Scandalous Scenes in Pre-Code: Beauty and the Boss (1932)
Every now and then I come across a scene in a pre-Code film that literally leaves me with my mouth open. Beauty and the Boss (1932), starring Warren William, David Manners, Mary Doran, and the lovely Marian Marsh, contains such a scene.
I haven’t yet seen the entire movie, but from what I’ve been able to gather thus far, the film concerns a time-conscious, ever-so-busy bank president, Baron Josef von Ullrich (William), who certainly appreciates the charms of beautiful women, but not when those charms interfere with his business. Here’s the set-up of the scene that caused my jaw to drop: the Baron has just returned to his bank in Vienna after a trip to America (during which, incidentally, he didn’t speak to a single woman, unless it was a secretary: “When I’m on business, I work. When I make love, I keep my mind on it. But both together? Never!”). Immediately throwing himself back into his work, the Baron calls for his stenographer, Miss Trey (Mary Doran), and orders her to sit down so that he can dictate a cable.
And here’s where the fun begins. My attention was first caught from the moment Miss Frey walks into the Baron’s cavernous office – when she asks how he got back from America so soon, he gruffly and matter-of-factly responds, “On a boat!” She sits and he begins his staccato-like dictation, but he stops short when she crosses her legs and her lengthy skirt rides up to reveal her knees. “Yes, I see it! But I’ve seen better!” the Baron says. And Miss Trey’s rather flustered response is, “Why, I didn’t think you could see my, uh . . .” and she makes this little gesture with her hands. The Baron laughs a little and assures her that he cannot, but he not only suggests that she “leave [her] skirts down during office hours,” he actually reaches over and yanks her skirt back down over her legs.
First of all, see her what? Her underwear? Her lady parts? I couldn’t believe my eyes or ears. But there was more to come.
Seconds later (after directing her to contact the employment agency to see if a trained male stenographer is available), the Baron continues his dictation, only to halt again when Miss Trey shifts in her chair. “Don’t squirm!” he barks. “I know you have hips!” Then, without missing a beat, he sniffs the air and irritably inquires, “An odor in my office? What is it?” Miss Trey coyly informs him that it’s her special blend of perfume, “Love at Dawn.” And the Baron rejoins, “Dawn. Good time for it. Make a note. All employees of this office shall refrain from using perfume during banking hours.”
Back to the dictation. And another disruption when the Baron tells Miss Frey to stop repeating what he says and she explains that she does it in an effort to keep up with his rapid dictation. “I do everything rapidly,” he says – and Miss Frey responds, “Oh, Baron!” and adopts this naughty, shameless expression of recognition. And if this weren’t enough, Miss Frey then drops her pencil and the Baron watches her bend down to pick it up. “Why do you wear your dresses so low?” he barks. Miss Frey answers, “Well, I’m sorry if my shoulders annoy you,” to which the Baron actually says, “It’s not only your shoulders, it’s the whole area . . . your, uh . . . I don’t like it!” And Miss Frey says, “You mean, uh . . .” and gives another one of those little hand gestures before pulling the sides of her blouse together to cover her cleavage! But the Baron isn’t finished: “Low necks, bare shoulders and bank hours don’t mix! Make a note. All female employees of this establishment must wear long sleeves and high necks.”
The dictation resumes, but after another glance at Miss Frey, the Baron interrupts himself to offer up this beyond-belief speech: “Miss Frey, you’re much too pretty to be caged in a bank. No woman should look pretty who works in a bank. It disturbs the bankers. Takes the eyes of the tellers from their bills and currency. The clerks become confused at their columns. It’s dangerous – invites disaster! Men don’t come here to be happy, they come to earn their daily bread. Women are for non-working hours. And you’re much too pretty. And soft. And seductive. You distract me! Think what I lose contemplating your charms! My time’s worth five thousand an hour – already I’ve lost 10 minutes looking at you. That’s over eight hundred. In a year, I should lose a million and a half! Here, Miss Frey, you are not a woman. [You’re] just a writing machine. And don’t forget it again.”
After this declaration, the Baron receives a visitor, a senior citizen Count who walks with a cane, but despite his age, still has an eye for the ladies (“Thirty years ago I decided to devote myself entirely to beautiful young women and fine old wines,” says he. “Since then, I’ve always been intoxicated by one or the other.”) The Baron and the Count begin to delve into Miss Frey’s personal life, learning that she’s 21 years old, unmarried, not engaged, and doesn’t have a “sweetheart.” This leads to the following observation from the Baron: “Poor child. Twenty-one and no sweetheart. Addicted to Love at Dawn perfume. Smartly dressed. Silk stockings over perfect legs. An exquisite pair of shoulders. In short, a very distracting young woman. Miss Frey, you will please report yourself to the head of the personnel department to tell the manager that you are no longer employed here.”
Later, Miss Frey returns to plead her case, endeavoring to explain why her work was not always up to par: “Every time I looked at you, I hit the wrong key. Your hair has such an adorable touch of gray. Your eyes frighten me but your smile intoxicates me!” But the Baron is resolute in his determination to terminate her employment. Miss Frey reluctantly gives up, but just as she reaches the door, the Baron calls her name, in a voice softer than any he has used throughout this entire scene. “Won’t you sit down?” he asks. He offers her a cigarette from his case and lights it for her with a gleaming leer, then exposes a pop-up glass bar in the corner of the room (that I would kill to have, incidentally), and pours her a drink. When Miss Frey expresses her confusion, the Baron reasons, “You see, you’re no longer in my employ. You’re just a very charming young person who’s giving me the pleasure of her company. We were all wrong, you see. You’re a girl for the evening, whom I met, unfortunately, only in the daytime. You’re a playgirl, and I talked business to you. I shall see you in the evening, when there’s no business day to be ruined. When I have a weak moment. I suspect it may be soon.” (Good heavens!)
The Baron then hustles Miss Frey to the door, telling her to report to the cashier for six months’ severance. But before she leaves, he instructs her to leave her telephone number – “I’ll call you when I’m in a proper – or, rather, an improper – mood.” And the topper? Miss Frey, in delight, squeals, “I’m so happy!” and moves to embrace him. But the Baron stops her short with an uplifted hand: “No, save it! This is not the moment! I’m too busy now.” But Miss Frey is undaunted – she willingly departs, blowing him a kiss full of promises just before she exits.
I have watched this 10-minute scene countless times. Perhaps that’s why I haven’t yet seen the entire movie – I can’t get past this outrageously scandalous sequence! I just love it. If the rest of the film is as entertaining as this brief stretch, then I know I am in for a treat. And if it’s not, I will console myself by continuing to watch this scene over and over again!