Pre-Code Profile: CONVENTION CITY (1933)

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! This month’s Pre-Code is Convention City (1933), the legendarily lost Joan Blondell comedy that was deemed so risqué, and therefore un-re-releasable, that all prints were allegedly destroyed… Now, before you get too excited, I haven’t found the film. Rather, this review is based on having read two drafts of the script (the more recent one coming from June 1933 — three months before production began), along with a dialogue transcript taken from exactly what was said on-screen in the final cut.

Also, because the film is still not known to exist, I can’t officially add it to my list of Pre-Code Essentials… However, after having reviewed our past catalogue of Pre-Code coverage (and realizing that 2018 didn’t have very many essentials), I’ve decided to add two previously covered films to our roster, Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1931) and Three On A Match (1932).

Now, it’s time for…

 

Convention City (1933)

Extra-marital fun and games abound at a convention of the Honeywell Rubber Company in Atlantic City. Starring Joan Blondell, Adolphe Menjou, Dick Powell, Mary Astor, Guy Kibbee, Frank McHugh, Patricia Ellis, Ruth Donnelly, Hugh Herbert, and Grant Mitchell. Screenplay by Robert Lord. Story by Peter Milne. Directed by Archie Mayo. Distributed by Warner Brothers.

“Among the Honeywell Rubber Company salespeople on board a special train bound for the annual convention in Atlantic City are T. R. ‘Ted’ Kent (Menjou), a champion salesman; Arline Dale (Astor), the best saleswoman, who is also in love with Kent; George Ellerbe (Kibbee), a henpecked husband, and his wife (Donnelly); and Jerry Ford (Powell), attending his first convention. When they arrive in Atlantic City, Jerry makes a date with Nancy Lorraine (Blondell), a chorus girl. During a party, Kent helps Jerry avoid a clinch with Nancy, but Mrs. Ellerbe sees Nancy leave Kent’s room and immediately wires his wife. Meanwhile, Jerry has met Claire Honeywell (Ellis), the boss’s daughter, and she makes a date with him. Both Kent and Ellerbe are contenders for sales manager, so when Kent learns that Claire is in town, he romances her in the idea that she will recommend him to her father. Ellerbe asks Kent to help him get rid of his wife for a while, and Kent agrees, hoping that Ellerbe will get into trouble by offending the conservative J. B. Honeywell (Mitchell) and lose the position.

“After his wife leaves, Ellerbe makes a date with Nancy. Mrs. Ellerbe returns unexpectedly, however, and Kent rushes upstairs to warn Ellerbe and finds him in the midst of being blackmailed by Nancy’s crooked partner, Frank Wilson (Gordon Westcott), who is pretending to be her husband. With Kent’s help, Ellerbe escapes, and Kent is found with Nancy when Mrs. Kent (Sheila Terry) suddenly arrives with private detectives, looking for grounds for divorce. To add to his troubles, Claire also sees Kent and Nancy together and assumes that he is two-timing her. On the final day of the convention, Honeywell names Will Goodwin (McHugh), who has caught him in a compromising situation, sales manager. Returning home on the train, Kent and Dale become engaged even though Kent believes that a ‘salesman has no right to be married,’ when Dale points out that she is also a salesman and ‘two wrongs make a right.’ Claire makes her father give Jerry a promotion and the two young people get engaged as well.” (This summary is based on the one by TCM, which is based on the June 1933 draft.)

Having read several different iterations of Convention City myself, I think it’s time to clear up some misconceptions. First, there’s no evidence that the oft-mentioned Elmer the goat gag (and the accompanying implication of bestiality) ever made it into the final cut. And while he does appear in the June 1933 draft — and maybe was kept for the shooting script that September and then deleted — he only comes in at the very end, when a gaggle of drunk salesmen try to bring him onto the train home. In other words, it’s not as salacious as the internet rumors would have you believe… And, frankly, I think the same could be said for Convention City in total, for although the aforementioned draft is more explicit in its dialogue than the final transcription, the fact remains that this was always a fairly standard sex comedy from 1933 — certainly not tame, but also not so depraved that it should warrant producer Henry Blanke’s proclamation that it singlehandedly “brought on the whole Code” or naughty enough that it could live up to Joan Blondell’s tease of being “the raunchiest [film] there has ever been.”

In fact, as I think the above synopsis indicates, Convention City is unlike many of that year’s outrageous classics (see: Temple Drake, Queen Christina, or Baby Face) because nobody here ever has any sex. We never see any of these characters actually get laid or are led to believe that, during the course of these 70-ish minutes, they’ve actually been laid. So, technically speaking, everything’s on the up-and-up in Convention City and if we were to find a print today, we’d not be able to call it the envelope-pusher that we so desperately want to believe it was… On the other hand, it’s clear why a good many local censor boards ended up having a field day with the film — not because of any particular scenes really (reading the various selected deletions reveal them to be fairly trivial, mostly choice one-liners) — but because the film is founded upon sex: every character wants it or uses it to get what they want. And how does one cut attitude, intent?

While the story’s anchor, Adolphe Menjou, wants a promotion so much that he’s willing to seduce the boss’ daughter in order to get it, his rival for the position, Guy Kibbee, wants sex so much that he’ll forsake the job just to have an affair with one of the convention’s busiest chorines/hostesses/hookers, Joan Blondell, who schemes with her boyfriend/husband/pimp to fleece conventioneers by arranging for them to be caught in clinches. And as other rubber men like the big boss himself and the carousing Frank McHugh are caught with women, the picture’s juvenile, Dick Powell — who seems like he’s only around to have a wholesome romance with the boss’ daughter — also pursues and gets caught up with “chorus girl” Blondell earlier in the picture! You see, nobody here is upstanding in the monogamous sense of the word — even lady salesman Mary Astor is perfectly willing to be with the married Menjou — and the picture’s sole sexless lead, Ruth Donnelly, is portrayed as such an unlikable prude that she might as well be the villain, keeping all the characters, particularly our leads, from achieving their goals.

Yes, with so many sex-driven ambitions flying around, the picture posits that there’s no moral distinction between the horny and the righteous; indeed, when all our favorite stars want it (or know how to use it) — the funny, the sweet, the straightforward — we come to dislike the characters who seem wont to discourage all the merriment, like Donnelly as Kibbee’s humorless wife… Naturally, many censor boards would have a problem with a film like Convention City, where sex and booze are fun and those who don’t partake, frankly, aren’t… It’s an utterly Pre-Code sentiment, and the extent of the picture’s interest in sex — even though no scenarios have any implied fornication — reveals just why it was heavily trimmed in some local markets. Accordingly, although I can’t add it to my list because I haven’t actually seen the film, its theme and temperament suggests that it would make a fine Pre-Code Essential, and more importantly, a hilariously romp-filled good time — among the era’s funniest.

Now, for the good stuff. I am unable to share any script or primary document with you. But for subscribers — who comment below to alert me of their interest — I am able to share a crude transcript of all the dialogue that made the final cut, based on an equally crude transcript made at the time of the film’s release. (It’s dialogue only, and not without its share of typos either, so you’ll have to fill in many of the missing pieces yourself.) For the rest of you, here’s just a taste, from when Menjou, who’s learned that the promotion is likely his, tells Astor that he has second thoughts about helping frame Kibbee up with Blondell, who is buying time up in his hotel room until her partner-in-crime gets there. Check out this spicy dialogue!

 

 

Come back next week for another Wildcard post! And tune in Tuesday for more Drew Carey!

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