SPOTLIGHT: Brassy Pre-Code Blondell (XI)

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), Union Depot (1932), The Greeks Had A Word For Them [a.k.a. Three Broadway Girls] (1932), Miss Pinkerton (1932), Three On A Match (1932), Lawyer Man (1932), Blondie Johnson (1933), The Gold Diggers Of 1933 (1933), Goodbye Again (1933), and Footlight Parade (1933). Today…

 

Havana Widows (1933)

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Chorus girls travel to Cuba in search of rich husbands. Starring Joan Blondell, Glenda Farrell, Guy Kibbee, Allan Jenkins, Lyle Talbot, Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, and Ralph Ince. Screenplay by Earl Baldwin. Directed by Ray Enright.

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“After losing their jobs in a burlesque show, Mae Knight and Sadie Appleby follow the advice of a former fellow showgirl and decide to travel to Havana to trap a millionaire in a breach of promise suit. Pretending that Mae needs to visit her sick mother in Kansas, the women borrow the money from Herman Brody, one of Mae’s admirers. Herman does not have the money himself, but he convinces his boss, Butch O’Neill, to loan it to him for thirty days. Unable to resist temptation, Herman loses the money gambling and forges Butch’s name to an insurance policy in order to replace the missing funds. In Havana, Sadie and Mae pretend to be rich widows. They think they have it made when they meet Deacon Jones, a wealthy man who cannot afford a scandal. Mae is smitten with his attractive son Bob, but their lawyer Duffy informs her that Bob has no money of his own.

Glenda Farrell, Noel Francis, Joan Blondell in Havana Widows (1933)

“Since the women are introduced to Deacon’s wife, a breach of promise suit is out of the question and Duffy advises them to trap Deacon in a scandalous situation and blackmail him. Meanwhile, the bank calls to verify the forged check and Herman tries to collect his payoff from the agent who sold him the insurance policy only to discover that he has left town. When he tries to track down Sadie and Mae to get the money back from them, he learns that they are not in Kansas, but in Havana. He follows them and meets Duffy by accident in a local bar. Duffy talks Herman into playing Mae’s outraged husband and he agrees as it is the only way he can get his money back. Duffy has Deacon kidnapped, but he resists Mae’s seduction attempts…” (This summary, abbreviated to avoid spoilers, is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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A cast of greats isn’t enough — it’s the picture’s ability to make sure that the roles fit the portrayers, and that they fulfill the audience’s expectations without too much predictability or an inability to surprise. Fortunately, Havana Widows casts all of the players to type. In fact, this film features Blondell in another one of her familiar archetypes: showgirl who does what she needs to survive, but gives in to her decent motivations in the end, winning both the guy and the security she sought. Here she’s paired romantically with Lyle Talbot, a man-of-the-world type with a masculinity that plays well against tough dames of the era, like Blondell and Farrell. Although Blondell ably delivers, Farrell is actually the film’s gem, for while we anticipate Blondell to be fantastic in the main love story (as she is), Farrell is her equally wisecracking cohort. But while Blondell has become an iconic Pre-Code lady, Glenda Farrell remains slightly less discovered, and frankly — that’s exciting.

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The two actresses’ chemistry is organic, and it’s easy to see why they were paired together often. Their shared scenes make for the film’s brightest moments, and even a hardened viewer like myself, whose sense of comedy can be defined as a “tough sell” (due perhaps to my over-saturation), finds himself laughing at some of their banter. In fact, there are plenty of quotable moments, and in a comedy, that’s a great thing. So: Havana Widows, a light Pre-Code comedy with a talented cast, is recommended with ease.

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