyers, but not Tommy’s girl.)
Let’s take a closer look at Tommy. He seems to be quite a catch: devoted, protective, and so much in love, yes? No. Before long, we see him breaking a date with Florence so he can step out with the most popular of the new customer girls, a sexy blonde by the name of Birdie Reynolds. And later – despite his assertion that Florence is “just a kid – nice and wholesome and all that” – he gets Florence out of the way by craftily manipulating her into pinch-hitting for a “sick” Birdie to entertain an important out-of-town buyer. (“I couldn’t ask you to do that,” Tommy stammers when Florence insists on taking on the job. “Gee, I don’t know what to say. Of course, you’re the only girl I’d trust in Birdie’s place . . .” Yeah, right.)
The buyer is Danny Drew (Lyle Talbot), who takes Florence to a nightclub (the first time she’s ever been to one, by the way) and then asks her to accompany him to his hotel to take some dictation for some letters that he urgently needs to mail. To her credit, Florence is instantly suspicious – the expression on her face tells us this. But aloud, she responds, “it’s the oldest gag in the world, but I’m told the customer is always right.” (THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS RIGHT? Come ON!) And off she goes. When we see Danny furtively hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door, we know which way the wind is blowing, and we’re not wrong. He pours some champagne (which he gets from a suitcase-full, thoughtfully supplied by Florence’s company – and serves it over ice, yuck) and dictates a letter, and then he’s on her like a duck on a june bug. Florence struggles and begs for him to stop – “I hate being pawed!” she tells Danny, to which he replies, “Ah, but then maybe you’ve never been pawed properly. It’s really very nice.” Finally, Danny comes to his senses and apologizes, explaining that he thought her innocent act was “part of the racket.” And what does Florence say? (I can barely write it.) She tells him: “I guess it was my fault. I suppose you do feel cheated. I’m just not a good sport, that’s all.” Wait . . . what? Seriously?
Okay. Let me try to continue. Back at the office, Florence’s best bud and roommate, the straight-talking, no-nonsense Maisie (Winnie Lightner), learns that Tommy and Birdie are pussyfooting around and she makes it her business to expose the duplicitous duo. (“If I did what I felt like doing, you’d look like you’d been kissed by a trolley car,” Maisie tells Tommy.) When Florence sees them locked in an embrace, she immediately breaks her engagement to Tommy, who at first is contrite and apologetic, but quickly, and nastily, turns the tables by accusing Florence of sleeping with Danny Drew: “What time did you get home last night?” he asks. “I suppose you were out in the park feeding the squirrels. And where did you go? You went to his hotel, that’s where you went – I bet you didn’t get home at all.” For once, Florence offers a proper response – she slaps the crap out of him.
Danny shows up at Florence’s job before he leaves town to apologize again and confesses that he’s “that way” about her. As the two start a long-distance correspondence (highlighted with Danny constantly declaring his undying love), Florence becomes a full-time customer girl. Why, you may ask, would she do this, when she now knows, from first-hand experience, exactly what it is that the buyers expect? Why? I don’t know why. (Especially when she also knows that Tommy is the beneficiary of the commissions received from every buyer that she entertains!) Anyway, Florence’s customer girl activities prompt Tommy to show up at her apartment one night, drunk as a lord. (Incidentally, it’s after two o’clock in the morning, and she doesn’t even ask who it is – just opens the door. Duh.) Tommy first apologizes for his past actions, but in the blink of an eye he’s accusing Florence of “running around with all the buyers – you’re getting yourself talked about.” Tossing a wad of bills at her, Tommy tells Florence: “My money’s as good as theirs – now you just close your eyes and pretend I’m a buyer . . . I’ve been a chump – I thought we were playing for keeps, but I’ll take you this way. I’ll take you any way you want.” Tommy commences to mauling Florence, and she screams and cries and begs, managing to get away when a neighbor briefly intervenes. This entire scene is interestingly contrasted with the one immediately following, when Maisie arrives home after her own date with a buyer. After she reaches her door, accompanied by the more-than-tipsy fella, she first gives him a hip check when he stands too close. Then, when he enters the apartment behind her, she firmly pushes him out into the hall again: “This is where you get off – we don’t go any further,” she says. “I am going to let you say good night to me properly, and this is where you say it.” (Another great line from this scene can be found here.) The scene ends with Maisie slapping the buyer’s hat on his head, literally kicking him in the rear, and giving him a shove that threatens to send him tumbling down the stairs. Bye bye, buyer. She should’ve given some lessons to her roommate. For real.
