SPOTLIGHT: Brassy Pre-Code Blondell (XII)

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), Footlight Parade (1933), and Havana Widows (1933). Today…

 

I’ve Got Your Number (1934)

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Two telephone engineers try to clear a woman of criminal charges. Starring Joan Blondell, Pat O’Brien, Allen Jenkins, Glenda Farrell, Eugene Pallette, Gordon Westcott, and Henry O’Neill. Story by William Ranking. Screenplay by Warren Duff and Sidney Sutherland. Directed by Ray Enright.

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“Fed up with telephone repairman Terry Riley’s sarcastic attitude, his boss, Joe Flood, vows to give him every dirty job that is called in and one day sends him to a fire to rescue an endangered cable. During the fire, Terry saves the life of businessman John P. Schuyler, and out of gratitude, Schuyler promises his help if Terry should ever need it. Then Terry and his partner, John, reveal a fortune-teller, Bonnie, to be a fake. Shortly afterward, Bonnie and John start to date. Meanwhile, at a nearby hotel, switchboard operator Marie Lawson agrees to help hotel guest Nicky play a joke on businessman Tully, another guest. Actually, Nicky takes a call pretending to be Tully and uses the information he receives illegally. When Tully complains to the manager because he lost a lot of money, the manager calls the phone company to determine if the line was tapped.

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“Terry is assigned the job. He is very attracted to Marie and tries to make a date with her, but she turns him down. After he discovers that the line is clean, Marie is fired. Eventually Terry convinces her to have dinner with him. After learning that she was fired, he remembers Schuyler’s offer and contacts him. Schuyler agrees to hire Marie, and to celebrate, Terry and Marie have dinner together. At the restaurant, Marie meets a girl friend and her date. The man is very interested to hear about Marie’s new job, and the next day, he and his partner, Nicky, show up at Schuyler’s office. While the friend distracts Marie with phony telephone calls, Nicky signs for bonds that are supposed go to Schuyler. As soon as Marie realizes what has happened, she runs after Nicky. Schuyler naturally thinks that she is part of the gang that robbed him…” (This summary, abbreviated to avoid spoilers, is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)

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Although this picture feels like a lightweight in comparison to some of the other superior offerings we’ve covered in this series (especially in the last few weeks), almost every individual component of the film otherwise works. The cast is uniformly strong, the story is ably plotted, and the presentation is swift and entertaining. But what ultimately keeps  I’ve Got Your Number from commanding an elevated respect is that it’s not as bold as the Pre-Code era demands — nor any era, frankly. This translates not just into predictability, which though detrimental to one’s initial enjoyment doesn’t preclude a good film from being a good film, but also to a general sense of insubstantial wastefulness. However, I suppose one could argue that as long as a picture entertains, it serves its purpose; in that regard, I’ve Got Your Number is perfectly fine. And to its credit, a lot of the dialogue crackles with ’34 charm and a sense of effortless humor that can still evoke guffaws from a 21st century audience (especially from the more risqué suggestions — and there are a handful).

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Meanwhile, despite Blondell having plenty to do, she isn’t the driving force of the picture; the men are. But her regular persona is employed delightfully, and her scenes with Pat O’Brien make for the film’s most joyous moments. Of particular note is an early moment in which he pesters her for a date by harassing her while she’s working the switchboard. Interestingly, it takes a while for Blondell to enter the picture, and at first it seems like this may be another one of those films where the top-billed performer doesn’t really deserve the listing, but as the film progresses, the existence of her character alone — who always functions with a dynamic, screen-grabbing presence — nearly justifies the decision. Narratively, however, the film follows O’Brien and Jenkins as two goofy phone repairmen who get mixed up with crooks. The duo shares an ample amount of chemistry and following them is easy. This is vital, because the narrative exists around their misadventures. Blondell is just the plot’s requisite woman, and the catalyst for getting the men in conflict.

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But mention must also be made of Glenda Farrell, who plays Jenkins’ love interest, a phony fortune teller who uses the wonders of the telephone to dupe her clients. It’s undoubtedly the film’s most electric, and ultimately, memorable moment, but one wishes it had more bearing on the premise at hand, for although the picture moves at a fast 68 minutes, there are scenes that feel unnecessary. Are they character moments? Well that’s an angle that could be argued . . . Regardless, most everything works, and although, as mentioned above, it doesn’t come together to form a completely satisfying and brilliant product, I can recommend I’ve Got Your Number as easy late night viewing. It’s classically “B.”

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