Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Un-coded messages… Skyscraper Souls (1932)

The BFI has been hosting a sequence of films made between 1930 and 1934: the period between the announcement of the Hays Code and its more rigorous enforcement. These films show the progress from stilted talkies to more slickly-recorded slices of post-depression life. Because of their frankness and directness they feel like an unfinished bridge between the romanticism of late period silent films and post-war noir…  They feature people more like ourselves and we’ve simply more in common with these characters than the earnest, airbrushed leads that followed.

Dwight Buildings and diminutive neighbour...
Yet, amongst all the hoopla about naughty, haughty, “pre-code” were these disparate movies a deliberate attempt to make (without) Hays before the sun stopped shining or merely a reflection of the desperate times when people wanted escapism with a realistic edge? When the going got tough audiences wanted stories not just of love but of survival.

Skyscraper Souls is one of the more interesting examples, addressing the business moralities that helped create the Great Depression in the first place and which continued to impact the ordinary cinema goers.  Based upon the novel Skyscraper by Faith Baldwin, the story was adapted for screen by C Gardner Sullivan and Elmer Blaney Harris and directed by Edgar Selwyn (who once missed a fatal trip on the Titanic in order to see a play…). Not surprisingly, the narrative feels “bookish” with an involved plot and a cast of dozens.

Now that's a grand entrance...
The majority of the action takes place in a huge skyscraper – markedly higher than the Empire State Building – owned by Mr David Dwight (Warren William) who runs the bank and pretty much everything operating within the tower. Times are hard for Mr Dwight as he has had to refinance in order to keep things afloat and he has re-mortgaged the building on the basis of a loan he can’t repay. Whilst his fellow directors consider his future he looks for third parties to rescue his investment, even though he has fifty million in the bank he could use himself.

Warren William and Verree Teasdale
Dwight is married or rather semi-divorced, long-distance, to Ella (Hedda Hopper) who is almost a paid employee…  whilst he is having an affair with his secretary Sarah (Verree Teasdale).

A pretty new secretary starts, Lynn Harding (Maureen O’Sullivan, not so long after meeting Tarzan) who Dwight interrupts getting changed… she catches his eye even though he assures Ella that her legs are better (they aren’t).

Norman Foster and Maureen O’Sullivan
Lynn is being pursued by a rather insistent/borderline-annoying young man called Tom (Norman Foster - laterly a director and also husband to Claudette Colbert, improbable as his screen persona here would make that seem…) who pesters her from the lift to the landing. For some reason she starts to find this attractive but, whilst Tom’s pushy,  she’s not putting out, having set her sights on marriage and security.  Tom also wants to marry but he’s only clearing fifty a week with a small saving of $1,800. Clearly people valued any kind of financial security at this time and recent history gives an unpleasant glimpse of the truth of such uncertainty.

Jean Herscholt and an off-the-shoulder Anita Page
One of the senior secretaries is Jenny LeGrande (the ace Anita Page) who acts as counsellor - knowing the workings of this Tower of Babel better than most. A gentleman  jeweller, Jacob (Jean Herscholt) carries a large flame for Jenny – he doesn’t look like her usual squeeze but still hopes to provide her with the security and love they’re all looking for….  Is he just another obsessive/possessive old man or someone more paternal: in this world of the avaricious surely someone has to be motivated by love?

Dwight invites Lynn to work late on typing copies of reports and, whilst Tom pesters her with sandwiches and other advances, she is called up to the boss’ apartment on the top storey. On arrival she finds a party in full swing and Dwight soon gets her tipsy on champagne. His pursuit is interrupted by the older Charlie Norton (George Barbier) who takes a shine to the bright young thing… Manny glasses later Lynn has disappeared only to turn up in the morning innocently curled up in one of the spare beds.

Warren William and Maureen O'Sullivan
Tom gets jealous and the clear implication is that she’s made an investment decision based on an exchange in kind prior to fiscal remuneration… but it’s not so and she’s been misjudged. Tom’s a fool for not trusting her: actually Tom’s just a fool full stop.

Meanwhile, Dwight is up to dastardly dealings with  Charlie Norton; arranging a further investment that, unbeknownst to the latter, he aims to maximise his profits at everyone else’s expense through insider dealing and price manipulation so complex the plot doesn’t bother really explaining how it works.

Tom joins in the seeming gold-rush after being tipped off by Sarah and it seems he can’t fail to make a killing – enough to persuade Lynn to marry him? But she’s also got her eye on the big boss as he looks to line her up as a replacement for poor Sarah who he’s about to pension off with a nice home in the country and an annual stipend for her silence.

No spoilers: The stocks rise and then they crash… Tom loses his savings along with so many others including most of Dwight’s colleagues. He’s won and doesn’t care who lost but it’s never over till the greedy banker bounces…

Warren William is undoubtedly Skyscraper Souls’ star turn with an appropriately domineering screen presence for a man who’s building all around it. Reputedly his roles dried up once the Hays crack-down came but I find it hard to believe that a change of style would account for an actor of such obvious abilities.

Maureen and Anita
Maureen O’Sullivan is suitably sympathetic as the vulnerable and yet ambitious Lynn although you have to question her taste in men: the not-so-wise-cracking Tom and then the boss offering her a career leg up that couldn’t possibly come free from reciprocation. Anita Page energises every scene she's in - a little underused in my humble opinion - and acts the part with a heart believably well.

The film is often compared with Grand Hotel with events taking place almost entirely in one place, here Dwight’s Tower giving a self-contained claustrophobia to events as well as being a statement on the world of David Dwight… a monument to his ambition.

Skyscraper Souls is available on Warner Archives’ Forbidden Hollywood Volume 7 series along with Employees’ Entrance (1932) which also featuring William, this time as the CEO of a large department store… maybe he did get typecast but he is even more convincing in that film as the face of calculating, amoral capitalism.

I can see how these films' sexual openness could upset the establishment but it’s also clear that they were politically very pointed: for a few years after the crash greed wasn’t good but that was never going to be a sustainable message in the land of the free.  Indeed, how quickly are we now acceding to the idea that punitive austerity is necessary along with any measure that favours commerce over compassion: we don’t all care to be considered and some would prefer the certainty of easy answers over serious, open-ended debate. 
Free market finance at work
Of course, film isn’t censored in the way it used to be but how many recent mainstream films have there been that really question our capitalist process and how many more are there with a main purpose of simply disorientating us into deep-engagement super-heroic fantasy?

Ahem… anyway, you can order the set direct from Warners or through Amazons: good value with four films for the price of two and Bettie Davis too!

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