Hot Saturday (William Seiter, USA, 1932)

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A programmer but one that packs a lot of power: Ruth Brock (Nancy Carroll), a small town working girl, is accused of doing things she didn’t do with Romer Sheffield (Cary Grant) by Conny Billop (Edward Woods), a co-worker who failed to force her to do the same things with him. Town gossip gets so ugly she loses her job at the bank as well as her childhood sweetheart and prospective husband, Bill Fadden (Randolph Scott) — nice, handsome but a bit self-righteous and rigid; she’s really better off without him. She gets so fed up with the injustice of it all that she eventually does end up doing all the things with Romer she was at first wrongfully accused of — ‘The things you believed about me last night were lies. But this morning they’re the truth,’ she tells Bill –and is shown to have a wonderful time doing it. At the end of the film, Ruth and Rumer say good-by to Hicksville and all its social restrictions and drive off to New York to marriage and adventure.

The gossip begins
The gossip begins

The film starts with a striking and fluid travelling shot of a note being passed by the tellers in a bank that one initially suspects has something to do with the world of high finance but which turns out to be a request for a date. That sets the tone for the film: sexy, smart, cynical; with a rueful wisecracking edge one associates more with the twenties than the thirties (The eponymous novel it’s based on, by Harvey Fergusson, was published in 1926).

Hot Saturday is today worth seeing for many reasons. I love the whizz bang type of plot development in these pre-codes: no mucking around, on with the story. Also, it’s logical, makes sense, doesn’t contradict anything else. It’s just fast in telling you everything you need to know; and that speed has its own uplifting energy.

The bulk of American cinema has so sentimentalized small-town life –- think of the fictional Carvel, where all of the Andy Hardy films are set — that its representation in Hot Saturday is a surprise and a tonic. Here all the oppressive aspects of small-town living are teased out one after the other from the very first title card which warns us: ‘Marysville boasted one bank, two fire engines, four street cars and a busy telephone exchange. Everyone knew on Sunday what everyone else did on Saturday…and the rest of the week.’ Moreover, all the gossip is exaggerated, people’s characters are dissected and impugned, and this in a place where the appearance of high morals is a necessary passport to employment and the ability to earn a living.

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In Marysville a ‘hot’ Saturday can ruin your life; and all the characters are aware of it. When Connie suggests taking the gang to Romer’s cottage beforehand, his friend warns him, ‘the town would burn down to the ground if we took the girls within a mile of that guy.’ Romer’s and out-of-towner who’s seen as rich and decadent; fancy women are seen driving around in his car; being seen with him is enough to ruin any girl’s reputation. But the lure of free drinks in luxurious surroundings is too strong. Ruth is a girl who saves up for new knickers; Romer has great clothes, a posh pad, a fancy chauffer-driven car and a Japanese servant who speaks English better than the rubes and knows how to put them in their place. All the luxurious living is there not only as a story point to contrast to the life of the working stiff but as a way of offering a tantalizing peek at the posh life to a Depression audience.

A dangerous taste of the high life
A dangerous taste of the high life

But any kind of connection to that which is different much less glamorous may exact a price in the narrow-minded small town. Later in the film, Ruth tells Romer that she’s been ‘sneered, scorned, talked about – you don’t know what it’s like to live in a small town. You can only play on the surface and even if you’re honest about that you’re not safe from a lot of evil-minded people’.

But the film posits that one can find no safety whatsoever in a small town like Marysville, even without incurring gossip. After all, the reason why she walked through a forest to get to Romer is to escape Connie’s advances: ‘what do you expect for a boat ride, Marlene Dietrich?’ She basically avoids something that seems uncomfortably close to rape; and her lucky escape is punished, mainly by the women of the town (though Connie’s no gent) whose tarring of her reputation results in the loss of her job and the eventual collapse of her marriage prospects (the only other out), home and family.

