Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5
USA, 1931. Fox Film Corporation. Screenplay by Edwin J. Burke, based on the novel by Vina Delmar and the play by Brian Marlow. Cinematography by Chester A. Lyons. Production Design by William S. Darling. Costume Design by Dolly Tree. Film Editing by Margaret Clancey.
Sally Eilers and her best friend Minna Gombell work as fashion models in a store, neither of them suffering under any illusions about life as a pretty young woman in New York City, as much of their working life is spent defending their dignity. Eilers deflects the wolves with plenty of urbane wisecracks and a good sense of humour, but this is all laid asunder when she goes to Coney Island and meets a jaded loner (James Dunn) with an even sassier mouth than hers. They fall in love against their better judgment, continually promising to break the rules and never compromise their dreams, but after they marry and live in their squalid apartment with a baby on the way, he decides it’s time to make wife and child a priority.
Dunn begins working late, taking on gigs as a prizefighter and gives up his dream of owning his own store, while Eilers still finds it difficult to trust happiness and believes the time he is spending away from home is because he doesn’t love her anymore. On paper it’s pretty familiar as pre-Code Depression-era melodrama, but the verve with which it is directed and performed makes it crackle like lighting. The sexual chemistry between the leads hasn’t dissipated with time, it might be one of the most erotic movies to feature very little in the way of revealing content, and director Frank Borzage celebrates all the humour, passion and fear that his characters can possibly experience while undergoing this thing called life.
Add to that the humour created by Gombell’s blunt but warm exchanges with her best friend’s husband, which are still so provocative and funny thanks to her exceptional performance, and you have a classic that time can mar (there’s a few frames missing here and there) but will never truly harm.
Academy Awards: Best Director (Frank Borzage); Best Writing Adaptation
Nomination: Best Picture