Phillips Holmes: A Pre-Code Fella You Should Know

Phillips Holmes is a name seldom mentioned today in classic film circles, and if you’re not a pre-Code fan, you may have never heard of him at all. He led a fascinatingly tragic life (that I hope to explore in a future post) and during the pre-Code era of 1930 to 1934, he was seen in no fewer than 30 features on the big screen.

An appealing performer with a slight build and handsome, classical features, Holmes was nothing if not versatile – his pre-Code films offer up a wide variety of roles, from sweethearts to scoundrels. Two of the best examples of the divergence in the parts he played can be found in features released in consecutive years: Night Court (1932) and Beauty for Sale (1933).

Night Court

Directed by Woody Van Dyke, this feature tells the story of a crooked judge who frames an innocent housewife he suspects – incorrectly, incidentally – of discovering his dirty dealings. Holmes plays Mike Thomas, who works as a taxicab driver to support his family, which consists of his devoted wife Mary (Anita Page) and their baby son.

Fun-loving and content, Mike couldn’t be more pleased with his lot in life, although he demonstrates a hair-trigger jealous streak when it comes to his pretty young spouse. (In one scene, Mary tells him about a visitor she’s had: “Very handsome, with big blue eyes and curly hair . . .” Mike flies into a fury, pronouncing that he’ll kill the guy – until Mary confesses that she’s talking about their son.) Overall, though, he’s a decent, hard-working family man – the kind of guy who’s free from artifice, corruption, or duplicity, and finds it hard to discern such qualities in others.

Mike gets an unexpected taste of the real world when he arrives home one morning to learn that Mary has been arrested, charged with solicitation after cops found a half-dressed man in her bedroom. Mike is understandably outraged, refusing – even unable – to believe the worst about his wife. Even when he goes to see the night court judge (Walter Huston) who sentenced Mary to six months in prison, and discovers that Mary admitted her guilt, Mike can’t accept it: “She couldn’t have done it. I don’t care if she swore on a stack of bibles a mile high, I don’t believe she did it!”

But if Mike thinks he’s having a bad day so far, he realizes he ain’t seen nothing yet – the judge declares him unfit to care for his baby and forces Mike to turn the child over to the court. Devastated, Mike returns home alone, but it’s not long before he starts piecing together the circumstances of his wife’s arrest, all of which point to the night court judge, and works against all odds to put his family back together again.

Holmes gives Walter Huston the business.

Mike Thomas is the heart of this movie, a truly good man. He demonstrates this in scene after scene, from his loving care for his wife and baby, to his dogged determination to gain his wife’s freedom. And in perhaps the most telling illustration of his persona, he refuses to offer up a lie that would easily have resulted in the judge’s conviction for a murder he didn’t commit. Despite the string of horrendous wrongs done against Mike and his family, his innate sense of decency and integrity won’t allow him to exact revenge by lowering himself to the judge’s level. It’s a fascinating character, certainly one of the best in Phillips Holmes’s career.

Beauty for Sale

As hinted by the film’s title, Beauty for Sale centers on life in an exclusive women’s beauty salon, Miss Sonia’s, and the lives and loves of three of the employees there: Letty (Madge Evans), Carol (the always delightful Una Merkel), and Jane (Florine McKinney), described by one character as “refined and educated, and nice in spite of that.” Letty is in love with the husband of one of her clients, Carol has a “sugar daddy” who keeps her in furs, and Jane is secretly seeing her boss’s son, played by Holmes.

Holmes’s part in this feature is a small but pivotal one. His character, Burt Barton, is a world-traveling mining engineer who has swept Jane off her feet with his innate charm and sophisticated good looks. We first meet Burt in his mother’s salon. Seconds after he appears, Jane comes hurrying out from a nearby office so she can walk by him and daintily drop a cloth on the floor near his feet. When they both bend down to retrieve it, Burt tells her, sotto voce, “Lunchtime tomorrow at the same place.” They meet outside the salon later, and as we see Jane gazing at him with shining, love-filled eyes, we know that Burt obviously has this gal wrapped around his little finger.

In Holmes’s biggest scene, Burt’s true colors are revealed when he meets Jane, at her request, for an important discussion. He’s pleased to see her until Jane suggests that they get married. And his response is not exactly what Jane – or we – would have expected: he twice repeats, “Married?” The first time, he stutters over the word, and the second utterance is accompanied by an actual physical withdrawal from Jane. He then laughs, and offers up this dry rejoinder: “Yes, it is a quaint little custom, isn’t it? Some people like it.”

“Same time, same place , , ,”

Burt goes on to tell Jane that he has taken a job in Russia, concluding that they – perhaps – can marry when he returns. When Jane reveals that she’s expecting a baby, Bart finally agrees to the nuptials. (Actually, what he says is, “You win,” which should give you an idea of the kind of cad we’re dealing with.) We next see Burt on the boat to Russia, where he offers up a telling bit of self-awareness. Before the boat sails, Burt encounters Letty and Carol, who mentions that she didn’t know he meant to leave so soon. And Burt responds, “Meant to? Lady if I did everything I meant to, I’d be a great guy.” He’s the film’s most unsavory character and his actions set the groundwork for the picture’s most shocking scene.

If you get a chance, check out Holmes’s performances in these two very different roles – they offer excellent examples of the actor’s unique talent and versatility. (And stay tuned for that deep dive inside his life off screen!)

~ by shadowsandsatin on September 22, 2022.

4 Responses to “Phillips Holmes: A Pre-Code Fella You Should Know”

  1. Wow, wonderful observations on two favorite films and a sadly forgotten actor. Night Court still conjures night-mares! And the chemistry between Otto Kruger (unsung as well) and Madge Evans is lovely. Thank you for writing so encouragingly about these beautiful old relics.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words. Night Court is certainly harrowing, isn’t it? I remember the first time I saw it – I feel like I was on the edge of my seat. It was just one blow after another! And I agree with the chemistry between Kruger and Madge Evans, who is one of my favorite pre-Code femmes!

  2. I’ll be checking these out, Karen, and thanks. I’m woefully underfed when it comes to the Pre-Code Department.

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