The Mary Astor Blogathon: Behind Office Doors (1931)
I bought it on the cheap, years ago, when I was on a desperate search for any pre-Codes I could get my hands on. (On which I could get my hands?) For some reason, though, I never watched it.
So when the Mary Astor Blogathon was announced (and my first and second choices were snapped up faster than you can say “Bob’s your uncle”), I figured this was a prime opportunity to dive into this film and see what was what.
Well, I’ve watched it three times now. And I still don’t know what to think.
What’s it all about?
The deserving subject of our blogathon stars in Behind Office Doors as Mary Linden, an intelligent, efficient and hardworking office girl who is in love with her boss, Jim Duneen (Robert Ames). That’s really the whole movie, in a nutshell. Oh, I forgot one thing – throughout most of the film, Mary carries an unrequited, self-sacrificing torch for Duneen – for reasons that are, to me, completely unclear. Duneen is a chauvinistic, bombastic clod, who calls Mary “girlie,” takes credit for her ideas, and is just an all-around jackass. Even Mary’s best friend, Delores (Kitty Kelly), fails to comprehend his charms; referring to Duneen as a “cheap salesman,” she queries: “Out of a city of six million people, why do you have to pick him?”
But let’s begin at the beginning. (And watch where you step – there are spoilers up ahead!) The film opens at a party where the grown-up revelers are playing a game of Blind Man’s Bluff. While there, Mary meets Ronnie Wales (Ricardo Cortez, in a totally thankless role), who flirts with her but conceals the fact that he’s married with children. It’s while Mary is playing a game of “Truth” with Ronnie that we learn she’s in love with a man who, according to her own admission, doesn’t even know how to correctly pronounce her name. That man is Jim Duneen.
Duneen works in the office where Mary is employed, and when the president of the company is forced into retirement, Mary touts Duneen as his replacement. She talks him into going for the job, writes a pitch for him to deliver to the powers that be, and even squirts ink on his tacky striped shirt so he’ll have to wear a crisp white one to the interview. Naturally, he gets the position, and Mary becomes his executive secretary.
It is soon apparent that Mary is the power behind the throne, as it were. What’s not so apparent is why she continues to make calf eyes at her boss, who not only refuses to give Mary a raise, but insists (despite Mary’s objections) on hiring an assistant for her – a ditzy blonde bimbette named Daisy Presby (Edna Murphy). Turns out that Daisy is Duneen’s “chick on the side,” if you know what I mean. Mary makes this discovery when she stops in at Duneen’s apartment and finds on his floor the price tag for a nightgown that Daisy had shown her earlier that day. (This tag – or one like it – will pop up again later, so keep an eye out.)
Even after finding out that Duneen is helping himself to the hired help, Mary’s torch continues to burn, so she’s delighted when her boss invites her to accompany him to a company dinner. When he asks if she can dance, she fairly beams with joy as she responds, “Even better than I take dictation.”
And if she was beaming at dinner, you can just imagine her reaction when Duneen stops in at her apartment afterward. When he crooks his finger at her, come-hither style, and pats the sofa cushion beside him, Mary sidles over, obedient as a puppy and happy as a pig in slop. “You’ve looked at me a thousand times,” she says, “and never saw me until tonight.” But when Duneen tells her that she looks “pretty good,” Mary muses aloud: “I wonder if it isn’t the dress. Or perhaps the liquor. Have another drink.”
(HOLD IT. So . . . Mary intuits that her beloved boss is finally, after all these years, seeing her as a woman instead of a walking dictaphone. But she suspects that his attentions might just be fueled by the booze he’s been swilling all evening. So she suggests that he have more liquor? The hell?)
(Sorry. Back to the movie.)
Scant moments later, Mary is fielding the kisses from Duneen that she’s been craving for so long, and he even acknowledges what Mary has done for his career: “I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for you,” Duneen tells her. “I’ve been blinded by my own success. But from now on, things are going to be different.”
Ever practical and conscientious, Mary cuts the love-fest short, insisting that one of them has to be at the office early the following day. As he leaves, Mary watches Duneen from her window, all ooey and gooey and sappily in love. But the good times don’t last. The next morning at work – you guessed it – dear, darling Duneen doesn’t remember a thing about his close encounter with Mary. Ah, well. It was nice while it lasted. And things go from bad to worse when, a few weeks later, Mary is stunned to learn that Duneen is engaged to Ellen Robinson (Catherine Dale Owen), the daughter of a local banker.
Mary’s nosedive into despair continues when she’s confronted by Duneen’s fiancée, who knows that Mary is love with Duneen and insists that she quit the company. Mary hands in her notice, and resolves to shed her good girl image by having a fling with Ronnie Wales, the married flirt she met at the party. At the last minute, though, she backs out of that plan when she spies the price tag from her lingerie (remember?) on the floor of the hotel room: “I found one of these on the floor of Jim’s bedroom once,” she tells Ronnie. “I knew the girl, and I despised her for being cheap and trivial. I just don’t want to be that cheap myself.”
But all is not lost, as evidenced by a neat series of events kicked off by Duneen’s fiancée breaking their engagement when she finds out that her real rival was Duneen’s other secretary, Daisy. When Duneen advertises for another personal assistant, Mary answers the ad, Duneen realizes that he loves her, and the two of them run off to get married.
The end. (Sigh.)
Mary vs. Mary
The character of Mary Linden was one of the most intelligent, independent, assertive, and competent women I’ve seen in the movies in quite a while – and, at the same time, she was also a weak-willed doormat. It was a very annoying dichotomy. With each viewing of this movie, I kept hoping I would like it better, but it never happened. I just kept getting more frustrated.
Maybe if Jim Duneen had been less of a jerk – perhaps if he’d simply been a handsome chap who was bright and capable but oblivious of his own charms – then maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad. Maybe then I could understand Mary spending year after year in this guy’s presence, loving him from across the desk, keeping her adoration under wraps. But this guy was a straight dolt. I mean, come ON. She had to teach him how to speak, how to dress. She composed his correspondence for him, gave him business advice. She stayed with him even though he refused to give her a raise. Even after he kissed her and then blacked out the entire evening. Even when he had her ordering flowers to send to other women. Even after he got engaged to somebody else! Give me a break. I wasn’t feeling it.
But I will say this – Mary Astor made the character come to life. Her performance was natural, unaffected, effortless, and touching. By the time she starred in Behind Closed Doors, she’d been in close to 70 movies – and it showed. She was especially memorable in two scenes – the first was when Duneen revealed that he didn’t remember anything from their night together. Astor exhibited a range of distinct emotions – from alarm to disappointment, disbelief to sorrow and resignation, and then, finally, some good old stiff-upper-lip stoicism. And she did it all without saying a word, and in a matter of only a few seconds.
The other scene was when Mary learned that Duneen was engaged. The scene started out at Duneen’s house, where Mary was arranging flowers for a dinner party. It was only when the butler handed her a stack of invitations that she learned that the party was to announce Duneen’s engagement. When she reads the invitation, she is noticeably shaken and physically unsteady – she tries at first to go on arranging the flowers, but she’s unable to continue and slowly exits the house, her head bowed and shoulders stooped in defeat. It’s positively pitiful. She doesn’t completely break down, though, until she gets home, in the presence of her friend, Delores, and Ronnie Wales, who just happens to stop by. And boy, does she break down: “I made him look like a gentleman. I taught him to speak the King’s English. I’ve shared his troubles and worries. I’ve stood between him and a dozen cheap, designing women. But when it comes to a girl with beauty and money and the glamour of position, I can’t do a thing! A girl of his own class – the class I gave him!” Astor, mascara running from beneath her eyes, fairly wrenches the words out – they’re ragged and full of pain, and she punctuates her despair by running her hands through her hair and pacing the room like a trapped animal. It’s something to see.
Words, words, words
In addition to Astor’s performance, the best thing about this film was the dialogue. Here are some of my favorite lines and monologues:
“Always it’s the woman who pays and pays and PAYS.” – Mary Linden (Mary Astor)
“What do you do for a living besides kissing strange girls in hallways?” – Mary Linden
“He’s just a poor, harmless, charming young idiot who thinks that marriage would ruin him as an author.” – Mary Linden
“Some say their wives are invalids. Some say their wives don’t understand them. And some just say they’re not married.” – Delores Kogan (Kitty Kelly)
“You don’t know me. You only know my job. I smoke sometimes, and wear an evening dress with absolutely no back to it. And have been known to drink a cocktail – that is, when urged.” – Mary Linden
After Mary makes a particularly bold business proposition, Duneen takes her cigarette from her hand, sniffs it, and remarks, “No – it isn’t hashish.”