The film’s critique of small-town life is matched by its critique of the family. Hot Saturday is no Meet Me in St. Louis in this regard. For her family, Ruth is a meal ticket. She’s the only one in work, buys her father his cigars, gives her mother the rest of her pay packet — though that doesn’t spare her from being bullied into chores — and she’s got a greedy younger sister stealing the few thing she’s got (the knicker-ripping scene is great). Yet, all of this is mingled, with affection, responsibility and a kind of love. The film’s views on family are varied and textured. But critical.

The sizzle of sex
The sizzle of sex

Hot Saturday offers a complex view of people and of society. It has an eye open to weakness, lies, jealousy, laziness, theft, pride, appearances, vanity; all are touched on but with a forgiving eye. It is also good at conveying the elements of sex and desire that make for a ‘hot’ Saturday. In the ‘I’m burning for you’ clip below, listen to the lyrics of the song: ‘call the fire engine, and the whole darn crew, tell them all to hurry cause I’m burning for you’. Note the wonderful panning shot of people dancing and the discrete and offhand revelation of the frank sexuality with which many of them move. See also how the light of the illuminated dance floor goes up the women’s dresses and offers the audience the outline of a shapely leg in peek-a-boo style. This is a film that knows what a ‘hot’ Saturday is and, better yet, knows how to communicate it to the audience, how to make us feel its heat.

According to the AFI’s catalogue listing on the film, when Hot Saturday was released, Variety commented that the ‘film has no A-name draw in its cast’. However, one of the main pleasures in seeing the film today lies in watching Cary Grant, Nancy Carroll and Randolph Scott. Cary, in his first year in pictures is surprisingly top-billed over Nancy Carroll, who is really the lead in the film, and had been one of the very top Paramount stars only a few years earlier.

Cary Grant becoming 'Cary Grant' in a Noel Coward-esque wardrobe.
Cary Grant becoming ‘Cary Grant’ in a Noel Coward-esque wardrobe.

Grant looks impossibly handsome wearing a Noel Coward-esque wardrobe. He’s wearing more make-up than Nancy but does the glamour and dash to perfection; it is already a joy to watch him move. One can see him becoming ‘Cary Grant’ much more clearly than in some of the Mae West films he was doing in the same period.

Even her bad hairdo and his excessive make-up doesn't dampen the appeal of Carroll and Grant.
Even her bad hairdo and his excessive make-up doesn’t dampen the appeal of Carroll and Grant.

Nancy Carroll’s got a heart shaped face that needs careful photography and whoever designed her hairdos did her no favours here. She looks very puffy and worn out in the early bank scenes but kewpie-doll pretty in the rest and she’s very alive and vivacious throughout. Cliff Aliperti in Immortal Ephemera writes that ‘Nancy Carroll has just concluded her period of major stardom by the time of Hot Saturday. She had been not only Paramount’s top star, but just a couple of years earlier she was receiving more fan mail than any other star at any studio.’ One can understand why she was such a big star and can only wonder at why she didn’t remain one.

On the other hand, gossip might have saved Ruth form this kind of life.
On the other hand, gossip might have saved Ruth form this kind of life.

Randolph Scott is stiff as a board but rather nice to look at also. The film might be of particular interest to all those intrigued by the rumours that Cary and Randolph were an off-screen couple, as the clip below is bound to raise a chuckle amongst them. Fan culture in general and this type of sub-cultural discourse on film is as much a part of cinematic culture as any other dimension and the film would to me be worth seeing if only for this.

But the film offers much more than this. Hot Saturday is smart with a slight accent on cynical; wise to people and their self-interest and foibles but without judging them too harshly; romantic but also aware of the sizzle of sex and the power of its pull; knowledgeable too of the social cost one might have to pay in succumbing, and conscious also of the glamour of the high life and its appeal to characters within the film and audiences watching it. It’s got a fantastic score composed of jazzy versions of the hits of the period (‘One Hour With You’, ‘Isn’t it Romantic’ and several others) and a great cast upon whom the downslide and upswings of star careers can be intriguingly charted.

One of the films released on DVD as part of the great Pre-Code Hollywood Collection in the Universal Backlot Series and which includes Merrily We Go to Hell.

José Arroyo

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