Next day, after thinking about Tommy’s accusations, Florence decides that her self-respect trumps any benefit she has received from being a customer girl (although, for the life of me, I don’t know what benefit that could have been). But when she shares her intentions with the head of the company, he promptly fires her. She later tells Maisie that she wants a job “where the customers go home at night. Alone. Right now I don’t even want to see another man again.” But right after she offers this declaration, her phone rings and she lights up like a firefly when she learns that Danny is back in town. (“Talking to another man is different, huh?” Maisie cracks. “For a female who never wanted to see another man, you act as if the ants were after you.”) Danny takes Florence to a swanky restaurant where she spots Luther Haines (Hugh Herbert), a buyer who, coincidentally, is the very guy that Danny needs for a merger that will net him a big payday. When Danny learns that Florence knows him, he asks for her help in getting Haines’s signature on the contract, even offering her a thousand dollars if she succeeds. I found Florence’s reaction to be quite curious – she looks completely crestfallen after Danny makes his request. But why? Did she think he was asking her to sleep with the guy to get his signature? If so, couldn’t she . . . I don’t know . . . say NO? And if it were just a simple, innocent request for her to secure a signature from someone with whom she had a minor business relationship, then what was the big deal? And another thing – it’s not like Florence tried to hide her reaction to Danny’s request – it was pretty darn obvious that she wasn’t happy. Wouldn’t you think he’d have noticed the look on her face and said something like, “What’s the matter? Is there a problem? Why do you look like somebody just stepped on your pinky toe?” Or words to that effect. Anyway – of course she agrees to do it.
Florence meets up with Haines and coerces him to sign the contract by arranging for Haines’s wife and daughter to show up unexpectedly for dinner – afterward, Haines angrily confronts her, and (for some strange reason) Florence boasts that she earned a thousand dollars for the deal and calls him a “sucker.” When he meets with Danny later, Haines unwittingly gives him a false impression of Florence’s methods (telling him that she “trapped me in a room and threatened to tell my wife”): “I guess she’s been soaking you, too – but I’m on to her now. I understand she’s been living with young Nelson,” Haines says. “They work together. She lands ‘em and he collects.” Danny is incensed and, dining with Florence later, he gives her a thousand dollar check, telling her in a snotty tone, “You earned it.” In the second consecutive restaurant coincidence (Is there only one restaurant in the city? Does anybody ever eat at home?), Tommy is dining in the same establishment. Unable to keep his eyes off Florence and Danny, Tommy confesses to his dining partner that he started Florence in the “customer girl racket” and may have been wrong when he accused her of “going the limit” with the buyers. He goes on to say that he just wants to know for sure. So, when Florence and Danny leave, Tommy follows them.