(Referring to her new lingerie): “I ask you. Isn’t that the sin you love to touch?” – Daisy Presby (Edna Murphy)
“What I wear next to my lily-white body is, strange as it may seem, nobody’s business.” – Mary Linden
“That lunk, Freddie, stood me up, so I came over here. Ain’t men the swine, though?” – Delores Kogan
“You know what I’ve done for Jim Duneen, don’t you? You know that because I’ve loved him, I’ve played straight as a string. You know that I’ve met a dozen men. Nice men. That wanted me. And what did I tell them? Like a fool, I’d say to them: no, no, no – you can’t have Mary Linden – she’s a good girl. And what did I say to myself? Like a fool I said, ‘Mary, you just keep yourself a nice, fine little girl and one of these days Jim Duneen will realize how good and worthy you are.’ Baloney! Yes, there’s Ronnie. And I like Ronnie. And we’ve had a lot of good times together. But when Ronnie offered me everything in the world a girl could wish for, what do I do? I turn him down – like the nice, fat-headed virtuous little moron that I am! Well, that’s all over, my fine girl!” – Mary Linden
(Duneen’s new secretary, grousing about having to work late): “These late hours are just ruining my boyfriend’s evenings.”
“If my wife didn’t have all the money in the family, I swear I’d get a divorce and marry you.” – Ronnie Wales (Ricardo Cortez)
Miscellaneous other stuff
Behind Office Doors isn’t exactly brimming with typical pre-Code sauciness, but at the end of the scene when she learns of Duneen’s engagement, Mary rather blatantly offers herself to Ronnie. “Well, Ronnie? The next time. The next time,” Mary says. “Do you get me?” And then she lays down on the bed in front of Ronnie, on her back, with her head resting on her crossed arms, and laughs. And Ronnie’s response? “After a while, we’ll talk about that.” (It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s pretty racy, trust me.)
When Duneen’s fiancée insists that Mary quit her job, Mary is, at first, too stunned to move; she stands motionless as Ellen leaves the room. And then Mary says, “When Greek meets Greek,” and follows the woman into Duneen’s office. From what I gather, this is an allusion to the proverb, “When Greek meets Greek, then comes the tug of war,” meaning that a real battle can be expected when two adversaries of equal strength and determination meet each other.
In the scene where Duneen and Mary kiss, there is a point, about 47 minutes and 27 seconds into the film, when Mary rises from the sofa and walks away from Duneen. After she stands, a full five seconds go by where nobody is in the frame – the camera is just focused on the wall, waiting for Astor to walk into the shot. The only thing we see is the piano, the wall sconces, and a picture on the wall. It’s pretty odd – I’ve never seen anything like it.
Jim Duneen was played by Robert Ames, who died about eight months after the film’s release, at the age of 42. He was found dead in his room at the Hotel Delmonico in New York. The official cause of death was delirium tremens, which some say were caused by his abrupt cessation from alcohol. News reports, however, stated that a large quantity of whiskey was found in his hotel room. Married four times, at the time of his death Ames was romantically involved with actress Ina Claire (whose divorce from John Gilbert was not yet finalized).
When Mary first visits Duneen to suggest that he try for the company presidency, she stamps out her cigarette and says, “What did you think I came here for? To find out there’s more than one cough in a carload?” This is a reference to a 1927 tobacco slogan for Old Gold cigarettes, which bragged that there was “not a cough in a carload.”
My personal exasperation with the main character notwithstanding, Behind Office Doors is worth seeing, if for no other reason than for Mary Astor’s performance. Her talent shines through the insufferable circumstances like the sun through a cloudy sky. Available on DVD as well as on YouTube, Behind Office Doors may not be a masterpiece, but it’s worth your time. Give it a try! You only owe it to yourself.
This post is part of the Mary Astor Blogathon, sponsored by Dorian Tenore-Bartilucci at Tales of the Easily Distracted and R.A. Kerr at Silver Screenings. Do yourself a favor and click the pic of Miss Astor to check out the wealth of great posts being offered as part of this fantastic event!