Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of Joan Blondell (1906-1979), an iconic Warner dame known for her snappy speech and straight-shooting style. We’ve covered Illicit (1931), The Public Enemy (1931), and Night Nurse (1931), but haven’t even yet scratched the surface of her miraculous Pre-Code career. We’re making up for lost time, and so far we’ve featured Blonde Crazy (1931), and Union Depot (1932). Today…
The Greeks Had A Word For Them [a.k.a. Three Broadway Girls] (1932)
Three women take sugar daddies in hopes of marrying millionaires. Starring Joan Blondell, Ina Claire, Madge Evans, Lowell Sherman, David Manners, and Phillips Smalley. Play by Zoe Akins. Adaptation by Sidney Howard. Directed by Lowell Sherman.
“Ex-showgirls and roommates Polaire and Schatze are reunited with their sometime friend and former co-worker, Jean, when she returns from France. Jean, a hard-boiled gold digger, asks the honest Polaire and loyal Schatze to introduce her to a new man, and Polaire calls her boyfriend, Dey, for help. The girls meet Dey and his friend, pianist Boris Feldman, at a speakeasy, where Boris bets Jean that if his piano playing does not induce her to love him, he will give her $5,000. Later, at Boris’ apartment, Jean pretends to sleep through Boris’ concert. Polaire then plays, and Boris, impressed with her talent, offers to be her teacher. He implies that she will have to be his lover as well as his student, however, and Polaire becomes upset when Dey does not protest. Dey mistakenly assumes that an exhibition of jealousy would be unwelcome, and his inaction results in Polaire’s acceptance of Boris’ proposition.
“After Polaire leaves to collect her things, Schatze and the heartbroken Dey also leave, but Jean stays to seduce Boris. Jean’s calculated exhibitionism is successful, and Boris does not answer the door when Polaire returns. After she leaves, Polaire is hurt in an automobile accident and is hospitalized. Sometime later, Jean tires of Boris and breaks up with him, then pursues Dey until Schatze tells him that Polaire has been in the hospital since their parting and they reconcile. Later, Jean makes an unwelcome appearance at Polaire and Schatze’s apartment while Polaire is waiting to meet Dey’s father Justin for the first time. When Dey arrives and Jean learns that Polaire is to meet Justin at the Emery house, she slips a pearl necklace into Polaire’s pocket. Polaire’s interview with Justin is going splendidly until Jean arrives and intimates that Polaire stole the necklace.
“Indignant that Dey believes Jean, Polaire storms out, while Jean stays to flirt with Justin. Later, on the day of Jean and Justin’s wedding, Schatze and Polaire arrive to retrieve a bracelet that Polaire loaned Jean. Jean returns the jewelry and miserably contemplates her future of wedded boredom as Schatze and Polaire brag about the fun they will have when they sail for France. The trio are soon drunk, and Jean decides that she cannot exchange her freedom for Justin’s fortune. She sneaks out with Schatze, but Polaire is caught by Dey. Dey apologizes to Polaire for misjudging her, but Polaire leaves anyway. The determined Dey follows her onto the ocean liner, where Polaire consents to marry him when he states that he is certain of her virtue. The couple then cuddles happily as Jean flirts with Schatze’s male traveling companion.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
The first screen adaptation of Zoe Akins’ well-recieved play The Greeks Had A Word For It (1930), The Greeks Had A Word For Them (later reissued as Three Broadway Girls in attempt to appear less salacious) is the closest to Akins’ work. The premise follows three ex-showgirls who live together and are united in a common theme: marrying rich husbands. This particular story, as detailed above, is unlike the one from the more widely seen How To Marry A Millionaire from 1953 (which stars Bacall, Grable, and Monroe), because it involves one of the girl’s surreptitious manipulations to score a rich beau, even at the expense of her two friends. In this regard, the film is more dramatically pointed than the premise might anticipate, belying its theatrical roots. Of course, the excess of dialogue, which despite being well-written (for the most part), is also a carryover from the stage, as most of the story is told rather than shown. But we’ve come to expect the early talkies to be well, talky, and because of the emphasis on the words, we are allowed to give more focus to the story, and those who are enacting it.
Although this film comes in under our spotlighted series on Joan Blondell, the other two actresses, both of whom had less distinguished careers in Hollywood, do more of the heavy-lifting. Ina Claire, a stage actress known for frothy comedies (and her role alongside Garbo in 1939’s Ninotchka) is Jean, the ‘bad girl’ of the trio, whose lack of scruples almost threatens to alienate her from the audience. But aided by the sly performance of the translucent Claire, the character remains, although maybe not likable, an enjoyable presence. After all, this is a Pre-Code picture, and the nastier these naughty women are, the more exhilarating the film — especially for modern day viewers. So Claire delivers, and she’s funny too, giving her lines subtle shadings that may even be better appreciated on multiple viewings. Frankly, if you’ve never seen her before, Claire’s a revelation. Meanwhile, Madge Evans, who’s been in two films we’ve covered on this site, Guilty Hands (1931) and Dinner At Eight (1933), is the romantic lead, whose modernity sometimes comes in conflict with her nobility. The character is pretty boring, and Evans plays it mostly straight.
In between these two contrasts in Blondell, whose character practically plays mediator amongst the trio. Good-hearted and loyal, her Schatze doesn’t forsake the easy snark that we not only want to see from all three characters, but all three actors. So in many ways, Blondell gives the most truthful performance, as everything she does is tossed off with an effortlessness that escapes the other women, who (although not overplaying) are forced to meet the demands of the narrative, which, though crafted mostly by the renowned Akins (a playwright whose works I’ve often tried to seek out and read), does not flow as smoothly or smartly as hoped. [See: the pearl necklace bit.] Yet, these three women are unique, and the premise is fun. And if you know what you’re getting, The Greeks Had A For Them is more likely to delight that disappoint. Recommended to Pre-Code fans, and those interested in Ina Claire.
Come back next Friday for another Blondell Pre-Code! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical comedy!