Loretta Young: Pre-Code Paragon
As I mentioned here recently, I’m not overly enamored of Loretta Young post-1934. She was just a little too goody-goody for my taste, a little too square, a little too close to the perfect side. Plus, she lost that adorable girlishly sexy look that she had during the pre-Code era, and looked more like a person who would have a swear box on the set to reprimand co-stars with potty mouths.
But the fading of my fondness notwithstanding, Young was in enough pre-Codes between 1930 and 1934 to make me a fan for life – she starred in close to 40 features during that time period, many of which are favorites of mine. Young played a variety of roles in these films – from conscienceless floozies to ambitious businesswomen – and she turned in a memorable performance in every one. Here’s a little something about the Loretta Young pre-Codes that I love so much. If you get a chance to check ‘em out, take it!
In this early pre-Code feature, Young stars as Phyllis Ericson, whose mother works as housekeeper for the wealthy Richard Carewe (Conway Tearle), who has raised the son of his deceased best friend since the boy’s childhood. His ward, Richard Dane (David Manners) – known, for some reason as “The Imp,” – is engaged to Phyllis, but he really has eyes for local nightclub dancer, played by Myrna Loy. Of my favorite Loretta Young pre-Codes, this is probably my least favorite – probably because it’s extra creaky and peopled by so many actors with which I’m not familiar (Conway Tearle?) – but it’s still a lot of fun.
Big Business Girl (1931)
In this one, Young plays a smart, go-getting college grad who moves to the big city and finesses her way into an office job working for Ricardo Cortez. But her devotion to her gig doesn’t sit well with her musician husband, played by Frank Albertson (who you might recognize as the brother of Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams). Big Business Girl is a lightweight bit of fluff, but it’s awful cute and always entertaining. Plus, as I mentioned previously, it’s got Ricardo Cortez (who, in one scene, tells Albertson: “You know, you’ve made a silly ass of yourself.” Silly ass! In 1931! What more do you want?)
Platinum Blonde (1931)
This is one of my favorite films, period, primarily because of its star Robert Williams, whose life was sadly cut short by peritonitis in 1931, just days after the release of the movie. Williams possessed a natural talent and was an absolute joy to watch in Platinum Blonde. In it, he plays newspaper reporter Stew Smith, who falls for the wealthy Ann Schuyler (Jean Harlow), never recognizing that his co-worker Gallagher (Young) is in love with him. Young’s role was actually rather thankless, overshadowed as it was by Williams and Harlow, but she looks lovely and – if you’ll pardon the spoiler – she gets her man in the end.
I’m not exactly positive why this movie is called Play-Girl, but that’s neither here nor there. Young stars with Winnie Lightner (of whom a little goes a long way, if you know what I mean) – the two are roommates and employees at Mayfield’s Department Store. Young plays Buster Green, a salesgirl who wants to “get somewhere and be somebody,” but finds her dreams deferred when she marries Wally Dennis (Norman Foster), who makes his living by gambling – a fact that Buster doesn’t find out until after she says “I do.” (“Gee baby, I lied to you to get you, but I’ll do anything now to keep you and make you happy,” Wally tells Buster. “I know I four-flushed, but I didn’t think you’d give me a tumble if I didn’t show you a good time.”) Young’s character could use a lifetime supply of hankies with all the ups and down she goes through, but while the film’s soap opera-esque story is often far-fetched, it’s never boring.
Week-End Marriage (1932)
Young re-teamed with Norman Foster in this battle of the sexes that seems to promote the notion that a woman cannot have it all – if a woman is successful in the workplace, she’s either single and lonely or married and neglectful of her wifely responsibilities. Young’s character, Lola, uses her feminine wiles to get her boyfriend to propose, but she insists on keeping her job, and things go from bad to worse when she starts making more money than her husband. The cast includes the awesome Aline MacMahon and Roscoe Karns, who play Lola’s sister and brother-in-law and serve to further the film’s contention that a woman’s place in the home.
They Call It Sin (1932)
In this one, Young plays a small-town girl who has an affair with a businessman passing through and follows him to the big city, where she learns that he’s engaged to be married. And that’s just the beginning! The rest of the film involves a young and dastardly Louis Calhern, a righteous and upstanding George Brent, and this sterling piece of advice from Young’s best pal, played by the great Una Merkel: “Honey. Why don’t you get wise to yourself? This town’s full of men who’d go goofy over you if you’d let ‘em. So let ‘em. Oh, don’t take ‘em too seriously – just kid ‘em along and get what you can out of ‘em. Say, if I had your looks, I’d wear ermine underwear.”
This was the pre-Code that I ever saw Loretta Young in – it was part of the “Forbidden Hollywood” series that was released on VHS more than 20 years ago. Young stars as a job-seeking young woman who has the misfortune of encountering department store manager Kurt Anderson (played by Warren William at his nasty, nefarious best). Young’s character, Madeleine Walters, goes through the proverbial ringer after she goes to work for Anderson: “Someone oughta strangle that Kurt Anderson and give us all a vacation,” she tells her boyfriend, Martin (Wallace Ford). “I know how hard and cruel he is. Martin, he’s dynamite!” (You said it, girlfriend.)
Midnight Mary (1933)
I really love this one. Young plays Mary Martin, who’s on trial for murder and looks back over her life as she waits for the jury to return with a verdict – and what a life! Poverty, larceny, abuse, sacrifice, redemption – Mary saw it all. The film co-stars Una Merkel and Ricardo Cortez, and is directed by William Wellman. That of that should give you an idea of how good it is. And it’s only 74 minutes long!
She Had to Say Yes (1933)
I can’t say that I like the character Young plays in this one (which I discussed in detail in this post) – she’s far too stupid where men are concerned – but that hasn’t stopped me from watching this picture over and over again. Young plays Florence, a secretary in a women’s wear company who, in order to please her salesman boyfriend, entertains the firm’s clients after hours as a “customer girl.” Between her two-timing beau, and the creeps she encounters with her side gig, Florence would have been better off saying no. Seriously.
Born to Be Bad (1934)
Just a couple of hours ago, I happened to see an interview with Loretta Young from a 1986 episode of Entertainment Tonight – on it, she mentioned this film. She told the interviewer that the role she played was originally written for Jean Harlow, but that Harlow died and the film’s producer, Darryl Zanuck, insisted that she play the part. Against her wishes, as well as her better judgment, Young said she took the part, but implied that she her performance didn’t live up to expectations, citing the fact that Harlow “was a beautiful, voluptuous siren.” When the film was released, she said, a review declared, “I have seen a major motion picture last night starring Loretta Young and Cary Grant. And it’s called Born to Be Bad. And it is.” I suspect that this story is apocryphal, at least in part – I’ve never read any place else that Born to Be Bad was written for Jean Harlow. Also, Harlow didn’t die before Born to Be Bad was made – she died in 1937. And I just refuse to believe that a reviewer wrote that the movie was bad – because it is AWESOME. A true pre-Code gem. Young plays a single mother who makes a serving as an “escort” to wealthy men. And while she loves her son, she teaches him to lie, cheat, and even steal – and she not above beating him if he gets out of hand. And I haven’t even mentioned what she does to Cary Grant! Trust me, Young is at her absolutely baddest – and boy, is that good!
There you have it. My favorite Loretta Young pre-Codes. It’s a quite an impressive collection of films – and there are more that I still want to see, like Loose Ankles (1930), which I recently purchased, and The Life of Jimmy Dolan (1933), which I’m waiting for TCM to re-air (I forgot to set my VCR last time). Maybe one day, these will join my list of favorites. Meanwhile, if you’re not familiar with these features, do yourself a favor and get to know ‘em!
You only owe it to yourself.