Public Domain Theatre: "The Girl Said No" (1930)




William Haines (1900-73) was one of those movie stars who easily made the transition from silent to sound films. In the late 1920s he was one of MGM's biggest stars -- handsome, athletic and relaxed on screen, with an appealing goofball side.

But he was also gay, and that's why William Haines stopped making movies in 1934.

Actually, it was being gay and being involved in a scandal or two that even MGM's ruthless publicity department couldn't cover up -- or maybe they just stopped trying. He was arrested in a YMCA in 1933 after being caught in a compromising position with another man. The story goes that Haines was then ordered into an arranged marriage by studio brass. He refused and ended up leaving MGM. After two films for Mascot Pictures on poverty row, he left the movies altogether.

"The Girl Said No," released in 1930, follows the formula for a Haines picture. When it begins, he's a well-to-do, happy-go-lucky, likably arrogant guy just out of college. The opening scene tells you what you need to know:




Haines plays Tom Ward, who's just graduated. Through a friend, his father has arranged a bank job for Tom, but he's too interested in going out to party with friends. (Lesson from watching too many movies made in the early 1930s -- large open cars really lent themselves to transporting drunken crowds around town.)

While out on the town, Tom spots Mary Howe (Leila Hyams). She's the steady girl of his college rival (Francis X. Bushman) but Tom is smitten by her and becomes downright stalker-y in his pursuit of her. She tries to discourage him. "I get your chill," he says, "But I'll be right there when your fever rises."

When he finds that she works at a brokerage, he tries to get a job there:




True to the Haines film formula, Tom gets the confidence knocked out of him about two-thirds of the way through the picture. There's a family crisis, and Tom becomes the family's primary breadwinner. He's also in charge of keeping up everyone's spirits around the house, including good old mom (Clara Blandick, later Auntie Em in "The Wizard of Oz").

While he's keeping home and hearth together, Tom stops pursuing Mary, but she misses his fun "kidnappings" and the way he sabotaged all her other dates, and she still can't warm up to his rival. He says he loves her, and the best she can do is "I like you like everything."  Tom re-joins the brokerage (he was fired during his cocky days) and is given a tough assignment -- selling a boatload of bonds to the rich and eccentric Hettie Brown (Marie Dressler), modeled after the real-life Molly Brown, of "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" fame.

The scene with Dressler and Haines lasts about ten minutes, and it's vaudeville stuff -- he wants to get her signature on a check, and he's posing as a doctor so she won't throw him out. Then he gives her some alcohol, and Dressler starts chewing the art deco scenery with her drunk act:


  

Both Haines and Dressler are pros, and the scene -- ad libs included -- flows nicely. The check gets signed and Hettie wants Tom to handle all her financial affairs. Then it's off to foil the wedding of Mary and the rival by (of course) kidnapping and gagging the bride, which she loves, and everything ends happily ever after.

After his film career ended, Haines didn't exactly suffer -- he began an interior design business and many of his clients were the actresses he'd appeared opposite at MGM, including Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer. Nancy and Ronald Reagan were also steadfast clients and friends. Haines was lucky in love, too -- his partner, James Shields, stayed with him for over 40 years and committed suicide a year after Haines died.

If you'd like to learn more about Haines, check out William Mann's book "Wisecracker: The Life and Times of Hollywood's First Openly Gay Star."

Here are full credits for "The Girl Said No."




 

Public Domain Theatre: "Back Pay" (1930)


"If the wages of sin is death I've got a lot of back pay coming!"

Corinne Griffith says this about halfway through the 1930 film "Back Pay," and if you understand what it means, you're ahead of me.

"Back Pay," which is a remake of a 1922 film, is about a young woman whose love of money and fast living take her from Demopolis, Virginia to New York City. There she falls into numerous affairs and lives the hotcha life.

Meanwhile, back in Demopolis, Faithful Boyfriend Gerald toils away in the town department store, waiting for his love to return.

Griffith had a successful career in silent movies, but she made only a handful of talkies, and when you see "Back Pay" you'll get a good idea why. The movie opens with her singing "They Didn't Believe Me" in an understated, charming way, but then she starts talking:




Griffith had the looks for pictures but she didn't have the voice for talkies. Her flat, unaffected monotone makes every line sound dull -- even the jokes. And it doesn't help that she's playing a character in her late teens when in real life she was in her mid-30s.

Griffith's character, Hester Bevins, lives with her aunt in what is apparently a house of ill repute. At one point she expresses her disgust with "my aunt in that filthy pink kimono -- sitting there with the men." While Faithful Boyfriend Gerald (Grant Withers) waits in the parlor, Hester sneaks out and hops a train to the big apple with a fast-talking traveling salesmen.

Fast forward a few years, and Hester has hooked up with tractor magnate Wheeler (Montagu Love). World War I is underway, and Wheeler is -- heh heh -- making a killing. "Don't profiteer more than is good for your health," Hester says monotonally.

A little later, while she and her rich buddies are on holiday, Hester ends up driving through Demopolis, so she tracks down Faithful Boyfriend Gerald, who's still working at the store:



By this point, America is involved in the war, and Gerald enlists, while Hester goes back to the city. An intertitle says: "While some marched through New York to lay down their lives, others stayed and laid down their honor." Burn!

Hester is partying at Lake Placid while Gerald is in Germany, dodging bullets and inhaling mustard gas. He ends up in the hospital with lung damage and blind. Hester, on the other hand, sees clearly for the first time, and she marries Gerald, even though (or perhaps because) he's terminally ill.

Then comes Armistice Day, and the end of the war coincides with the end of Gerald:




And although "Back Pay" was close to the end of Griffith's movie career, she went on to lead a pretty interesting life. She wrote numerous books, including a memoir called "Papa's Delicate Condition" that was made into a 1963 film with Jackie Gleason. She was a real estate magnate, worth an estimated $150 million when she died in 1979. She wrote the lyrics to the Washington Redskins fight song because one of her husbands owned the team. And during divorce hearings from her fourth husband in 1966, Griffith claimed that she was actually her own younger sister.

Here are the complete credits for "Back Pay."   

    

 

Public Domain Theatre: "They Learned About Women" (1930)


"I'm Van!" "I'm Schenck!" "Our music doesn't stenk!"
"They Learned About Women" was released in 1930, early enough in the evolution of talking pictures that silent film-style title cards were still used to introduce scenes -- and the leading men, who are supposed to be major league baseball players, are wearing eyeliner. But it's important because it's the only full-length film made by the team of Gus Van and Joseph Schenck -- Schenck died just after the movie was released.


The guys were gigantic in vaudeville -- they were a part of the Ziegfeld Follies from 1918-21 -- and their repertoire included songs like "She Knows Her Onions," "Away Down South in Heaven" and the quizzically titled "If You Want to Miss a Heaven on Earth, Stay Out of the South."

In the movie, Van and Schenck are Jerry and Jack, two guys who play baseball for the Blue Sox by day (no night games back then) and play in vaudeville at night. Their performing style was simple -- Van sang bass and Schenck harmonized on tenor while playing piano.  They did a lot of good-humored ethnic comedy numbers, usually poking fun at the Irish and Jews, such as "Dougherty Is the Name":



What plot there is to "They Learned About Women" involves a love story between Jack and Mary (Bessie Love), who are driven apart by the manipulative Daisy (Mary Doran). As if that isn't enough, the hussy also tries to split up Jerry and Jack!

In between there are several musical numbers that take place in the theatre and on the field -- although staging "Shake That Thing" in the team shower probably isn't the best choice. There's also comedy relief from Tom Dugan and Benny Rubin. Dugan would go on to play Hitler in several World War II-era movies, including Ernst Lubitsch's "To Be or Not to Be," and Rubin would become a popular comic second banana for everyone from Jack Benny to the Three Stooges. Their Irish-Jewish interplay actually echoes Van and Schenck's routine -- and as an added bonus, Dugan's character stutters.

During the early talkie era, Bessie Love was one of the busiest actresses at MGM, with a fresh, charming quality. Here's her big number in the picture, performed live on the set as far as I can tell:




You can see the full cast and production info here.