Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Under Eighteen (1931, Archie Mayo)

A year after reaching stardom for playing Trilby to John Barrymore's Svengali in Archie Mayo's Svengali, young Marian Marsh played opposite the Barrymore-like Warren William in Mayo's Under Eighteen.  Made in 1931 and premiering in late December of that year, the latter film is nonetheless sometimes listed as a 1932 film, and is notable for the fact that Marsh likely was under 18--or had just turned 18--at the time of filming.  It's very much a Depression-set melodrama, with the happy opening scene (the wedding of Anita Page and Norman Foster, who also appeared in Skyscraper Souls, though not as a couple) occurring pre-1929 Crash and the (mostly) sobering rest of the film, following about two years later.

Though described as "light," in this contemporary review, I'd say it more accurate to characterize the film as a serious-minded dramatic slice of life piece, save for its patently artificial happy ending. The credited writers are Frank Mitchell Dazey (story, "The Sky Life"), Agnes Christine Johnston (story), and Charles Kenyon.
Marsh is never less than captivating as Margie Evans, a seamstress in a fancy department store who shares a tenement apartment with her widowed mother and goes out with delivery truck driver Regis Toomey, good as Grant Withers' ill-fated pal in the previous year's Other Men's Women, but a little hard to take here.  The aforementioned William doesn't have a lot of screen time, but the scenes at his palatial penthouse apartment, complete with indoor pool, are perhaps the highlights of the film. Watch for the jaw-dropping moment when a passel of young women jump into said pool to grab the jewels that a jilted rich guy has just dropped into the deep end.

Another moment that sticks with me (and, surely, many other viewers): William lingers on the sight of Marsh cooling off--unaware of his attentions--after modeling a fur coat for his girlfriend (Claire Dodd).
The most painful scenes are the verbal and sometimes physical jousts between out-of-work pool hustler husband Foster and his frustrated wife (Page); the frankness of these scenes, which demonstrates the ugliness that so commonly upsets domestic bliss, would be sorely missed in post-Code American cinema.

The almost certainly studio-mandated tacked-on ending is so over-the-top in the fairy tale sense that I have to believe that Mayo and his collaborators were taking the piss out of the studio and the production code office when they filmed it.

In the supporting cast are Claire Dodd in her usual role as the other woman, Italian-born Paul Porcasi as Francois, the owner of the classy boutique that employs Marsh, uncredited Emma Dunn as Margie's mother, and Murray Kinnell, who carries on the tradition of well-cast and well-written butler parts in pre-Code films.

This was an early release from the Warner Archive and the print used for the DVD is in pretty rough, unrestored shape, but it's nonetheless good to have this vital piece of pre-Code history readily available on physical media.

I've once again borrowed some priceless imagery from here.

No comments: