Welcome to another Film Friday! Today, we’re launching a series of posts on the Pre-Code work of Myrna Loy, one of M-G-M’s sharpest and glamorous stars of the ’30s and ’40s. Though her greatest successes would come during the Post-Code era, the films of Loy’s early career demonstrate her versatility and the slow appropriation of what would become her niche — the sophisticated dame who could make audiences both laugh and cry. The films we’ll be covering over these next few weeks — and we will NOT be going chronologically — are all very different: in some we’ll see Loy as merely a supporting player; in others, she’ll be our leading lady. As one of the busiest actresses of the Pre-Code era, these posts will examine the way in which a second-tier actress grappled with defining her image into something that, though strangely Pre-Code, would soon take off and make her a major star in the immediate Post-Code years to follow. Let’s begin with 1933’s Penthouse.
A lawyer teams up with a call girl to solve a mob murder involving his ex-girlfriend’s beau and his jilted lover. Starring Warner Baxter, Myrna Loy, Charles Butterworth, Mae Clarke, Phillips Holmes, C. Henry Gordon, Martha Sleeper, Nat Pendleton, and George E. Stone. Screenplay by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. Based on the story by Arthur Somers Roche. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke.
Myrna Loy as a call girl? Well, let’s not fool ourselves: this is a high class call girl — one who wears fancy dresses and speaks with elegant precision. (What else would we expect from Miss Loy?) The juxtaposition of dashed expectations regarding Hollywood hooker behavior with the inescapable class of Loy’s onscreen persona results in a wonderfully rich characterization that not only allows the actress to be totally believable in the role, but also makes the audience grateful that the character itself is both fresh and nuanced. In fact, fresh and nuanced would be two words that accurately describe Penthouse itself — especially in reference to its murder mystery plot.
The trick to creating mysteries is twofold. One: we need an engaging setup with dimensional characters. Penthouse easily secures this by connecting the murder (through less-than-six degrees of separation) to our protagonist, Jackson Durant, who is played with the expected amount of aplomb by Warner Baxter. After establishing Baxter’s recent defense of a notorious gangster, the script sets up what will eventually spark the murder. Baxter’s fiancé, Sue, is not content with his lifestyle, so she dumps him and accepts the proposal of Tom, our soon-to-be-accused. Problem is — to be with Sue, Tom must jilt his current broad, Mimi (played by the woman who will unfortunately always be remembered as the gal who took a grapefruit in her face in 1931’s The Public Enemy, Mae Clarke). Mimi’s not too pleased about being given the brushoff, naturally, and calls up her former gangster lover who invites her over to a party (to which Tom has also been invited). As Mimi and Tom confront each on the gangster’s balcony, she is shot and killed — presumably with the gun that Tom is found holding. Sue then implores her ex, our protagonist, to solve the case.
In addition to the strong plotting, what makes the first act click so well is the wonderful casting of Clarke as Mimi. She has a strong woman-of-the-world presence, and, although she’s not likable in the traditional movie star sense, she’s interesting enough that we want to see her on screen — whether we’re attracted or repulsed by the character. Tom and Sue, however, are a little too white-bread to demand the same captivation, but given our cinematic predisposition to root for young ingenue couples, and our sure feeling that Tom IS in fact innocent, there’s immediate investment on behalf of the audience. What’s brilliant about the setup, again, is that the accused is the new fiancé of the woman who just broke our protagonist’s heart. This makes his involvement all the more interesting — especially when the story wonderfully uses Tony, the gangster who Baxter helped get acquitted at the start of the film, to help solve the case. This is smart storytelling!
Myrna Loy gets second billing here, and she doesn’t arrive on the scene until 35 minutes into the picture, playing Mimi’s hooker (though it’s never called that) roommate, Gertie, whom Durant pumps for information regarding Mimi’s former gangster beau. Naturally, a romance develops between the two, and though both characters are fascinatingly played by actors who share scintillating chemistry, their relationship, unavoidably, comes across rushed and a bit forced. (Not unlike a lot of other cinematic love affairs.) However, with so much action happening in the story, this lack of haste is less bothersome, and it’s almost a pleasure to see them unite. (I mean, who wouldn’t want to see lawyer Baxter hookup with hooker Loy?) The scenes between the two are the highlights of the film, and beguiling story aside, the most memorable sequences. As I mentioned above, Loy’s persona may seem at odds with our expectations of the character that she’s been assigned to portray. But, the contrast works in the film’s favor, and both the character and the casting seem more inspired as a result.
The other part of the trick to creating murder mysteries: surprising the audience. Now, while the mystery is interesting, the solving of the case is more predictable. We know that Mimi’s gangster beau has something to do with it — even if he wasn’t the one to physically shoot her. Fortunately, our protagonist solves the murder at the end of the second act, allowing the third act of the film to be about catching the killer and all of the surprises that are unexpectedly (but gloriously) included. The wonderful thing about this is that everything is motivated, so even though the things (and deaths) that do happen come as a surprise, they’re not purposely shocking and insulting to the audience’s intelligence. In short, there’s logic behind the scripting. And it’s marvelous.
Almost everything about this motion picture works divinely: great cast (including Charles Butterworth as an amusingly put-upon butler), great characters, and a great story — working together to produce something original, suspenseful, and oh, yes, FUNNY. These wonderful ’30s mysteries are so natural at combining humor into the darkest — and deliciously grittiest — of circumstances. And instead of the contrast being jarring, it’s entertainingly appropriate, creating films that brim with a fullness of life (the light, the dark) that are immensely satisfying to watch. So, this film isn’t solely recommended for Loy fans, and it’s not even just recommended to murder mystery fans, I recommend Penthouse to movie fans everywhere. Simply put: it’s just darn good cinema!
Come back next Friday for another Myrna Loy film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment!