Good Girls Go to Paris [Alexander Hall, 1939]
This movie ends way, way afield of where it begins.
I tend to like it when filmmakers put out a lot of work and move on, rather than spending ages fine-tuning their product. But when the art-making process is industrialized, it ends up with projects that don’t make any sense when you think about them, and don’t involve anybody making a real investment of time or creativity, but get completed and released because they can fit a certain niche. Good Girls Go to Paris occupied the role of Columbia Pictures Mid-Summer 1939 Romantic Comedy. When we watch it, what does it seem like it might become?
Academic satire? I can’t overstate how superficial the academic satire is. Much less nuanced than A Chump at Oxford. Interestingly, it’s set at a mediocre college that was founded less than 30 years before the events of the film, and part of the plot involves the college’s founder trying to one-up his business rivals by further endowing Brand University. But the students are the same all-male aristocratic wastrels you’d expect from a movie about Princeton. Melvyn Douglas’s character is a world-ranking expert on Greek mythology, an Oxbridge visitor in residence, but the film’s knowledge consists of a few references to Aesop’s fables, and one mention of “Cytherea, a rather high-spirited wench”.
Contrast of British and American mores? Douglas’s utter distaste for tea in bag form is interesting. But after the early cafeteria-driven instances of cultural clash, he’s just another bland male adult.
- Professor Brooke: [confused by teabag] What’s this, a surgical dressing?
- Waitress Jenny: You dunk it in the water.
- Brooke: You what?
- Jenny: Dunk. As in doughnut. Haven’t you ever dunked a doughnut?
- Brooke: Should I have?
- Jenny: Oh, if you haven’t, you’ve missed a lot of fun.
Movie about Paris? Not so! Paris exists only as a mythical construct representing honeymooning. We learn that you don’t have to trick a man into marrying you to go to Paris. Good girls may go there as well.
Study of Joan Blondell’s adorability? Now there’s something it does well. We’re introduced to a group of waitresses in the college cafeteria, and it looks like it’ll be a Harvey Girls scenario in which each has a little romantic subplot. No, the only one who matters is Blondell’s character Jenny, as becomes clear when they line up in front of the waitress drill instructor and she’s deemed excessively adorable.
- Did you shorten that skirt?
- No, ma’am. [bashfully] I starched it.
Study of gold-digging? The script is pretty self-contradictory on this subject. Jenny Swanson is written as a weird combination of innocence and cynicism, in the tradition that gave us characters like Lolita, Susan Vance, and June Gudmundsdottir. She straightforwardly commits blackmail to get money from a college boy she’s beguiled. But she does it with a blank look on her face, as if baffled by what she’s doing, like she needs us to see her as a dewy-eyed innocent who’s being possessed by the devil. Maybe it was hard to construct a consistent character of this sort in 1939, when the Depression wasn’t raging as it had when the economically disadvantaged plucky gold-digger became a potential heroine.
Blondell doesn’t look her age here , but she seems bored with the role of someone who can plausibly be dazzled by 19-year-old college boys, and uninterested in being a femme fatale.
In the final scenes Jenny’s quick thinking and small-town common sense solves everyone’s problems, not in a way compatible at all with the gold-digging ethos. She had a happy family, the only thing she’s trying to escape is boredom. But she seems so wholesome. She gives her conscience a nickname. She wears humongous dewy flowers on her dresses and hats. She orders crackers and milk at El Morocco.
Clockwork-precise farce? In this way the movie is fun, once we leave college and end up in the Brand family’s New York mansion. As more and more men fall for Jenny, the comedy kicks into gear. Isabel Jeans is great as the overbearing society matron. Alexander D’Arcy puts on what I believe is an early example of the horribly attempted Cajun accent, as a driven lothario incongruously named “Paul Kingston”. I loved the scene where he gets hit with a flowerpot.
Descent into madness? Walter Connolly was near the end of his career here. IMDB: “The name may have been forgotten, especially today (seven decades later), but the portly, apoplectic, exasperated figure on the 1930s screen wasn’t.” Those three adjectives are an understatement of his performance here. Introduced as a whining invalid, his character Olaf Brand is quickly revived by Jenny’s kicky updates of folkSwedish nostrums. And the tantrums begin as the farce begins. He literally tears his hair. He literally seizes his chest. He staggers and collapses into armchairs. He literally pounds the table when asking what on earth is going on. Nathan Lane would struggle to do this broad a depiction of the cranky man of sedate habits driven to distraction by escalating wackiness. And I don’t see why the story requires Connolly to transcend their mere 22-year age difference and play Alan Curtis’s grandfather. He could have been his uncle. Or father.
* * *
Blonde Crazy (Roy Del Ruth, 1931)
Good Girls Go To Paris has a pervasive forced air, like the characters aren’t quite convinced of why they should be interacting. Blonde Crazy has none of that. Scene after scene showcase Blondell’s rapport/repartee with frequent co-star James Cagney. Her character Anne Roberts is eager for everything she experiences, though she strictly limits the extent of her indulgence – far nicer to identify with than the ingenuous pseudo-amoral character Blondell tries to hold together in GGGTP.
Though very sweet, without the unashamed premarital sex of Illicit [Archie Mayo] or the disturbing violence of Night Nurse [William A. Wellman] [two other 1931 Blondell movies], this is a pre-Code film with a spirit of cheerful venality compelled by economic necessity (described beautifully here by Imogen Sara Smith), as well as frank depictions of ablution.
- [Anne is sitting in a bathtub brushing and beribboning her hair]
- [Bert sticks his head around the door]
- Anne: Hey, what’ya mean, crashin’ in like that? Can’t you see I’m taking a bath?
- Bert [Cagney]: Yeah? Move over.
- Anne: [squeals]
Then he suggests a dubious short-term investment.
- Well, it don’t sound good to me, but if I don’t give you the money you’ll probably steal it. So take it, my friend.
- All right, where is it?
- In my brassiere.
- In my brassiere!
- You got pockets in that? [rummaging around her clothes]
Cagney dances all around the set, making her crack up with lines like “Little girl likem nice mans?”, making fun of Robert Browning, and turning “Honey” into a catchphrase [I counted eight “ho-o-o-o-o-ney”s]. When Helen (Noel Francis), main squeeze of Bert’s huge-top-hat-wearing criminal role model Dapper Dan Barker, tries to distract him with the old “Dan and I … have an understanding” bit, he doesn’t just blow her off, he flits into a throaty European stage voice to say “How nice for you”. All of this is to show us the effect Anne’s effervescence has on him – because when she settles down with cowardly businessman Ray Milland [not yet in control of the American accent] he loses all his vigor.
Trying to sell good-luck swastika charms to bachelor loners, living on principal from their last glorious Southern colonel horse race car delay con, Bert has even stopped reading Success: The Human Magazine. Out of the blue, Anne pleads with him to help Milland’s character evade sanction for a string of naive embezzlements. Cagney’s most menacing scene in Blonde Crazy is when he’s forcing Milland to appreciate what a worm he [Milland] is, and what a good plan he [Cagney] has and how imperative it is that he [Milland] follow it to the letter, and what a brave risk he [Cagney] is running no matter how good the plan is.
- “I’m not doing it for you! I’m doing it for Anne, ya smackoff.”
Once Blonde Crazy heads down maudlin street it’s probably wise to no longer have even a pinch of levity, because we’d start resenting minor characters whose success in low-level extortion we once celebrated. His rueful delivery of the concluding folk-song quote is perfect, and so is the gently sprightly reprise of the love theme, Einar Swan‘s “When Your Lover Has Gone”.