Pre-Code Bachelor's Affairs Are Never Dull, That's for Sure!
July 27, 2015
Every other year, UCLA's Festival of Preservation provides the public with screenings of a vast array of titles the Archive has been hard at work rescuing and restoring over the previous two years. Having only attended two festivals, I can already sense a pattern in the event's programming, which I mentioned in my preview post on the festival earlier this year.
One thing I can always count on? A handful of rare pre-codes, my absolute favorite! (Well, minus the rare part).
The pre-code screening I enjoyed most at the 2015 festival was 1932's sparkling Bachelor's Affairs, boasting a director I had never heard of, writers I didn't know, and a main cast consisting of actors usually billed at least 3rd or 4th in the credits.
This is a film capable of catching an audience off guard, and boy did it ever!
This piece, featuring Eva (Joan Marsh) and Andrew (Adolphe Menjou), looks like it could be a book cover or graphic for a magazine article.
Gold digger Sheila Peck (Minna Gombell) aims to land a rich man so she can lead a comfortable life, but here's the kicker: the man's not for her, he's for her young, spirited sister Eva (Joan Marsh). That's right, Sheila's using Eva to net a wealthy suitor who can provide for both of them. Luckily, middle aged bachelor Andrew Hoyt (Adolphe Menjou) just so happens to fit the bill, and Sheila conveniently sets up the love affair contrary to Eva's wishes.
Since neither Sheila nor Eva have any money to live on, marriage it is for Eva! And Sheila by default! But only Andrew and Sheila seem happy about the upcoming nuptials; Eva, Andrew's business partner Luke Radcliffe (Alan Dinehart), and Andrew's secretary Jane Remington (Irene Purcell) all frown upon the whole affair for varying reasons.
Once married, Eva and Andrew quickly find that their lifestyles don't suit each other. Eva loves to dance and party, but Andrew 's body simply can't handle the moves and all night shenanigans; vice versa, Eva can't stand to visit Andrew in the quiet country, where he ironically flees for some much needed rest from his wife.
To help his friend out, Luke arranges for dashing Oliver Denton (Arthur Pierson) to stay at Andrew's country estate - permanently. Oliver acts as a sort of companion for Eva to go out, dance, and, you know, do all that young stuff with. Though Andrew savors the setup because it keeps his wife occupied, Sheila worries that Eva will fall for Oliver, which is exactly what happens. In the end, Andrew and Eva graciously split, a move which frees up Eva for Oliver (after Andrew pays Oliver's 'ex-wife' to go away) and gives Luke the go-ahead to reveal that long suffering Jane has been in love with Andrew the whole time!
Those taglines, man. (Upper right hand corner).
Fast and Furious: Pre-Code Style
The more risqué the pre-code, the better (generally) and certainly more entertaining, at least in my book. Well, on a scale of 1-10, Bachelor's Affairs hits at least a 10. Yes, the film contains all the usual naughtiness of the era, but that's not all. Actually, it was the steady stream of laughter in the theater, my own included, as opposed to the occasional notes of surprise usually uttered under one's breath that astonished me the most; even in pre-code comedies (Lubitsch's certainly come to mind here), I find this reaction rather rare.
The atmosphere, outrageous yet very light, I attribute to the speedy and smooth direction, the script, and the performances. Bachelor's Affairs, which clocks in at a swift 64 minutes, was directed by "film doctor" Alfred L. Werker, well-known around Hollywood for his ability to wrap up a picture competently and quickly that the original director was unable to finish; obviously, those traits were put to good use on this picture. Though Werker, who worked extensively at Paramount and poverty row studio Eagle-Lion, seemed to excel in darker dramas and films noir as evidenced by his credits (1948's He Walked By Night and 1939's The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are examples), Bachelor's Affairs quite clearly demonstrates his comfort with comedies as well.
The film's set-up is rather provocative yet handled with care so the comedy masks any potential offensiveness, especially in terms of the sanctity of marriage...which is non-existent here. Seriously, the repartee and action run so quickly that you barely notice that tiny, tiny issue. Screenwriters Barry Conners and Philip Klein wrote extremely witty and (mostly) smart characters who, conveniently, spout out equally dazzling and at times rapid-fire quips. Yes, even Eva sometimes. Of all the characters, I'd say Andrew's valet Jepson (Herbert Mundin) delivers the funniest lines; in particular, almost everything that comes out of his mouth - mostly centering around his failed marriage - forms a hilarious combination of sarcastic and self-deprecating humor, all within a sentence! Or maybe two.
Riding bikes might be more Andrew's speed...or is Eva taking it too fast?
Onto the Performances!
Both the main and supporting roles in Bachelor's Affairs were written with unique character traits and twists that at times came off unexpectedly, though delightfully so. Luckily, all of the actors turned in strong performances to match their respective well-crafted roles.
