Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Friday, 15 April 2016

Snapshot # 6 - Beauty and the Boss (1932)

What is it about?: Josef, a wealthy Viennese banker with an eye for the ladies has to fire his beautiful secretary for being too much of a diversion at work. He then hires Susie, a plain ‘church mouse’ of a girl who quickly organises his affairs and keeps him focused on his business. However, things change when Susie falls for her boss and begins to transform her appearance and use her womanly ways to catch his eye.

The Call Sheet: Marian Marsh, Warren William, David Manners, Charles Butterworth, Frederick Kerr, Mary Doran, Lillian Bond, Yola d’Avril.

Behind the Camera: Directed by Roy Del Ruth, Screenplay by Joseph Jackson from a play by Ladislas Fodor, Cinematography by Barney McGill, Art Direction by Anton Grot

Snapshot Thoughts: Adapted from the popular stage play A Church Mouse, Beauty and the Boss is another of the many Hollywood films of the 30s concerned with the lives and loves of the rich in Europe. In this case the action revolves around the affairs of the wealthy Viennese banker Baron Josef von Ullrich (Warren William), as he struggles to balance his work life with his love life. It is interesting to note that despite most of the protagonists being the titled rich or ladies of leisure, no hint of financial trouble either at home or abroad is mentioned. Instead, all the Baron’s problems are caused by his own actions, for the Baron’s Achilles heel is women, and when he carouses with the fair sex, he loses money. To this end, he cannot have a secretary who will distract him with her good looks, so decides to employ a rather plain girl to help him concentrate on his work. Of course, this being Hollywood, as soon as you can say ‘Ugly Duckling’, our plain Jane transforms herself into a ravishing beauty and the Baron is back where he started.

It’s perhaps best to gloss over the inherent chauvinism of the story, with its ideas of a woman’s place (either by day or by night). Luckily the script skirts these issues with such a light touch, and the cast perform it with such aplomb that it’s difficult not to get wrapped up in the movie’s charms. Despite its outdated gender politics, the film is essentially a fairy tale wrapped up in a romantic, far off land of make believe (ie Europe), and that is all it is ever meant to be. While lacking the witty continental touch of a Lubitsch or Mamoulian, the movie does have a certain sophistication, and this is all down to the very capable presence of Warren William, as Baron Josef. He stamps the picture with his imposing presence, rattling off his lines in a gruff, confident manner as if he was born to be the head of a Viennese bank. Yet, between the lines William’s quick delivery and raised eyebrows belie a charming, rakish side. Despite playing such a patrician, sexist character he makes Josef immensely likable. He may be the head of a large bank but at heart all he wants to do is whisper sweet nothings to a beautiful woman. His first reaction upon seeing Susie all dressed up in a ball gown is to notice how smooth her “pretty little arms” are, which is a bit strange, but is endearing none the less. It’s a wonderful performance from Warren William, to the point that you can’t imagine any other actor taking the part and making it work so well. However, perhaps the strangest thing of all is that Warren William was only 37 when he made the film. That man was born middle aged!

At its heart though, Beauty and the Boss is a battle of the sexes tale crossed with an ugly duckling story, and the bulk of the action and dialogue concerns those two themes. While not quite subversive or loud enough to be considered ‘screwball’ the film is essentially a comedy of manners, and with its sophisticated European setting and clash of cultures and social classes it plays out exactly the way you’d expect, and is reassuringly all the better for it.

Star Performances: In a movie awash with talented players such as Warren William and Charles Butterworth it’s perhaps surprising that hands down, the star performance goes to sixth on the bill Mary Doran as the Baron’s jilted ex secretary Olive Frey. She is a breath of fresh air in a film that all too easily could have been static and stage bound, and her worldly wise yet peppy character is a delight. She displays a great deal of confidence in her scenes and has good chemistry with Warren William. In contrast, Marian Marsh, though generally quite appealing in her role as Susie, is given an overly verbose script which results in some stilted delivery on her part. The two actresses share a key scene and while Doran is sassy and relaxed, Marsh is stiff and laboured. Some of this is due to their respective characters but most of it seems a matter of screen presence and confidence. Doran goes on to have perhaps her best scene in the film where she tries to explain to Marsh that she doesn’t know how to use her womanly charms. She goes on to breathlessly explain how exhilarating it is to be a real woman then acts out the routine she uses to attract the attention of her suitors. The whole speech is wonderful, and acted with conviction and gusto. It’s definitely one for the audition show reel. All the while, Marian Marsh looks like she is reading from an auto cue, and the quality of her lines doesn’t help with gems like “How vulgar you are!” making her seem stiff and wooden.

