Wow … pre-Code pictures frequently offended conservative values, but this saucy ‘n’ sinful big business exposé is guaranteed to bring #MeToo advocates to their feet, demanding that the negative be burned. Loretta Young stars as a rather inconsistent modern maid, trapped between three less-than-scrupulous men. No, make that three total pigs.
She Had to Say Yes
The Warner Archive Collection
1933 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 66 min. / Street Date October 17, 2017 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Loretta Young, Winnie Lightner, Lyle Talbot, Regis Toomey, Hugh Herbert, Ferdinand Gottschalk, Suzanne Kilborn, Helen Ware, Harold Waldridge, George Chandler, Barbara Rogers, Renee Whitney, Pat Wing, Toby Wing.
Cinematography: Arthur Todd
Film Editor: George Amy
Written by Rian James, Don Mullaly, from a story by John Francis Larkin
Supervised by Henry Blanke
Directed by Busby Berkeley, George Amy
Loretta Young rules the pre-Code roost! There are plenty of good reasons to amble over to the website Greenbriar Picture Shows, but an article John McElwee posted on June 1 got me running to look up an old pre-Code movie. I first became aware of the pre-Code years at (then) MGM-UA home video in 1992, when I was handed a dozen pictures and told to edit video promos for them. The grouping was called ‘Forbidden Hollywood,’ a name that stuck through ten exhaustive DVD collections, 25 years later. I thought I’d seen most of the racy and daring extremes of the period, with adult subject matter, dialogue and risqué visuals that would suddenly disappear from screens in 1934. The Code demanded that some films be edited but others were simply shelved as unsuitable for exhibition.
As plenty of Paramount, Columbia and Fox movies from this era are still not widely available on disc, I certainly can’t say I’ve seen everything; long-time attendees of the yearly Cinecon Festival probably have. But the film that Greenbriar’s McElwee calls “Hotter than Hot” is exceptionally crude even by pre-Code standards. No nudity (International House), scientific perversion (Island of Lost Souls) or egregious morbidity (Safe in Hell) is involved, just simple sexual misbehavior, all off-screen.
The unvarnished human relationships of pre-Code pictures are liberating for us viewers that spent a lifetime watching Code-approved pictures where every moral misstep is punished, and every woman gives up her career because she really belongs at home raising children. But 1933’s She Had to Say Yes would definitely attract criticism today, what with the current movement to bring workplace sexual predators to account. For folks attuned to 2018 sensibilities, every scene in Rian James and Don Mullaly’s screenplay is a major jaw-dropper. The movie is also the first full directing job for choreographer Busby Berkeley.
Clothing manufacturer Sol Glass (Ferdinand Gottschalk) holds an executive meeting to discuss the loss of big sales contracts. Out-of-town buyers expect certain perks, namely ‘feminine entertainment’ while they’re in New York. Glass’s selection of models willing to (presumably) sleep with these buyers has gone stale, and the customers complain that the ‘pros’ they are given are greedy gold diggers. So the boss suggests that bonuses be offered to girls from the company’s steno pool, if they’ll go out with these visiting businessmen. Office girl Birdie Reynolds (Suzanne Kilborn) is the first to volunteer, and is given the job of organizing the ‘dating’ pool.
Executive Tommy Nelson (Regis Toomey) is carrying on an affair with his secretary Florence Denny (Loretta Young) during working hours. Customer Luther Haines (Hugh Herbert), a married man, tries to make Flo part of a quid pro quo for a major contract. Flo’s girlfriend and fellow stenographer Maizee (Winnie Lightner) warns Flo that she is making herself available in too many directions at once. Tommy considers removing Flo from the executive suite so that the buyers can’t see her, as he doesn’t want his fianceé to be picking up any extra money for ‘dates.’ That changes when the slick buyer Daniel Drew (Lyle Talbot) takes a fancy to Flo’s silken legs. To please Tommy, Flo goes out with Drew and barely escapes a major seduction press in his hotel room. The situation worsens when Maizee proves that Tommy is two-timing Flo with the predatory Birdie. Flo then starts going out with Daniel in earnest, a relationship becomes serious as well. But because Daniel begs her, Flo dates the loathsome Luther Haines, and all but blackmails him to secure his signature on a major contract. But none of these men accept Flo on other than sexual terms: Daniel and Tommy each decide that they’re being cheated, because they assume that she puts out for others.
Why does this whole movie now read as a metaphor for lobbyists in Washington?
Thirty years later, critics condemned Billy Wilder’s The Apartment because of its ‘immoral’ suggestion that illicit sex is commonplace in big-city business. She Had to Say Yes begins with the assumption that female office workers are routinely pimped out for business purposes, and that most of them either like it, or go along to get along. With cultural images like this floating about, no wonder that it was often assumed that working women had low morals. In one scene Flo and Daniel enter a hotel elevator, and the desk clerk and hotel dick (Fred Kelsey!) give each other knowing looks. Were you aware that the cheery greeting “How’s tricks?” originated as joke about prostitution?
There’s no doubt that the modern business world used women as commodities, and that many a secretary felt pressure to ‘put out’ for any number of reasons, usually just to keep her job. Even the Glass Company’s stenographers seem to be hired for their sexual attractiveness. Among their number are some of Busby Berkeley’s prime showgirls from his celebrated musicals. Suzanne Kilborn’s Birdie looks ready for anything, with anybody. Not a single woman in the steno pool as much as peeps when the boss drops in to offer them bonuses for ‘having fun’ being taken to dinner and shows. I’d like to know what the women working on She Had to Say Yes felt about this storyline — did studio ‘starlet’ contracts presume similar unspoken work duties?
