Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! This month’s Pre-Code is…
Our Blushing Brides (1930)
Three roommates try to land rich husbands. Starring Joan Crawford, Anita Page, Dorothy Sebastian, Robert Montgomery, Raymond Hackett, John Miljan, and Hedda Hopper. Dialogue and Continuity by John Howard Lawson and Bess Meredyth. Additional dialogue by Edwin Justus Mayer. Directed by Harry Beaumont. Produced and distributed by M-G-M.
“Jerry, a model (Crawford), Connie, a perfume salesclerk (Page), and Francine (Sebastian), in linen sales, all work in a city department store. They also occupy the same dingy living quarters and have the same desire to replace them with luxury. Francine’s opportunity comes in the person of Martin (Miljan), a wealthy young man who frequents her department; Connie gets an apartment through David Jardine (Hackett), son of the store owner; and Jerry reluctantly accepts the attentions of Tony (Montgomery), David’s older brother, but when he fails to mention matrimony after taking her to his bachelor retreat, she drops him. Later, Martin is arrested as a thief and Francine is taken into custody with him, while Jerry learns that David plans to marry a society girl. On the eve of his wedding, Connie takes poison, though Jerry goes to the reception and brings back David, who sees her die happy. Jerry is rewarded, however, with a promise of marriage from Tony.” (This summary is brought to you by TCM.)
Monday would have been the anniversary of Joan Crawford’s birth (I know because we share a birthday), so I thought we’d honor her this month with one of her few Pre-Codes yet to be covered here, Our Blushing Brides, the third and final film in the thematically linked but narratively individual trilogy that began in 1928 with Our Dancing Daughters and continued in 1929 with Our Modern Maidens. All three pictures starred Crawford with Anita Page — Dorothy Sebastian joined them for all but Maidens — and were romantic soaps, but Our Blushing Brides was the first “talkie” and the first to depict Crawford, the star in each, as something other than the party-girl/flapper that was her persona at the end of the silent era. Her earliest sound films tried to maintain this fun-loving, dancing lady image via musicals, but Crawford couldn’t really sing, and with the Depression ramping up, it was time to create for her a new screen character: the plucky working girl, or more specifically now, the shopgirl. This would become her go-to image during the Pre-Code years — even though she actually didn’t play this role as often as we think — because it reflected the then-current mood; no longer was the cheerful dancer more relatable than the hungry worker. Eating on a table was preferable to dancing on one.
With Crawford being given a new persona — and because this picture was a success, it stuck — Our Blushing Brides got to employ the ever-popular rags-to-riches trajectory, which pre-dated the Depression, while also engaging with a narrative template that would be commonplace in the Pre-Code era: the Zoe Akins Greeks Had a Word For Them structure that featured three friendly, but different, women looking for love and/or money and debating over how much of their integrity they’d be willing to sacrifice in order to get it. (That is, will they put out?) In the case of this film, two of the three ladies — the ones who either prioritize love over money or are willing to use their bodies in order to land a man — end up in tragedy: one goes to jail and the other kills herself. It’s only the virtuous among them, the shopgirl who’s really looking for love, and is not willing to compromise her morals (i.e. put out) in order to find it… even when a millionaire who looks like Robert Montgomery takes her back to his Cedric Gibbons-made Art Deco treehouse and tryst-pad… she’s the one who winds up with a happy ending. Naturally, that’s the Crawford role: the working girl made good (and who, as we see here, is good).
Tangentially, I think there’s a misconception about Pre-Code films: they don’t always reward “bad behavior” or resist offering the same moral judgments that cinema/culture both before and after would make. No, many of these pictures — particularly in the tamer and more sentimental 1930, when the industry was still trying to get back on its feet after a major technical upheaval (silent to sound) — often take the stance you’d expect: good girls are indeed good, and whores are, well, they’re bad. When Our Blushing Brides takes this point-of-view, this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a good Pre-Code. As a matter of fact, large parts of society became more conservative in the Depression, for stability — in all forms — was valued, and because the Pre-Code genre’s true beauty, as we’ve discussed before, was its willingness to confront modern times as they actually were — honestly, and with equal parts romance and much-warranted cynicism — then a picture that reflects the era, or at least its values, is the primary criteria for ascertaining what makes a worthwhile Pre-Code film. To that point, Brides doesn’t just affirm some of the concerns of 1930, it also meets them with that much-warranted cynicism: life is tough out there and good people, whether they do “good things” or “bad things” are going to end up suffering; therefore, it’s better to be as good as possible…
I think the picture is thus a wonderful sample of the Pre-Code era, particularly the films of mid/late 1930, with a lot of charming moments reflective of the time — like the fashion show, which not only catered then to the women in the audience, but lets modern viewers see just how much tastes had changed since the start of economic hardship. But Brides is not an Essential. The story takes a lot of cheap, predictable turns with a sense of melodrama that’s unearned. The performances are all generally fine, but neither they nor the scripters can keep up with the slow plotting or the silly plot. What’s more, any classic picture that stars Crawford expects that she’ll get her hands dirty; she doesn’t here. Fortunately, her next film — Paid, from later in 1930 — would eventually add another wrinkle to her evolved celluloid mask: maybe she wasn’t so good after all. This would prove not only okay with audiences, but entertaining and relatable, too. Accordingly, if Brides was made even a year later, in 1931, Crawford probably would have compromised her morals (i.e. put out) if a millionaire who looks like Robert Montgomery took her back to his Cedric Gibbons-made Art Deco treehouse and tryst-pad… And the film would make sure that we’d love her for it. For those reasons — it’s not a terrific film or an ideal Crawford Pre-Code — I think it remains a curio: notable for pivoting her legendary screen character, but not yet giving it its FULL dynamism and dimension.
Come back next week for another Wildcard! And tune in Tuesday for more Beaver!