It can sometimes feel like Warner Brother had only a handful of songs at its disposal in the early Thirties: here it’s once again ‘We’re in the Money,’ probably America’s most overplayed song of 1933, that practically constitutes the soundtrack. The film is worth watching today for many reasons: an opportunity to understand why George Arliss was such a big star in the early 30s (he’s got energy, theatrical verve, good timing); a chance to see a very blonde and very pretty Bette Davis in an early role (she credits Mr. Arliss, as she always referred to him and as he was often billed, with helping her early in her career); and perhaps most significantly, the film’s deft ideological operation of reconciling ‘The Working Man’ with America’s owners of Capital. Not unlike today, middle-management is depicted as the swindling cause of every problem.
Arliss plays John Reeves, owner of one of the biggest shoe-companies in America. His company is being so well run by his nephew, Benjamin (Hardie Albright) that he feels the need to prove he’s not ready to be put to pasture yet. Reeves goes fishing and meets two nice but spoiled rich kids, Jenny (Bette Davis) and Tommy (Theodor Newton), who swim over to his dinghy from their yacht in order to get a lift to the bootleggers. The kids turn out to be the heirs to Reeves’ biggest competitor, Heartland Shoes. They’re being swindled by Heartland’s manager, Fred Pettison (Gordon Westcott), who is secretly running it right to the ground under their very noses so he can buy it cheap. Reeves had respected their father and been in love with their mother. In a heartbeat, he becomes their guardian, teaches the young heirs the value of work and the value of money, teaches his nephew there’s life in the old man yet, Jenny and Benjamin fall in love, Pettison gets booted out and — under a loving paternal gaze — the two companies merge along with the young couple. Capitalism is once more saved from chisellers by love, street smarts and hard work for the benefit of all.
This is not exactly typical, as Mick La Salle writes in Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man, ‘Calvin Coolidge, president during the economic boom, reflected his era’s reverence for business when he said, “The Man who builds a factory builds a temple.” But President Franlin Roosevelt, entering office at the height of the Depression in March 1933, saw a different situation, “The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civiliztion.” In this new climate, the old values seemed inapplicable, naïve, sometimes hypocritical. Occassionally, a film might come along, such as Arliss’s The Workiing Man (1933), in which he played a shoe manufacturer with a thing or two to teach the younger generation. But for the most part, busines in pre-Code films was pretty much nasty and dog-eat-dog, a life for men with a killer instinct (p.161)’.
There are two aspects that especially caught my eye: one, in the clip above, the identification of the factory owner as ‘the working man’ — in this film, they are one and the same; the other the muddled, or perhaps complex, attempt to endow Bette Davis’ character with the ideal traits of an Edwardian lady (sentimental, filial, etc) but also those of a modern career girl: independent, eager to go out into the world and learn about business. Bette Davis’ star persona would be a site of struggle for this type of ideological discourse for decades to come.
The other element that caught my eye (see above)contra to the snappy wipes and cuts so characteristic of Warner Brothers film of this era is the length of time a letter was allowed to roll onscreen. Everything is fast, fast, fast but then we’re shown a letter the film seems to come to a stop for an inordinate amount of time, like the filmmakers wanted to maker sure the audience got the chance to read it but weren’t too confident of the audience’s level of reading skills.
It’s a film I’m glad I saw.