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Monday, April 23, 2018

The 30's Price Of Respectibility


The Easiest Way (1931) Again Seems a Most Sensible Way

Remarkable how gritty MGM pictures of the 1930-31 season could be. The Easiest Way begins with Constance Bennett living in squalor with a bum father, (J. Farrell McDonald), sour mother (Clara Blandick), and passel full of ill-behaved siblings. It's enough to propel any working girl into clutches of mistress-keeper Adolphe Menjou, her ad exec boss who sees marriage and family as a trap and nothing else, on-screen evidence suggesting he's more than right. The Bennett persona dealt its mosaic of precode whoring until a public was sated with it and her. You could only do the same story so many times before exhaustion took hold. Bennett's many for RKO got that accomplished by 1933. This actress was sharp enough to pass along at least the illusion of major stardom until an industry wised up and put her in support parts or B leads. For The Easiest Way however, the act was fresh and plain-spoke on trading virtue for Depression-era comforts. Trouble was The Easiest Way and ones like it made the swap both sensible and much preferred to poor-but-pure option that looked more and more like a sucker's choice as precode spread its credo for living. There was just no way a morally upright establishment would let this go on.




Bennett's brood fight over gruel and stale toast in an opener you could mistake for postwar Italo-realism if this weren't 1930. Metro did not shrink from coldwater realism when early talking situations called for it. Was this Thalberg influence?, because it applies across a board of what they sent out with formative sound. Contrasts between have and have-not, and they couldn't be starker than here, are neatly summarized by Robert Montgomery when he squires Bennett to a cookout and pinches what looks like a twelve-ounce steak off the grill to give to a dog. This summed up the face of wealth during a time that few could be exposed to it other than at movies. There wasn't concerted effort by Hollywood to pillory the rich, for social revolution could come of that and they'd be at least partly to blame, but there was a let them eat cake aspect to playboy and tycoon conduct during this period when viewer sensitivity had to have been acute.




The source play had been hot stuff for twenty years before MGM took it up with tongs, the Hays Office having warned that trouble would come of adaptation. Had Thalberg paid heed, there would have been half or more Metro output cleaved off, as skating at the edge was very much corporate pursuit now that tickets sold fewer and a public sought heat from film narratives. Let there be moral compensation, but also wallow in luxury that fallen women could at least enjoy through second acts before punishment befell. Patrons understood the price we paid to see characters revel in sin up to pipers being paid. Arguments for clean living were faint in the face of Menjou-bestowed cars and diamonds, plus fact he's devoted and not at all a bad guy to bed down with, marriage-wise or not. Those who would judge are a priggish lot, even a first-credit-for-Metro Clark Gable, who won't give Connie a time of day once she trades goodies to Menjou. One look at this fresh bull, however, and you know he won't be doing a piety act for long. In fact, MGM saw a star birthed from first preview audiences demand to know who this guy was. They'd find out with a dozen features Clark Gable would appear in during 1931 alone. Within that time, he'd become a major attraction.




The Easiest Way was a sort of real-time project, being shot during November and December 1930, and taking place at the same time, as evidenced by checks written and shown in close-up, situations and dialogue running up to the holiday season, an urgency because this was a best time for down-and-outers to find jobs. Bennett is enslaved by the "ribbon counter" (men's ties) where getting hit on is daily ritual. Her friend Marjorie Rambeau explains the facts of man/woman interaction in words that still apply. Remarkable how precode, at least writers in back of it, understood reality so much better than we do now. Rambeau, always a voice of bitter experience, turns up throughout The Easiest Way to boost Connie up or knock her down. This actress, always in support and as often stealing films she appeared in, conveyed flint-hard appreciation for Depression woe that bespoke what many (most?) audience members were thinking. She worked into the 50's (her 60's) and would for whole of the time embody hard-won wisdom (excellent too in 1953's Torch Song).




Robert Montgomery is The Easiest Way's leading man. He is easy to forget in hindsight because of Gable. They do not appear in scenes together, Montgomery representing the well-borne and upwardly mobile, while Gable is up-from-pavement with rolled sleeves and Anita Page as his well-serviced wife. No contest then, for who needed polite lovemaking as a culture cracked under the Crash. Gable came at precisely a right moment and made out best, knowingly or not, from it. He is a "laundryman" who builds the business to where he and wife/child have a more than comfortable home for Christmas, The Easiest Way wrapping as hit-skids Bennett shows up in Stella Dallas mode, peering through a window at family life where she's not welcome. Yes, even precode dealt harshly with fallen women. It was only occasional that they prospered for straying. The Easiest Way is too enjoyable to be a preachment, however, being brisk (73 minutes) and to a brim with brusque dialogue, a given during the period. It is a must for many reasons, and available on DVD from Warner Archive.

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