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), 24 Hours (1931), and Girls About Town (1931). Today…
Man Wanted (1932)
A female executive falls in love with her male secretary. Starring Kay Francis, David Manners, Una Merkel, Andy Devine, Kenneth Thompson, and Claire Dodd. Story by Robert Lord. Adaptation by Charles Kenyon. Directed by William Dieterle. This breezy film, which runs less than 62 minutes, is a rather ordinary tale of two people, one married and one engaged, who fall in love with each other. What makes this film an interesting watch is its breaking with traditional gender roles. Kay Francis stars as a working woman who falls in love with her male secretary, while her playboy husband fools around on the side. (You can easily imagine the story with the roles reversed!) And there’s something exciting about watching a film from over 80 years ago that could easily be played today. Of course, that’s the beauty of the Pre-Code era…
“Lois Ames is devoted to her job as the editor of a magazine, and her wealthy husband Fred is equally dedicated to polo and parties. Lois’s long hours drive her secretary to quit, and she replaces her with Tom Sheridan, who happens to be in the office demonstrating a rowing machine. Tom likes the work and continues to advance until he is indispensable to Lois. Ruth Holman, Tom’s fiancée, is jealous of Tom’s relationship with Lois and with some reason, as he is falling in love with her. In the meantime, Fred is having an affair with Ann Le Maire, a woman whose interests are closer to his own. Because he feels his love for Lois is hopeless, Tom quits his job and plans his marriage to Ruth. Lois tries to patch things up with Fred, but he suggests that they divorce instead. On Tom’s last night, Lois keeps him working late. Ruth is furious and storms up to the office where Lois and Tom are dining. She threatens to tell Lois’s husband about their relationship, which leaves the way clear for Lois to announce her pending divorce. Ruth breaks off her engagement to Tom, and he immediately asks Lois to marry him.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
The story itself isn’t incredibly novel. It’s sort of Pre-Code 101 — adultery, partying, jealous fiancés, etc. But the fact that Kay Francis is a high ranking executive caught between her unemployed husband and her engaged secretary adds a whole extra dimension that makes the film exciting. While this switch in gender seems like a gimmick used to spruce up a boring story, the truth of the matter is, working females were quite common in Pre-Code films, so it doesn’t seem like a gimmick; rather, this is simply a picture about adults in adult situations. And that’s always a treat to watch. Meanwhile, the brevity of the picture is a blessing: things play in an appropriate speed, never allowing the proceedings to grow dull. Thus, the script is an asset — especially when it breaks with expectation. (The parting of Lois and Fred is a particular highlight.)
But the real treat of the film is the excellent casting. From Andy Devine to Elizabeth Patterson (Mrs. Trumbull from I Love Lucy, whom you’ll find all over the place in these Pre-Code films), every performer is interesting and believable in his/her role. Una Merkel is the perfect pest as David Manner’s fiancé and Kenneth Thompson is entirely too believable as Kay’s party-boy husband. Naturally, however, most praise is reserved for Kay Francis, who receives top-billing (deservedly so), and acts every scene naturally and without artifice. She’s totally buyable as a business woman — a breath of fresh air on the screen, and remarkably, she shares chemistry with everyone, particularly Manners. Again, it’s just a well cast film.
Man Wanted is a simple and fun way to spend 62-minutes. It’s finely constructed, offering nuanced characters and a fascinating look at Hollywood’s reversal of cultural gender norms. Wonderful Pre-Code entertainment.
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!