Comic relief steno girl Winnie Lightner was a stage star as a singer and comedienne, but in films she often got the smart-mouthed girlfriend role, the kind played by Ruth Donnelly in the pre-Codes and later by Eve Arden. Her Maizee offers racy remarks from the sidelines. Flo calls from Daniel’s hotel room, and Maizee snaps,
“Oh, you’re there to write letters? Maybe he just wants you to autograph a couple of sheets.”
Maizee bids a pushy buyer goodnight at her doorstep, and he protests by saying he’s from Missouri (the ‘Show me’ state). Maizee gives him a shove:
“Oh yeah? Well I’m from the Virgin Islands!
Star Loretta Young must have had to concentrate to find a way to play some of her scenes. Her character is impossible — Flo accepts and even embraces the double standard, which is really a triple or quadruple standard considering the illicit and immoral practices that have been ‘normalized.’ Flo’s actions are frequently contradictory. She allows two men to more or less pimp her out for financial advantage. Each begs Flo to help them by stepping out with a customer, and when she does each of them judges Flo for being a tramp. The entire setup equates sex with money, yet Flo believes that these vermin love her.
Flo’s behavior is questionable from the beginning, when it becomes clear that she smooches with Tommy during working hours. She looks attractive (dreamy, in fact) and flashes smiles and calves that would attract any man. The office women definitely send the message that ‘the secretary is indeed a toy.’ Women that don’t dress to appeal would seem likely to lose their jobs. Participation in the ‘customer girl’ bonus program is supposed to be entirely voluntary, but when Flo backs out Mr. Glass fires her. Although the dating-for-bonuses thing is presumably illegal, it’s assumed that Flo has no recourse, that a D.A. would never prosecute. Yet Flo doesn’t consider herself a victim of an insidious practice, and she becomes a predator as well. Pushed to ‘entertain’ the slimy Mr. Haines, Flo instead tricks him into a premeditated blackmail swindle. But her retaliation is not against the tyranny of the male system. When Haines asks why she trapped him, Flo laughs:
“A thousand dollars, sucker.”
Apart from Loretta Young’s gorgeous close-ups, the show has little in the way of production polish. The soundtrack uses pickup cues from other Warners movies, like the song “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me’ from the previous year’s 42nd Street.
Loretta Young seems a pawn of a screenplay that makes every character seem slimy. Not playing his usual (unpleasant) comic character, Hugh Herbert here comes off as a disgusting letch. His wife is played by Helen Ware, who starred as the romantic lead in an early (1916!) version of The Garden of Allah.
Lyle Talbot is better-looking than Regis Toomey, but they’re both swine from the same sty, sharpies out for all they can get. Each assumes that Flo is holding out, and uses that as an excuse for sexual assault. Tommy:
“My money is as good as theirs, now you just close your eyes and pretend I’m a buyer.”
The conclusion is simply reprehensible. One suitor’s idea of being honest and sincere is to equate verbal abuse with affection:
“I love you, really I love you. If I didn’t I wouldn’t have said those terrible things to you.”
The screenwriters, apparently in a hurry to wrap up a film that lasts all of 66 minutes, has Flo take her slimball beau’s sudden marriage proposal at face value. A few minutes ago he tried to rape her. Now, at her suggestion, it looks like she’s going to sleep with him right away:
“I guess it’s really a matter of choosing the lesser evil.”
Graduating to direction, Busby Berkeley is aided by Warners’ top editor of the time, George Amy. They must have been told to simply get it in the can without delay. Although several of Berkeley’s familiar beauties saunter through scenes, Berkeley is given no scenes show them off as he does in his musicals. Nobody sings and we see only one snippet of a dance in a night club. It’s introduced by a visual framing a pair of maracas, and is the only shot that suggests Busby Berkeley’s participation. Perhaps the acting producer Henry Blanke thought the film’s basic concept was so raw, the sex angle could be sold with just a couple of scenes with women in underwear or nighties. Even in the pre-Code years, the studios picked and chose their battles with the Production Code office.
She Had to Say Yes’s vision of man-woman relations is downright dispiriting. Although not as visually lurid as some pre-Codes (Red-Headed Woman, Search for Beauty) Flo’s story is as depressing in its way as the drug tragedy Heroes for Sale or the corruption exposé I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Underprivileged young women in the depths of the Depression certainly didn’t see much hope in their lives — in the movies, they could either starve in the sticks, or if sufficiently desirable, be exploited in the cities.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD of She Had to Say Yes is okay but not exceptional, deemed good enough so as not to warrant a new transfer. Although acceptably intact, the presentation lacks the silver-screen shimmer of some remastered titles from its year. Ms. Young always looks great; we admire her ability to make her compromised character sympathetic, as opposed to simply attractive. Almost everyone else is an unpleasant sex offender of one kind or another. By not even commenting on the way the business world uses and abuses women, the script all but condones the situation. Flo must make the best of things on her own.
The show comes with no extras. The two titles noted in the IMDB for foreign versions are well chosen. The Brazilian Amor por atacado reportedly translates as ‘Wholesale Love,’ while the German title Liebe und andere Gescháfte reads as ‘Love and Other Business.’ They at least hint at the truth of the problem — a radical would rush to remind us that Capitalism reduces people, especially women, to commodities.
One dialogue exchange is pointedly political; Warners in 1933 was pro- NRA, pro- Roosevelt all the way:
Maizee: I’ve never been able to get it though my thick skull what you ever saw in Tommy Nelson in the first place. I mean…
Flo: What made you think of him again? He was different, once.
Maizee: Yeah, so was the Republican Party.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
She Had to Say Yes
Movie: Very Good
Video: Good +/-
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 18, 2018
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson