SPOTLIGHT: Flaming Pre-Code Francis (III)

Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the unjustly under-praised Kay Francis (1905-1968), one of the most popular Warner Brothers stars of the 1930s. Known today as “Kay Fwancis” for her distinguished speech impediment, I am of the opinion that Kay Francis is nevertheless one of the decade’s most natural and captivating leading ladies. We covered one of her little known Post-Code films, The Goose And The Gander (1935), in our series on 1935, but the only Pre-Code picture of hers that we’ve featured is the divine Trouble In Paradise (1932), which is among my favorite films. There are 11 more Pre-Code Francis pictures that I want to cover here. So far we’ve covered Guilty Hands (1931) and 24 Hours (1931). Today…

 

Girls About Town (1931)

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A good-time girl tiring of her life as an escort falls in love with one of her clients. Starring Kay Francis, Joel McCrea, Lilyan Tashman, Eugene Pallette, Allan Dinehart, and Lucile Webster Gordon. Story by Zoe Akins. Screenplay by Brian Marlow and Raymond Griffith. Directed by George Cukor. Boasting a juicy premise, an unpredictable script, and many delicious lines, Girls About Town is one of the most enjoyable Pre-Code films we’ve ever covered on Film Fridays. The cast, which includes the marvelously nuanced Kay Francis and the wickedly amusing Lilyan Tashman, sparkles with believable chemistry. More than that, they all seem to be having fun — and it’s infectious.

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“In New York nightclubs, gold diggers Marie Bailey and Wanda Howard entertain stodgy but wealthy middle-aged businessmen from the Midwest. Wanda tires of her demeaning lifestyle until, on a yacht, she meets Jim Baker, the handsome associate of rotund, stingy tycoon Benjamin Thomas, the richest man in Lansing, Michigan. On a yacht, while Marie entertains Benjamin and becomes the victim of his practical jokes, Jim tells Wanda he is against her racket. She tells him to pretend they are lovers in the moonlight. She then pretends to drown herself and is rescued by Jim. Wanda’s feelings for Jim are not pretense, however, and later, at the zoo, Jim proposes to Wanda, who answers by ripping up her payment for entertaining him. Marie, determined to swindle Benjamin into giving her money, continues to see him, although he insists he is old-fashioned and wants only to stay at home and sing songs around the piano. Benjamin’s wife Daisy then visits Marie, who realizes that Daisy still loves her husband even though she has filed for divorce because of his stinginess. The two women make a pact to shame Benjamin into spending some money on them.

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“At a jewelry store, Marie admires an emerald ring, while Daisy announces publicly that her penny-pinching husband never gave her an engagement ring. Embarrassed but spiteful, Benjamin buys over $50,000 in jewelry for Marie and gives his wife nothing. Meanwhile, Wanda asks her shiftless husband Alex for a divorce, and he agrees, but later shows up at Benjamin’s birthday party and makes a deal with Jim to divorce Wanda if Jim pays him $10,000, intimating that Wanda is in on the scheme. Jim pays the money, and when Wanda discovers Alex’s bribe, she is determined to get the money back and prove her innocence to Jim. When she arrives at Alex’s home, however, she discovers that he has a young wife who has just given birth, and Alex confesses he officially divorced Wanda two years before. Wanda then holds a rummage sale with her and Marie’s old evening clothes and collects the money to pay Jim. When Jim tells Benjamin they have been swindled by a pair of gold diggers, Marie promises to give her jewels back to save Wanda’s reputation, but instead gives them to Daisy, who lets Marie keep the emerald ring. Benjamin then takes the jewels from Daisy “for safe-keeping.” Jim and Wanda are reconciled, while Marie calls her manager to say that from now on, she is working alone.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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Escorts and sugar daddies rejoice! Girls About Town is essentially about two hookers. (It is based on a Zoe Akins story, after all.) One falls in love and decides to “go straight” while the other schemes to get an emerald ring. It’s classic Pre-Code; from the set-up to the delicious one-liners (several of which even shocked me during my first viewing), this is a picture that could only have been made during this era. And in many ways, it’s the perfect Pre-Code. In addition to some really sharp comedy, we have a story about modern realistic people behaving in shockingly truthful ways. Beyond that, it’s just a joyful film to watch. Although imbued with many genuinely dramatic moments, the film never goes heavier than it needs to. Fast-paced and unpredictable, there’s no time to sit and think about flaws. And that’s exactly what a good film should do to its audience.

We can also attribute to the picture’s success to its strong casting. Our spotlighted leading lady extends her reputation for sincerity, giving a multi-layered performance that allows the audience to both accept her in the role and believe the choices that she makes throughout. She’s always a breath of fresh air, a more glamorous example of the everywoman: fun, smart, honest. Those adjectives also apply to Lilyan Tashman’s character, who ably takes on the more comedic elements of the story. And as is often the case in these primitive ‘buddy films,’ (and I consider Girls About Town to be one) the funny friend usually walks away with the picture. She’s marvelous, and it’s a shame her early death (in 1934) cut off what could have been a very interesting career.

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I can’t say enough good things about this film. I was entertained for all 79-minutes — from the nifty opening credits to the happy ending where Kay gets her man and Lilyan gets her emerald. Great cast, great script, great fun. Check this one out; it’s highly recommended to all Pre-Code lovers!

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Come back next Friday for another Francis Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment! 

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