And this brings us to the wild and woolly climax of this film. (Fasten your seatbelts – it’s going to be a bumpy scene.) Here goes. Danny tells Florence that he’s stopping at a friend’s house for a drink, and although they find the house both dark and unoccupied, Danny conveniently has a key. Once inside, he locks the door, pockets said key, and proceeds to go completely off the deep end: “See here, let’s you and I stop this pretending, shall we?” he says. “Pretending to be Little Miss Virtue . . . How long did you think I was going to fall for this wide-eyed stuff? Me, with a reputation a mile long – and I fall as though I never met a little tramp before . . . I was a sap to fall for that ‘untouched’ line of yours . . . From now on, you can give somebody else the runaround. Oh, I see — afraid there isn’t enough in it for you, is that it? There was a thousand dollars in it for you last night when you went on the make for Haines. I suppose your boyfriend Tommy Nelson got a cut on that, too.” And then, for the third time in this film, Florence is engulfed in a vise-like clinch and smothered with unwanted kisses as she screams and cries and struggles and begs. This time she is chased into a bedroom, where she abruptly goes limp in Danny’s arms and slithers onto a chaise lounge. “Well. That’s more like it,” Danny crows. “Decided not to fight it, huh?” He removes his coat and gets ready for action, but when he goes in for the kill, Florence asks softly, “Is this all I mean to you, Danny?” And this, for some reason, seems to attack Danny’s conscience, causing him to stop. He tosses her the key to the house, telling her to wait in the car: “I give up,” he says. “I guess I just don’t understand you.”
Florence tells Danny that the feeling is mutual – she doesn’t understand him, either. “I don’t think you want love,” she observes. “I loved you, really loved you . . . [but] it’s gone right out of my heart. I thought Tommy was bad, but he’s no worse than all the rest of you.” And speaking of Tommy, he pulls up in a taxi, just as Florence exits the house. (What NOW?) She asks him to take her away, saying she never wants to see Danny again and confirming that nothing happened between the two of them. Tommy is delighted that his “sweet kid” is still pure and untouched, but as he embraces her, her purse falls – and the check from Danny falls out. (!) “A thousand bucks. What’s this? So I was right all along,” Tommy says, “He’s used you, paid you off, thrown you out, and now you want to come back to me, is that it? I thought so. And I was worried about you. Worried about whether or not you – ah, you little – ”
But just then, from beyond the bushes – what’s that? Is it a squirrel? Is it a raccoon? No, it’s Danny to the rescue! He emerges to inform Tommy that he “can’t talk to her like that – you apologize!” When Tommy wants to know who’s going to make him, Danny’s response is – naturally – “I am!” and he punches him in the jaw! That proves to be quite a convincer. Tommy says he’s sorry, Danny says okay (literally – he says, “Okay, Nelson.”), and Tommy exits, stage right, whereupon Danny turns to Florence, trying to explain his confusion over all that has happened in the last minutes. Florence wearily replies, “Oh, why doesn’t a woman ever get a break? You treat us like the dirt under your feet – first Tommy, and then you, and now Tommy again.” And Danny’s reply? That he loves her, really he does – because if he didn’t, he “wouldn’t have said those terrible things” to her. Well, that explains everything.
But Florence isn’t finished with her speech. “You’re all alike,” she announces. “You’d trust a woman about as far as you could throw a piano. And the more you love her, the less you trust her.” Danny remorsefully asks Florence to forgive and forget, and marry him. And HER reply? “I suppose it’s just a matter of choosing the lesser evil.” Seriously. That’s what she said. The lesser evil. It would’ve been awesome if she’d said, “Bite me, Danny – you and Tommy are both a couple of jackasses. I choose me.” But no – she agrees to marry him. And that’s not all. (I wish that was all, but that’s not all.) Tommy starts to return to the house for his hat and coat, saying that they can drive back to town and be married in the morning, but Florence stops him and whispers something in his ear. (Good thing I couldn’t hear it, because at this point, I think my head would have exploded.) Whatever it was, Danny liked it – he gives her a poop-eating smirk, picks her up and CARRIES. HER. INSIDE.
Oh. My. Gosh.
I know that I have given you the entire story of this movie, but it really has to be seen to be believed. I don’t even know what to say to wrap this up. Were the writers smoking opium? Did they hate women? Did they hate men? Was Loretta Young especially hard-up for a paycheck? It’s a mystery. But if you get a chance, you HAVE to see it. I’m telling you. You only owe it to yourself. You have to say yes.