Saturday, March 15, 2014

Midnight Mary (1933)

Director: William A. Wellman                              Writers: Gene Markey & Kathryn Scola
Music: William Axt                                            Cinematography: James Van Trees
Starring: Loretta Young, Ricardo Cortez, Franchot Tone and Una Merkel

One typically doesn’t associate films about prostitutes with MGM, even if they do have a heart of gold, but in the early days of sound all the major studios were pandering to audiences who wanted to be titillated. Head of production Irving Thalberg disliked these films, but the moneyman Nicholas Schenck was a fan of the Warner Brothers’ films and pushed the project through. In fact, Schenck even went so far as to borrow his director, the star, and the cameraman from Warners for the picture. Midnight Mary is the name of the prostitute played by Loretta Young. She’s an interesting actress to watch in her early days. It would seem that MGM was looking for a second-string Joan Crawford. Young had the eyes, certainly, and the studio colored her hair red, and even the way she delivered her lines is like Crawford. But there’s something definitely missing, something that burns in Crawford to own the screen that Young lacks.

The story begins with Young on trial for murder, though in the courtroom she looks as if she couldn’t be bothered. While the jury is out, the wonderful Charley Grapewin as the court clerk takes her into his office to wait. He has all of his files in books that are individually marked with the thirty years he’s been working there, and when Young looks at the dates they initiates flashbacks of her early life. Things don’t begin well, and when she picks up a handbag in a store that a shoplifter had dropped she is arrested and sentenced to three years in juvenile detention. When she gets out her and her girlfriend Una Merkel hook up with gangsters Ricardo Cortez and Warren Hymer. Young eventually leaves Cortez, but after a fruitless attempt at looking for work she comes back to become his moll. Of course she is dissatisfied, and when a robbery turns bad and she’s taken in by wealthy lawyer Franchot Tone, she begins to see a pathway to a different life for herself. Unfortunately for prostitutes, even in the pre-code era, fairy tales don’t come true . . . at least not until the very end.

While Loretta Young certainly does a good job in the role, her similarity to Joan Crawford only serves to diminish what she brings of herself to the film, and it’s too bad she couldn’t have been allowed to create her own screen image sooner. Ricardo Cortez is also playing beneath his capabilities here, a straight-up bad guy with little of the nuance that he could bring to a role like the one he played in Mandalay. Franchot Tone is very good as the chivalrous bachelor who treats Young with the respect he would give to any woman in his social circle. His open-faced enthusiasm and unabashed charm are perfect for the role. In addition to Grapewin there are some other great character actors involved as well. The wonderful Halliwell Hobbes plays, what else, a butler for Young, while Andy Devine is a bit unconvincing as one of Tone’s rich friends. And the great Louise Beavers puts in a brief appearance as Young’s maid.

Director William Wellman and star Loretta Young had both worked together and with cinematographer James Van Trees on a number of projects for Warner Brothers, and the three of them came right from Heroes for Sale into this picture. The film was based on a story by the prolific Anita Loos, who had written a similar property for Metro in Red-Headed Woman with Jean Harlow the previous year. The other obvious influence of MGM on the production was the costume design, especially the distinctive white hat and gown that Young wears at the gambling parlor where she meets Tone. But all of the costumes are appropriately luxurious for this MGM production. Midnight Mary, for all its pretensions to a Warners’ style of pre-code excess is fairly tame in the way that it tells its story, and while the acting and directing are serviceable rather than sensational it is still a film very much worth watching

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