Pre-Code Crazy: Pamana Flo (1932)
Almost every time I pick a movie for my Pre-Code Crazy recommendation, it’s a film that’s a longtime personal favorite. Not this time.
This is the first time that I selected a movie that I knew I’d never seen before, strictly on the basis of the starring cast and the thumbs-up reviews from my favorite pre-Code go-to guys, Danny over at Pre-Code.Com and Cliff from Immortal Ephemera. And as it turned out, it was a winner! So for October’s Pre-Code Crazy pick (and I feel a twinge of guilt at not recommending a scary treat in honor of Halloween, but I like horror films even less than I like musicals!), I’m happy to give the nod to Helen Twelvetrees, Charles Bickford, and Robert Armstrong, in Panama Flo (1932).
From the start, I fell for Twelvetrees’s character, Flo, a world-weary, sad-eyed, life-sucks-AND-blows kind of a dame. When we first meet her on the streets of New York, she’s obviously trying to escape someone, and she seeks refuge in a subterranean speakeasy, where the bartender gives her a much-needed shot of whiskey (water back). When a behatted gent shows up at the door minutes later looking for her, she at first has him barred from entering, but she quickly assents, reluctantly joining the man in a glass of rye – and a flashback to their past together.
We’re taken back three years, to Sadie’s Place, a juke-joint in the heart of Panama where Flo dances in the chorus. Due to sagging business, the club’s owner, Sadie (Maude Eburne), abruptly fires the entire group, but Flo is unfazed. That’s because Flo’s in love with Babe Dillon (Armstrong), who owns his own airplane and does aerial photography for a newspaper syndicate. But Babe has to leave town for a job – just for a few weeks, he vows – leaving Flo all by her lonesome. And when two weeks turns into two months, Flo’s desperate financial straits lead her to team up with her roommate, Pearl (Marjorie Peterson), to fleece a cash-wielding oil wildcatter named Dan “Mac” McTeague (Bickford). The scheme backfires, though, when Flo’s partner-in-crime skips town with Mac’s money and Flo is left to face Mac’s violent wrath alone. (Boy, with friends like these…)
Instead of beating Flo to a pulp or having her arrested, Mac proposes that she work off her debt by accompanying him to his home in the South American jungle, to serve as his housekeeper. After Mac vows that he won’t try any hanky panky, Flo agrees to the plan. And that’s when things REALLY get hot. One of my favorite scenes takes place shortly after Flo’s arrival, when it becomes clear that Mac has no intention of honoring his promise. She pilfers his gun and hides it under her pillow, putting it to good use when she discovers that there’s no lock on her bedroom door. After downing half a bottle of whiskey (“Sleep tight – that’s my motto,” he declares), Mac enters Flo’s room to find her sitting up in bed waiting for him – with the gun pointed directly at him. He laughs at her gesture, and I, for one, fully expected him to quickly overpower her and take the gun away. Instead, as Mac approaches her bed, Flo fires off a shot that barely misses him. “What’s a poor girl to do?” she asks coyly as he makes a rapid exit. I LOVE it.
Incidentally, Mac is definitely no tough guy with a tender, ooey-gooey inside. He drinks liquor from morning ‘til night, barks instead of talking, and treats women like they’re no better than the dirt under his feet. Case in point is his relationship with Chacra, an Indian woman who was evidently his mistress. On the day after Flo shoots at Mac, Chacra stealthily reclaims Mac’s gun and gives it back to him. But if she expected an affectionate show of gratitude, poor Chacra was in for a big surprise. “Good girl,” Mac says, like she’s a dog. And then he adds: “You see that jungle? Well, scram. Beat it. If I catch you hanging around here anymore, I’ll string you up by the thumbs.” THEN, as if that weren’t bad enough, he actually shoves her down the steps by the back of the head. Oh, he was a real prize.
The plot takes an unexpected twist when Flo’s old beau, Babe, shows up, arriving in his plane like a Western hero galloping in on a white steed. Flo is overjoyed to see him, as are we – he’s just in time to rescue her from Mac’s lecherous clutches. But it doesn’t take long before Babe’s real mission comes to light. And it ain’t very heroic.
Although Panama Flo wasn’t one of my well-loved favorites before I selected it for this month’s pick, you can bet that it’s on its way to achieving that status!! Check it out on TCM October 24th (when you can also take in several other Twelvetrees flicks) and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
And in the meantime, here’re a couple of trivia tidbits for you to chew on:
Reina Velez, who played Chacra, was the sister of actress Lupe Velez. She didn’t have a single line in the film.
The speakeasy bartender was played by Paul Hurst, who seven years later would portray the Yankee deserter in Gone With the Wind who gets shot in the face by Scarlett O’Hara while trying to steal Miss Ellen’s earbobs.
And now, be sure to pop over to Speakeasy to see what pre-Code gem Kristina is recommending for this month!