This month’s TCM pre-Code offerings left me in a fair tizzy when it came to settling on my pick. There’re two first-rate Irene Dunne vehicles — The Secret of Madame Blanche (1933) and No Other Woman (1933). Manhattan Melodrama (1934), the Clark Gable starrer that was the last film seen by gangster John Dillinger. The Oscar-winning, unexpected hit It Happened One Night (1934). When Ladies Meet (1933), which features two of my favorite actresses, Myrna Loy and Ann Harding. And that great Ernst Lubitsch comedy, Design for Living (1933).
But I didn’t select any of these gems for my pre-Code Crazy pick this month. Instead, I went with a rather curious, little-known Loretta Young feature: Play-Girl (1932).
The opening of Play-Girl is deceiving. The credits are accompanied by a giddy, carnivalesque soundtrack, beneath a team of horses racing briskly around a track. What does it all mean?? You’ll find out.
We’re promptly introduced to the employees of the Mayfield Department Store, including the classy, ambitious Buster “Bus” Green (Loretta Young), who sells baby clothes but dreams of a future in the “ready-to-wear” field; Edna (Dorothy Burgess), whose shade-throwing and supreme bitchiness know no bounds; and the always loud but ever loyal Georgine (Winnie Lightner), Bus’s roommate, bosom pal, and self-appointed protector.
Although she wants to “make something of herself” and is completely devoid of matrimonial aspirations, Bus finds herself falling for Wally Dennis (Norman Foster), a fun-loving chap she meets on a blind double date. The two eventually get married and all is bliss – until Bus learns on her honeymoon that her husband earns a living by gambling. She’s none too pleased at the news, and plans to leave her groom, but Wally convinces her that he’ll walk the straight and narrow: “Gee, baby, I lied to you to get you, but I’ll do anything now to keep you and make you happy,” he pleads. “I guess work won’t hurt me.”
Try as he might, Wally isn’t able to stay away from gambling for long, but he finally turns over a new leaf when Bus finds herself in the family way. But all isn’t sweetness and light. After a misunderstanding, Bus kicks Wally to the curb and faces a future on her own that goes from bad, to really bad, to even worse.
Play-Girl features an odd little subplot that doesn’t really go anywhere. Bus, you see, is deathly afraid of childbirth — her mother died giving birth to her, and she views pregnancy as a potential death sentence. “Poor things,” she says of the women who shop in her infant clothing department. “Pretending they’re brave and happy. How can they be when they may die?” Bus’s phobia briefly surfaces again later when she tells Wally that she’s pregnant, and again at the film’s end when she’s ready to give birth. Other than that, though, there’s not much to the whole thing. It’s kinda weird.
Loretta Young’s co-star, Norman Foster, also played her husband in another pre-Code released in 1932, Weekend Marriage. He eventually left acting behind and became a successful film and TV director. Among the television shows he directed was The Loretta Young Show.
For me, Play-Girl has but one drawback: Winnie Lightner. The alleged comic relief of this often-dark drama, Lightner chews up every scene she’s in, alternating between yelling her lines and mugging so hard you fully expect her to lose a tooth. While a little Lightner goes a long way, though, I can’t deny that she tosses off some of the film’s best lines. There’s one scene early on, where Georgine is washing out her undergarments and hangs a pair of bloomers to dry, only to see them blow out the window a few minutes later.
“There goes my last panties!” she grumbles.
“Well,” Bus asks, “Now what’re you gonna do?”
To which Georgine matter-of-factly responds: “Keep off of stepladders.” (Whoa!”)
Later in the film, Bus hosts a dinner party for her friends – the guests include Georgine and Edna, who can’t stop sniping at each other (much to our delight). After a spell, Georgine asks Bus if she can see the bedroom.
“You usually do,” Edna drawls.
“Yeah?” Georgine rejoins. “Well, you oughta know. I generally meet you coming out!”
It’s no Gone With the Wind, goodness knows, but Play-Girl serves up 60 minutes of time-worthy pre-Code goodness. Check it out December 15th on TCM.
And don’t forget to pop over to Speakeasy to see what pre-Code gem Kristina is recommending for the month!