TCM Pick for May: Pre-Code
What’s that phrase . . . an embarrassment of riches? Well, that’s what TCM is offering this month in the realm of pre-Code. I counted a whopping 28 pre-Code features airing in May – which certainly made it none too easy for me to select my pick of the month. It was a mighty struggle, but I finally narrowed it down to one: Midnight Mary (1933), starring Loretta Young, Ricardo Cortez, Una Merkel and Franchot Tone. You can catch it on TCM in the wee hours on May 15th.
Mary Martin (Loretta Young), on trial for murder, looks back over her life as she awaits the jury’s verdict. (It’s a succinct description, I’ll grant you, but believe me, there’s a whole lot more going on than this single line would indicate – poverty, larceny, abuse, deception, sacrifice, and providence – all in the span of 74 minutes.)
My favorite scene is actually a series of vignettes that depict Mary’s early life. In one, we see her at age 16, sitting on an apartment house stoop with her best friend, Bunny (Una Merkel), when a car pulls up. Inside are two men, Leo Darcy (Ricardo Cortez) and Angelo Ricci (Warren Hymer), who whistle and wink at the girls. At first Mary and Bunny dissolve into a fit of childlike giggles, but when the men beckon, the girls rise to their feet and head toward the car, Mary in the lead with a purposeful expression on her face. That looks tells us she may not know exactly what she’s getting herself into, but she’s determined to find out. The next shot shows the car barreling down the street – Bunny is passed out in the front seat, and Mary’s long, bare legs are actually draped over the outside of the vehicle. When we’re allowed a peek inside, we see Mary practically prone on the back seat, only partially visible as Leo holds her close and moves in for a kiss. (Good heavens!) Next, we see Leo on a set of steps below street level, talking to Mary, who is standing on the sidewalk above. Leo reaches through the wrought iron gate separating them, caresses Mary’s leg and says, “Come on, baby – what’re you afraid of?” With little hesitation, Mary descends the stairs (symbolism, anyone?) and goes with Leo inside the apartment below. And in the final scene, we see Mary and Bunny in a café, both with half-empty mugs of beer in front of them, as Mary sobs on her crossed arms (like a child again) and Bunny consoles her, saying: “Oh, what’s the diff, Mary – a girl’s gotta live, ain’t she?”
“Listen, baby – you can walk out on me any time you want to. I’ll never go after you. But you’ll always come back.” Leo Darcy (Ricardo Cortez)
- The film was originally called Lady of the Night, but apparently that title went a bit too far, even for the pre-Code era!
- The film’s director was William Wellman, who also directed Loretta Young in The Hatchet Man (1932), Heroes for Sale (1933), and The Call of the Wild (1935). It was during filming of the latter feature that Young had an affair with co-star Clark Gable, which resulted in the birth of her daughter, Judy. Young later reported to the press that she’d adopted Judy, who didn’t learn the truth about her parentage until many years later.
- Reportedly, Jean Harlow and Clark Gable were supposed to star in Midnight Mary, but they turned it down and the roles were rewritten for Loretta Young and Ricardo Cortez.
- In an early scene, Mary and Bunny are around the age of nine. The parts were played by Loretta Young and Una Merkel – the actresses were filmed at an angle from above to make them look smaller.
- Watch for this goof: At the start of the film, when we first see Loretta Young’s character in the courtroom, she’s reading an issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. But in the close-up shot a few seconds later, she’s perusing a Cosmo with an entirely different cover.
- Adapted from a story by Anita Loos, the screenplay for the film was written by Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola, who also collaborated on the scripts that same year for Baby Face, starring Barbara Stanwyck, and Female,starring Ruth Chatterton. Markey was married four times – his first three wives were famous actresses: Joan Bennett, Hedy Lamarr, and Myrna Loy. While married to Lamarr, he adopted her son, James, who became known as James Lamarr Markey. The boy was later adopted by Lamarr’s third husband, John Loder, and his name was changed to James Lamarr Loder. At Markey’s wedding to Myrna Loy, director John Huston gave the bride away.
- Ricardo Cortez’s sidekick in the film, Angelo Ricci, was played by Warren Hymer, a familiar face in numerous films of the 1930s – in fact, he appeared in nearly 100 pictures throughout the decade. Unfortunately, he also had a drinking problem – in the early 1940s, when he showed up drunk for a picture he was making for Columbia, studio chief Harry Cohn ordered Hymer off the lot. According to one version of the story, Hymer confronted Cohn and during their heated argument, the actor emphasized his point by urinating on Cohn’s desk. Apparently, Hymer picked the wrong desk on which to make his statement – after the incident, he was practically blackballed in Hollywood; for the rest of his career, he was seen only in minor roles or unbilled bit parts. He died in 1948 at the age of 42.
- Midnight Mary was one of 12 movies in which Una Merkel appeared in 1933 – some of her other films that year were Bombshell, with Jean Harlow, and Busby Berkeley’s 42nd Street. Merkel started her career five years earlier, in The Wind, as the stand-in for Lillian Gish. Speaking of Bombshell, an actress by the name of Martha Sleeper played the minor role of Jean Harlow’s hairdresser in the film. Sleeper can also be seen in Midnight Mary, as the wife of Franchot Tone.
Don’t miss Midnight Mary on May 15th (technically, the early morning hours of May 16th). You only owe it to yourself.