Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today’s post is the latest addition in our series of Pre-Code Essentials. Here’s the updated list.
41. Downstairs (1932)
An evil chauffeur seduces and blackmails his way through high society. Starring John Gilbert, Paul Lukas, Virginia Bruce, Reginald Owen, Olga Baclanova, Hedda Hopper, and Bodil Rosing. Story by John Gilbert. Screenplay by Lenore Coffee and Melville Baker. Directed by Monta Bell. Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn Mayer.
In some ways, I’d be inclined to describe Gilbert’s performance as nuanced, for his character must resort to a handful of duplicitous means to achieve his wicked and self-serving aims (many of which involve the actor’s inherent charms), but these moments are meant only to fool the other characters — not the audience — and thus reinforce the utterly Pre-Code concept of a film more than just refusing to create a sympathetic protagonist, but actively presenting one that is unsympathetic. Take for example, the scene in which Sophie, the matronly cook, practically grovels for his attention and affection while he nonchalantly arranges his uniform, not even bothering to look her in the face. There’s no pretenses here — he doesn’t give a rat’s behind about her well-being, and this evident emotional detachment is thrilling, chilling, and something usually reserved for outright villains, which his character isn’t (because never once do we root for a so-called “good guy” — Paul Lukas). It’s a hard concept to fully understand, but this is the protagonist; he earns our respect, he causes conflict, and then he skates away ready to do the same thing all over again — no punishment in sight. How Pre-Code!
Ah, I love this era in cinema — complexity exists within the very fabric of the film, meaning that the script doesn’t have to do all those manipulative tactics (like explicitly attempting to make him emotionally relatable) that end up resulting in the inevitable dilution of a character’s point-of-view, thereby wrecking the complicated response the story wants to elicit. Yes, we all live in “shades of gray” (as the cliché goes), but most of the conflicts in life come from the clash between things that are metaphorically black and white. It’s wonderful to see this reflected in the Pre-Code era, which derives its shades of gray elsewhere — from the social implications of having a rotten guy played by someone so likable, to the text’s casual presentation of adultery (get a load of that conversation between Bruce and Lukas in which she’s unapologetic about having a lustful dalliance with Gilbert!) as something that should be discussed beyond simple moralistic qualifications. All of the above, boldly present in Downstairs, epitomizes everything we love about these Pre-Codes, making this wonderful motion picture one of the era’s purest examples of the form. Because of this, I recommend it highly. A classic.
Come back next Wednesday for a new Wildcard post! And tune in on Monday for another forgotten musical!