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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Precode Plunge From Way Up High

Skyscraper Souls (1932) Has 102 Floors of Deco and Decadence

When there are taller skyscrapers to be built, MGM will build them. We're shown the "Dwight Building" at a beginning and throughout Skyscraper Souls. It reaches higher than the Empire State that stands alongside, another instance where movies could go reality one better. The Empire State had only lately been completed, a marvel of its age. Only natural, then, that Hollywood would climb higher. In this instance, a convincing matte canvas makes us wonder if there really was a Dwight Building there in 1932, and taken down since. Anyway, this is a more imposing structure on the inside than I'd presume the Empire to have been. Maybe inspired by ultimate statement on modernity that was the Empire State, MGM creates art deco heaven on earth, or 102 floors above it (their inspiration had 103). Warren William's "David Dwight," who of course masterminds the miracle, loathes to calculate a number of men who fell to deaths from scaffolding, and right away we think of Edward G. Robinson in Two Seconds, or John Gilbert and pal Robert Armstrong as Fast Workers, all welding/wisecracking way up during a same year. It seemed as of '32 that best of life was to be experienced nearest to sky. Certainly life looked bleaker at street level.

The Dwight Building is where rich and poor work, or play, tightest together. Bank teller Norman Foster gets $50 a week at ground floor while bank owner Warren William juggles millions upstairs. Wage slaves are packed aboard elevators as WW rides his in privacy. Something's got to give, of course, Warren pulling one too many cheats, then shot down in his penthouse not unlike King Kong a year later. To reach a skyscraper top meant having no place to go but ... well, that was OK by audiences who thought such men (or gorillas) had scaled too close to God. Was there religious significance to price paid by those rising above all humanity? A public so recently out of horse/carriage must have sensed the unnatural in buildings that challenged the heavens. And all those lost souls jumping off! One thing we could rely on with any drama set high was characters playing swan to resolve one or more plot thread. The real thing was happening often enough in concrete jungles. Imagine anyone hitting pavement from 102 stories up. Could witnesses ever rid minds of such horrific sight? --- and yet New Yorkers by thousands saw it happen during the Depression, some more than once.

Both Want Maureen: Will Either Have Her?

Skyscraper Souls warns of how greed can ruin you. Worship of fast money from the stock market is strictly no-win, a Code preached even by pre-Codes. As banker Dwight manipulates the market upstairs, all of chumps below him put life saving into shares he plans to render worthless by closing bell. Movies continually told us we weren't smart enough to beat that system. They still do. Better to earn honest wage and spend modestly, like on Bijou tickets with the family. Had Hollywood deduced that richest folks didn't bother much going to picture shows? (a step further: How many wolves of Wall Street have ever read Greenbriar?). Hollywood's message to any Average Joe purchasing stock: Don't. Better to shoot dice or play cards for tainted cash, and lose it quicker. Millionaires in movies usually stayed well in a background, so as not to remind us that sometimes money does buy happiness. Ones viewed up close had to end badly as admonishment against wanting too much from life. That's partial letdown of Skyscraper Souls --- we don't want Warren William taking a penalty, even as status quo, maintained too during precode, deems that he must.

William is at least a fittest among plutocrats, being an only Turkish bather not 50-100 pounds overweight. His party guests, aged rou├ęs preying on young flesh, are welcome (for us) victims of WW double-cross to come. We'll accept the latter's defile of Maureen O'Sullivan so long as corpulent and corrupt George Barbier doesn't get her, it being settled that one of them will. But what prospects has Maureen from her own working class, big-mouth and pushy Norman Foster forcing attentions with constant leap to wrong conclusion when Maureen parties at William's penthouse or lunches with him. Foster is no vote for the common man, Souls' end amounting to a sad one when O'Sullivan yields to him out of seeming sheer exhaustion. One precode breath-taker to note is her non-verbal and very visible response to a forced kiss from Foster part way into Skyscraper Souls, a startler that definitely wasn't scripted and I've seen no other (mainstream) movie duplicate.

Skyscraper concept was off Grand Hotel's rack, being multi-character and story-split among many. Adapted from a Faith Baldwin novel, there were changes, and probably improvement, made. I can see daily consult with Irving Thalberg as the script was cobbled, this a sort of project where tips from a mind like his could smooth wrinkles and make silk from burlap. As "all-star" successor to Grand Hotel, Skyscraper Souls is watered gin, but we'd not want others elbowing Warren William, whose vehicle this very much is, or should be, but for cutaways to crisis among less engaging Wallace Ford, Anita Page, Jean Hersholt, others. Page and O'Sullivan would pass each other in this Metro revolver door, Maureen just off the first Tarzan and bearer of a contract and build-up, as Page, thanks to refusal of Louis Mayer come-on (she said), was exit bound to poverty row. Skyscraper Souls would be her next-to-last for Leo. Luxury appointment of Skyscraper's setting made these monoliths seem like 30's equivalent of Disneyland. Did tourists to Gotham put the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings on must-sight-see lists? Just hanging about a lobby like one depicted in Skyscraper Souls would have been a day's vacation for me. But then old pic fans could say as much about any NYC setting from that more attractive time.

Old Goats and Young Flesh Was A Precode Cocktail Often Poured

Did Warren William ever wish he could be Warren William? Cary Grant would later confess an envy of his own screen persona. William was ruthless and unstoppable, qualities 98% of men would covet. His characters were antidote to poverty and despair that was Depression's signature. William could beat back wolves of want and make it seem simple as a next raw deal he'll puts across. Watching him must have been opiate in 1932. It certainly is today with action and speech so severely proscribed by unwrit Production Code more limiting than that enforced from mid-'34. William is one old star who can reach across generations and make us wish we could be his kind of winner-whatever-the-means. In scared rabbit age that is now, he's something like superhuman. And yet the man was mere actor, meekly accepting of roles assigned and able to play even milquetoast if put to that task. He got and stayed married for whole of a screen career, none of pic perfidy rubbing off on private habits or inclination. The man obviously had firm grip of difference between fantasy and reality. Lesser thesps might have been straightaway swallowed up by sorts of screen work William engaged (and seemed so much to enjoy), not unlike a Ronald Colman made mad by overdose of Othello in A Double Life.


Blogger MikeD said...

Thanks for that entertaining writeup on 'Skyscraper Souls'. I guess I saw Warren William in 'The Wolf Man' way back when, but never paid attention to him. That changed with the deluge of pre-codes TCM has been showing the last few years, supplemented by your enthusiastic blogs. Now I scan the TCM listings looking for 19030-34 entries; a bonus if WW is the star. My daughter dislikes him, most likely based on the caddish characters he plays. I try to tell her that, based on biographical info gleaned from Greenbriar, that he seemed to be a relly nice guy; faithful husband, inventor, farmer. But boy, I wish I was that smooth with the ladies back in the day!

8:23 AM  
Blogger Thenodore said...

You've called Skyscraper Souls a "successor" to Grand Hotel - per IMDB, SS was released in July '32 and GH was released in September '32 and I believe IMDB is in this case correct.

What with the all-in-one-building settings being so similar and GH being all star and fairly well remembered while SS pretty is much no star and forgotten, it would be natural to suppose that SS is a knock off - but it's not.

Minority opinion: I've long thought that SS remains alive and kicking in a way, while GH seems remote and dead. SS may be "watered gin" but to me GH is long flat champagne.

1:06 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Good point about "Souls" pre-dating "Hotel," Thenodore, and agreed that former is a more enjoyable sit.

4:43 AM  

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