What does a working girl have to do to get ahead, when all she has in her favor is an incredible face, a lavish wardrobe, and a pair of legs to make any executive wolf howl? Loretta Young juggles two egotistical swains, while Joan Blondell shines as an enticing all-pro homewrecker.
Big Business Girl
The Warner Archive Collection
1931 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 74 min. / Street Date September 14, 2017 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Loretta Young, Frank Albertson, Ricardo Cortez, Joan Blondell, Frank Darien, Dorothy Christy, Oscar Apfel, Judith Barrett, Mickey Bennett, George ‘Gabby’ Hayes, Virginia Sale.
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Film Editor: Pete Fritch
Written by Robert Lord, story by Patricia Reilly & H.N. Swanson
Produced and Directed by William A. Seiter
Let’s hear it for the Warner Archive Collection’s voluminous vault of early ’30s Warners, MGM and RKO entertainments, which has given us a real education about this era of filmmaking. The pre-Code period is a great place to visit, and sometimes it feels like a better time than what we’ve got now. After ten volumes in ten years, the WAC closed out its Forbidden Hollywood Collection in 2016 . . . more on that series, below.
First National’s Big Business Girl doesn’t have the most original story, but its hot pre-Code dialogue and situational hanky-panky is virtually non-stop. A college girl seeks success both in romance and in business, in the not particularly emancipated year of 1931. The pre-Code sensibility displayed here isn’t just about sex. The writers question the status quo in which women can’t find respect in the workplace. Our heroine’s only choice is between two egotists, a slacker bandleader and a predatory executive.
Robert Lord’s screenplay sets up the dilemma of a young woman, but not in the most realistic of terms. College kids at a graduation dance are kiss ‘n’ pet crazy. A screen has been set up at one end of the dance floor to facilitate smooching, and the girls are as eager as the boys to race to the parking lot to neck. The old folks just don’t understand how things have changed. A spinster chaperone glowers in disapproval at the wiggling behind of a dancing co-ed, but her elderly male companion grins widely.
State College graduate Claire ‘Mac’ McIntyre (Loretta Young) parts with her school beau Johnny Saunders (Frank Albertson). She has top grades and wants to succeed in business in New York. Handsome, shallow and possessive, Johnny has failed most of his classes. He wishes that Claire would come with him to Paris, where he’s taking his college dance band.
On her own in the Big Apple, Claire doesn’t have it easy. The screenwriters set this up with graphic shorthand, by contrasting a pair of want ads. The first reads
– – – “Intelligent young woman, university graduate, will consider position…”
but is immediately replaced by this one:
– – – “Young woman wants any kind of a job.”
Claire gets a job in the Clayton & Winters advertising office through a lucky chance meeting with the boss, Robert Clayton (Ricardo Cortez). She starts at $125 a week, which seems like a fortune for 1931; Clayton says that he pays some copywriters much more to do work he seemingly doesn’t respect. Claire thinks she’s immune from the fate of the regular office girls. Sally (Virginia Sale) works a dead-end desk and has this to say about it:
“I know exactly what you’re going through. I was once terribly ambitious myself. I used to try and write copy. Had visions of grabbing a sweet job at a man’s salary. But it takes more than a successful business career to keep a girl warm at night.”
At least Sally doesn’t appear to be an executive’s discarded lover, like Edie Adams in The Apartment. Before Claire can even begin to take pride in her work, she hears the truth over the intercom: Clayton hired her for her looks and her legs, which he thinks are worth a lot more than what he pays. Forewarned of his intentions, she turns down his repeated, insistent propositions: “I thought you were a woman of the world.” Claire isn’t too proud, however, to use her general attractiveness to further her career.
Things get sticky when Johnny returns from Paris and catches Claire letting Robert kiss her, just to get it out of his system. The immature and unstable Johnny has predictably quit the band, and now he petulantly breaks up with Claire, too. Yet Claire secretly arranges for him to play on the radio for one of her clients, a Detroit automaker. Other complications follow, leading to a third-act scheme by Robert, who now wants to marry Claire. To break up Claire and Johnny for good, the executive arranges a fake compromising scandal. The clueless Johnny finds himself in a room with Pearl (Joan Blondell), an obvious plant to make it look like he’s making whoopee behind Claire’s back. The cheerful Pearl voices an open-minded attitude about vice: “My life is just one hotel room after another.” The first lesson of WB-First National pre-Codes is that Joan Blondell is entirely convincing in parts of this sort.
Big Business Girl is basically a star-driven vehicle finding the fastest route between sexy situations, peppered with provocative dialogue. It doesn’t sell a serious message and it’s not particularly ambitious, but the context it sketches says a lot about the morals of its time, the things people deemed acceptable and not acceptable. The glamour angle has the edge on naturalistic details. Loretta Young’s Claire can afford her own apartment and wear what look like designer clothes, a fact covered by that (unrealistic?) salary she’s being paid. Claire has no visible family connections but surely can’t come from too modest a background, considering the terrific dress she wears to the college prom. At one point Claire, wearing this sheer white designer creation, elects to sit down on wet grass to neck with her boyfriend. Female viewers in 1931 must have arched their eyebrows at this bit of insanity — no sober women rich or poor would do that.
Claire seems to do all the creative work at the agency, which is both appreciated and dismissed by Robert Clayton, who is more interested in getting her into bed. After proving a hit at a business party, Clayton insists on taking her home and physically forces his way uninvited into her apartment. He then acts as if he won’t leave until he gets a kiss.
