Saturday, August 9, 2014

Under Eighteen (1931)

Director: Archie Mayo                                    Writers: Charles Kenyon & Maude Fulton
Music: Bernard Kaun                                     Cinematography: Barney McGill
Starring: Marian Marsh, Warren William, Regis Toomey and Anita Page

The pre-code era was a rich cinematic period, but with so much emphasis on titillating stories and controversial topics, most of those films have been suppressed for decades. Thankfully the enormous wealth of that period is finally coming to light and the major studios are releasing these early thirties films on TCM and on DVD which now gives us a much more thorough understanding of movie history from the early Depression. Under Eighteen is a representative example of the pre-code ethos, dealing with divorce, abortion and kept women. But while the moral watchdogs of society were no doubt outraged by films like this, it is actually quite a charming story with an upbeat ending. Some writers actually believe that the Hays office was responsible for the ending, that it wielded a lot more influence during the pre-code than many historians give it credit for. While the title seems to make implications of underage sex, Marian Marsh is clearly of age. The title of the original story is “Sky Life” which makes sense considering the life Marsh aspires to. So the meaning of the film’s title is still a mystery to me.

The film begins with a wedding, Norman Foster and Anita Paige. It’s the late twenties and everyone’s happy. Younger sister Marian Marsh can’t wait to find the man she’ll fall in love with and marry, and when she does she swears it will be forever. But then her father dies in 1929, and the Depression hits, and by the time we see her next she is dating Regis Toomey and complaining about everything. When neighbor Dorothy Appleby emerges from their apartment building to get into a limousine--the implication being she is going to be a kept woman--Marsh thinks it would be crazy to pass up an offer like that. Toomey manages to bring her down to Earth, but just barely, before they kiss and say goodnight. Marsh is saving money and plans to move out with her mother, when Paige and Foster show up with their son and no place to live. At her job at the dress shop the next day, the models are out to lunch and Marsh is given the chance to model a dress for the wealthy Warren William who goes through women like he’s changing socks. His girlfriend is there to look at mink coats, but he can’t take his eyes off of Marsh. When Toomey hears about this he gets very jealous, proposes, and Marsh says yes.

Meanwhile, Paige is pregnant again and she hates her husband, and William is sending flowers. So Marsh decides to take her sister to get an abortion, and that the only time she’ll be with a man is if she gets paid for it. Toomey overhears this, and their marriage is off when she decides to go to the Gatsbyesque William to help her out. Warren William plays the perfect cad, but there’s a scene that would reoccur in a different form decades later in American Beauty. When William is making his move, he believes for a moment that Marsh is divorced and this gets him excited. But when he learns that she has never been married, code for being a virgin, the audience can see in his face that he has no intention of sleeping with her but still behaves friendly. This was the first of the kind of roles that William would become associated with in the pre-code era, and eventually he would shed his conscience and be undeterred by petty things like innocence. Marian Marsh is very good, though she can become a bit pedestrian at times in being forced to play the innocent. She was just coming off of a solid performance in Svengali with John Barrymore and Warners gave her the starring role in this vehicle. Most of the time, however, she does have a lot of superb moments.

Like so many films from the thirties, Archie Mayo’s moving camera is a pleasure to watch, whether it’s tracking down the street, or moving through the dress shop where Marsh works, or around the penthouse pool. The supporting cast is good, for the most part. Norman Foster plays his part much too broadly and comes off as annoying rather than humorous. Regis Toomey is a broad actor as well, but manages to make it work. Anita Paige, on the other hand, is heartbreaking. Her excitement at marriage at the beginning of the picture contrasted with her miserable marriage is incredibly good. There are also a couple of nice cameo roles for character actors, one for Edward Van Sloane as the dress store assistant manager, and the other for Clarence Wilson as a divorce attorney. There’s no film score. What music there is comes from records playing in the background, and the leads ironically whistle, “Happy Days are Here Again.” Under Eighteen is a solid, Depression era film that deals with some of the grim realities for audiences of the day, and yet gave them a reason for maintaining their integrity while facing them.

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