Star Adolphe Menjou brought a level of sass to his role as rich middle aged bachelor Andrew. We first encountered him comically receiving a facial treatment to look younger for the fashionable ladies onboard the boat he's sailing on. That's a clear indication he's on the prowl for a young woman, but while he can subject himself to as many treatments as possible to reverse the visual signs of aging, physically, his body will always remind him how old he really is; for instance, his recurring knee pain clearly signifies the age difference - and physical limitations - that exist between Andrew and Eva.
As for his marriage to Eva, although Andrew lets himself get roped into it, he doesn't bemoan the union (have you seen Eva?), nor is he blind to her actions. Yes, he tries his best to appease her and fulfill her youthful desires, but he's wise enough to know when he's beat, and when he gives in, he graciously does so with the wisdom of one his age. Menjou tackled the part with expected maturity, but gave way for precise light comedy when attempts at exuberance were required. Andrew's funniest scene highlights these traits when he tries to learn the rumba for his wife. His uncoordinated motions and straight facial expressions, at once overwhelmed, disinterested, and completely exhausted, caused a significant amount of laughter in the theater. As an added bonus, deadpan valet Jepson joined in from afar, which intensified the chuckles tenfold.
As Jepson, Herbert Mundin embodied the smallest role I'll discuss here, but he certainly made it a memorable one. Though Mundin is probably most well-known for his roles in dramas and adventure films like Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), his comic timing here was simply flawless. His character's pessimistic real life anecdotes and advice - rather unexpected at first - meshed nicely, and hilariously, with Andrew's situation. I wish I could watch the movie again to list all of Jepson's fantastic one liners and figure out how to make GIFs!
Herbert Mundin, rather serious looking here, played one of the funniest roles - Jepson.
Minna Gombell turned in a solid performance in probably the most thankless and, frankly, most annoying, role of them all. As Sheila, the needy elder sister too old to chase Andrew herself with any lasting results (yes, too old, a mere two years younger than Adolphe Menjou),Gombell played the right amount of entitled and obnoxious without going overboard, though she stayed quite close to the line in some scenes. Her character's plan to pimp her sexy, several years younger sister (Joan Marsh was 17 during filming) to catch the bachelor for them both elicited some laughs, which is the type of role Gombell excelled in (see: 1934's The Thin Man).
Interestingly, her character's last name is Peck, which strikes me as a perfect surname for her: she acts like an annoying little birdie, poking away at everyone to make sure she gets what she wants - financial stability - without doing any of the work. Sheila depends so much on others, mainly Andrew and Eva, so much that when the couple splits up at the end, everyone comes out standing on their own two feet except for Sheila. And the best part is that no one cares! What a payback.
Then there's the character who truly captures Andrew's heart, his secretary Jane (Irene Purcell). The film, and her quiet performance, makes it easy to forget about her, but in fact, her dimmed down looks, relatively humble getup, and calm disposition make her a better match for Andrew; even her name, Jane, is more traditional than the young, flirty sounding Eva (perhaps a reference to Adam and Eve?), signaling that she and her relatively peaceful life are much more suited to Andrew than Eva ever could be. As the straightest character of the bunch, Purcell gave a restrained performance handled with such care that she never fell into pity territory. Fun fact: Purcell was only six years younger than Menjou, though she looks a good decade younger and he, a decade older.
Irene Purcell (Jane) looking so sweet and innocent.
And of course, there's Joan Marsh, who I haven't seen enough of. She mastered a perfect mixture of sweet, sassy, sexy, and a wee bit dumb in her role as Eva, the gorgeous young woman used by her sister to provide financially for both of them. Those aren't the easiest traits to pull off together, but Marsh did an excellent job turning each on at the exact right moment. For example, at the end when Eva finally falls in love with someone closer to her own age who - GASP - isn't a billionaire, she's at once girlish and a bit imprudent when it comes to flashing her new beau around Andrew, who, let's remember, is legally still her husband! At the same time, she's incredibly alluring, content, and finally a bit more mature at this juncture in her (still very young) life. It's a tricky situation for her and Andrew, but both characters handle it well, and, surprisingly, in a realistic, adult manner that is quintessential pre-code.
I'll just leave this very pre-code shot, used FOR PROMOTION, of Joan Marsh (Eva) here.
A big thank you to UCLA for restoring this picture. With no big names behind it, and a studio - Fox - known for not releasing its pre-codes on DVD (thanks again for that knowledge, Danny), I'm glad the film has survived and UCLA has made sure it will live on for...well, however long they take care of that/those print(s)! That will be a long time, right UCLA?
Also, can we start a petition to Fox to release their pre-codes on DVD? Anyone?