Although Marian Marsh does have some good scenes, Mary Doran uses her screen time better and consistently outshines the star to the point that it mystifies me as to why her cinematic legacy is not more significant. Doran is perhaps not quite conventionally pretty enough to be a leading lady, though she shines in close ups and has a dazzling smile. However, she’s got the sort of look that would have worked as a featured ‘other woman’ or best friend in a whole host of films (or at the very least, she would have been amazing as a regular in Hal Roach comedy shorts). Sadly, she had an all too brief career, only appearing from 1928 to 1936 generally in minor roles. However, on the strength of her charisma and charm in Beauty and the Boss I feel compelled to track down more of her work. Watch this space!

Technical Excellences: The movie is directed with a sure hand by veteran Roy Del Ruth. While often workmanlike in his approach, Del Ruth always knew how to keep the pace flying along and his movies of the 30s move at a joyous pace, never outstaying their welcome. While there is nothing too interesting to be said about the way the film is shot, mention should be made of the impressive sets. There is a moment in the movie where Warren William chases Marian Marsh around the furniture in his room and the camera lifts up to an overhead crane shot as they frolic. It’s only then that you realise how massive the sets were in many of these movies. The room looks enormous, with every corner dressed the part. Obviously this was done for practical reasons but the sense of design and scale is impressive, especially in a ‘small’ film like this. It goes to show the craftsmanship put into all these movies, even on parts of a set that usually would never be glimpsed.

The Sublime: The best part of the movie is the opening scene between the Baron and his secretary Miss Frey. It’s a really well played scene that sets up the premise of the film perfectly and highlights the talents of Warren William and Mary Doran. Doran’s character exists to set up the entrance of Marian Marsh, the de facto star of the movie but in a way it’s a shame the movie didn’t continue her story as the jilted secretary. The scene starts with The Baron dictating at a terrific pace and Miss Frey struggling to keep up. She crouches slightly, revealing a low cut top and crosses her stocking clad legs (complete with a pan downwards by the camera, subtle as ever). Distracted by what he sees, the Baron chastises her to “Leave your skirt down during office hours”. Miss Frey replies “Well you dictate so fast I never know where my skirt is!” There then follows some cheeky innuendos about low cut tops, bare shoulders and his rapid dictation accompanied by Miss Frey’s frequent exclamation of “Oh, Baron!” (which, the way she says it is perhaps one of the raunchiest pre code things I’ve ever heard, Wheeler and Woolsey would have been proud!).

The Baron then outlines his belief that “No woman should look pretty who works in a bank…the clerks become confused with their columns. It’s dangerous. Invites disaster”. All through this, the pretty Miss Frey gazes on in admiration until he decides it is too much and he fires her on the spot. Her face goes from a picture of happiness to a dejected pout, her little heart broken. Luckily this is just the beginning of a new role for Miss Frey, who the Baron believes was not cut out for secretarial work. He tells her she is “a girl for the evening, who I met unfortunately only in the daytime”. Immediately the truth dawns on her and Miss Frey is a ball of energy and glee once again.

It’s a wonderfully played scene, with Warren William at his haughty patrician best, yet displaying a naughty twinkle in his eye. Mary Doran is a perfect partner for him, acting like a lovesick puppy - all big eyes and smiles and eager to please her man. Despite this she still knows her own worth and the power she can hold over men and so uses those self same big eyes and smiles to be flirtatious and coy to her own advantage. The relationship between the two characters seems warm and real, and while it probably couldn’t have sustained a whole movie, in these bite sized pieces, it’s the high point of the film.

The Ridiculous: When Marian Marsh’s Susie first appears she is poor, plain and nervous, a church mouse in appearance and manner. The only thing that stands out is her outfit, which seems to have been chosen from the costume department at Biograph circa 1912. With a dowdy long skirt, a straw hat complete with feather attachment and an umbrella, she is half Mary Poppins, half Victorian washer woman. Unfortunately she looks ridiculous and totally at odds with the way everyone else in the picture is dressed. I know the movie is set in Vienna, but somehow I doubt she is displaying the working class outfit of the day. To add to her problems her face is given the full pancake treatment to give her the appearance of being tired and plain. She has that weird look that the studios in the 30s and 40s gave to actresses when they wanted to make them appear to be elderly in order to (for example) tell a story in flashback. It’s strange that in order to give the impression she is wearing no make-up that they give her twice as much make up! The effect is disarming to say the least, like a sort of deathly apparition from the workhouse. Thankfully once she cleans herself up, though still tying her hair back severely, she begins to look more recognisable (and she also dispenses with her breathlessly wavering nervous voice). The transformation from church mouse to woman can’t come fast enough.

Is it worth watching?: I’d recommend Beauty and Boss highly. It’s fantastic entertainment with a good cast, a sprightly pace and a script full of sharp humour and pithy remarks. Sure, you can see the end coming a mile off and the characters are at times portrayed with a lack of subtlety and the less said the better about the role it assumes of women but the whole production just radiates charm and fun. It’s a perfect pre code afternoon matinee, unassuming, genial and at times surprising. All in the company of a pitch perfect Warren William and a supporting cast of familiar faces and an overachieving starlet. What more could you ask for?

Random Quote: “Don’t squirm. I know you have hips!”