Clayton is not supposed to be an entirely slimy character, only a smooth operator who knows what he wants. But if he were to force himself on Claire after the kiss, to me it seems he could easily avoid a charge of rape. Claire would have to admit to the cops and a judge that she’d not screamed or resisted. By the finish it’s possible that Clayton is genuinely willing to commit to Claire as a good husband. But he’s still using deceitful, underhanded means to win her.
That doesn’t mean that Johnny Saunders is the better alternative. He looks good but otherwise is a infantile dolt, too stupid to realize that Claire has set him up in his job. Johnny doesn’t know how to handle Mrs. Emery (Dorothy Christie), a wealthy fan eager to hop into bed with him. Johnny is also too stupid to see the Love Nest trap being laid for him, even to the extent of obeying when the sexy Pearl tells him to get into his pajamas. We can’t help but think that Claire’s better alternative would be to grab off Robert Clayton, and then reform him. At least Clayton has some brains. Or better yet, she should jump ship to a different ad agency based on her good record, and drop both men like hot potatoes.
A major plot element that shouldn’t be spoiled is a secret arrangement, which sanitizes a few scenes (after the fact) but only puts other questions on a different level, making Claire seem less virtuous. A much later neo-realist Italian movie about a young couple suffering through a similiar secret, is Mario Monicelli’s segment “Renzo e Luciana” in Boccaccio ’70. That couple faces the humiliating situation directly.
Producer-director William A. Seiter doesn’t display a great deal of style, leaving the film’s appeal almost entirely in its cast and the snappy, provocative dialogue zingers. Seiter doesn’t forget to include plenty of glamour angles on drop-dead gorgeous Loretta Young. She was barely eighteen when she made this picture, and reportedly had looks that kill at age fourteen, when she started playing young adults. These were mostly ‘good’ girl roles, leaving others like Myrna Loy to be typed as the ‘dusky vamps.’ Some of the beauties of this era were glorified clothes horses, but Young was never upstaged by an impressive designer dress.
Unaccountably, Seiter and his editor leave in a couple of shots that the studio janitor would have rejected. At Clayton’s fancy party, the camera favors Claire’s backless gown — and clearly shows a large fly landing on her back, twice. The glamorous illusion disappears as we instantly realize that we’re in a hot ‘n’ sticky Hollywood sound stage, not a breezy Manhattan penthouse. I bet there was a new First National memo after that — no eating lunch on the sound stages.
Ricardo Cortez specialized in slimy crooks and Latin lovers but was reportedly a Jewish New Yorker of Austrian extraction, Jacob Krantz. He and Loretta would play again in MGM’s Midnight Mary. Popular Frank Albertson must have been more lively in other college- oriented movies, because he makes little impression here. We know him from familiar character roles later in his career: as ‘Hee Haw’ Sam Wainright in It’s A Wonderful Life, and as the rich tax-dodger from whom Janet Leigh steals $40,000 in Psycho. Albertson died in the middle ’60s, but I keep confusing him with Jack Albertson, of The Subject Was Roses. Joan Blondell is delightful in a glorified ‘wink-wink’ cameo. She already had much better parts in The Public Enemy and Other Men’s Women.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Big Business Girl is a fine presentation of a seldom-seen picture from the time when sync-sound editing was finally finding its feet. The title sequence is a bit unstable. The rest of the show is in more than acceptable shape, if not as sharp as the luckiest of films resurrected from this year. Ms. Young looks plenty luscious, even if the improved image does let us see things like that errant fly.
The trailer is assembled from alternate takes, some from different camera angles than what’s used in the film itself. When Clayton knocks Johnny down with a punch, in the movie the action is skip-framed ‘for impact.’ The straight shot in the trailer is more effective.
The advertising and posters for Big Business Girl mention something called ‘College Humor’ without explanation. The answer is that Patricia Reilly and H.N. Swanson’s original story was purchased from a magazine called College Humor. I guess that just attending college in 1931 was glamorous in itself, for many an unattainable ideal. Perhaps the magazine was the 1920s equivalent of The National Lampoon.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
I could just send you to the CineSavant Review Index, to look under “F” for the ten volumes in the WAC’s Forbidden Hollywood branded line collection, as Big Business Girl is continuing the tradition. I believe they’re all still available. Here are the links to the Savant reviews, repeated for easier access:
The Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 1 Waterloo Bridge, Red-Headed Woman, Baby Face 12.09.06
Volume 2 The Divorcee, A Free Soul, Three on a Match, Female, Night Nurse, Thou Shalt Not 3.15.08
Volume 3 Other Men’s Women, The Purchase Price, Frisco Jenny, Midnight Mary, Heroes for Sale, Wild Boys of the Road 3.13.09
Volume 4 Jewel Robbery, Lawyer Man, Man Wanted, They Call It Sin 8.21.12
Volume 5 Hard to Handle, Ladies they Talk About, The Mind Reader, Miss Pinkerton 9.11.12
Volume 6 The Wet Parade, Downstairs, Mandalay, Massacre 5.21.13
Volume 7 The Hatchet Man, Skyscraper Souls, Employees’ Entrance, Ex-Lady 6.01.13
Volume 8 Blonde Crazy, Strangers May Kiss, Hi Nellie!, Dark Hazard 3.17.15
Volume 9 Big City Blues, Hell’s Highway, The Cabin in the Cotton, When Ladies Meet, I Sell Anything 11/24/15
Volume 10 Guilty Hands, The Mouthpiece, Secrets of the French Police, The Match King, Ever in My Heart 6.26.16
Big Business Girl
Movie: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 4, 2017
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson