Posted by Jeff Stafford on June 12, 2010
Despite a long and prolific career, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. is more famous for being the son of the silent era superstar Douglas Fairbanks Sr., his Hollywood social connections (including ex-wife Joan Crawford) and a handful of films in which he’s overshadowed by his co-stars (Greta Garbo in A Woman of Affairs , Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar , Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory , Cary Grant in Gunga Din ). That’s a shame because some of Fairbanks’ most interesting work as an actor can be glimpsed in some of the lesser known Pre-Code films produced by First National/Warner Bros. (Union Depot , Love is a Racket , The Life of Jimmy Dolan ) and, in particular, one post-Code film, SUCCESS AT ANY PRICE (1934), which TCM will be airing on July 2nd at 10:30 am ET.
Even though SUCCESS AT ANY PRICE was released after the Code was in place, it remains an incisive adult drama rendered with more than a touch of cynicism and a refreshingly frank attitude toward sex in the office place, which in this case, is a successful marketing firm whose biggest client is Glamour Cream, a cosmetic company specializing in beauty products for women. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. plays Joe Martin, an embittered young man from the wrong side of the tracks whose mobster brother was recently killed in a shootout. His reaction to the funeral, delivered like a soliloquy, sets up his character for the morality play that follows while distancing himself from his late brother’s questionable values. “ He had gold Cupids on his coffin. Ten grand, it cost. That’s what Mike got. But I’m gonna get something different. I’m gonna get what Mike was after only I’m gonna get mine, respectable. The gold and silver I’m after ain’t gonna be on my coffin.”
Thanks to his devoted girlfriend Sarah (Colleen Moore), who wrangles an introduction to her boss Raymond Merritt (Frank Morgan), Joe lands a job at the same company but his low paid position and menial office duties are at odds with his burning ambition to become rich and successful. He quickly becomes bored and restless and is soon fired after a confrontation with a college educated coworker named Geoffrey Halliburton (Allen Vincent) in which he speaks his mind about the company’s daily operations, all of it dictated by an autocratic mogul. Impressed with Joe’s candor and chutzpah, Merritt calls him back for a candid talk during a massage treatment later that day.
Raymond: Suppose you found yourself in a congenial job with a good future ahead of you?
Joe: I’d take it.
Raymond: How nice of you. Do you know anything about glamour cream?
Joe: Yeah, I know plenty about it. It looks like putty and it sells for $14 a jar.
Raymond: They put it on at night. It penetrates the pores of the skin. Works while they sleep.
Joe: Sounds like something for bedbugs.
Raymond: Made from the glands of fluids of real alligators. I’ve seen ‘em myself.
Joe: I wouldn’t lay that on too thick in the copy. You know no dame wants to look like an alligator.
Raymond decides to hire Joe back as a first time copywriter and puts him on his biggest account but gives him a deadline of the next morning to come up with the complete ad campaign for presentation. The genesis of corporate expose dramas from the fifties such as The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Patterns, and Executive Suite can be traced back to SUCCESS AT ANY PRICE and so can AMC’s Mad Men which mirrors this movie’s behind the scenes look at a big city ad agency where the sexual politics and secret agendas are no less complicated. Fairbanks is always compelling, if not particularly sympathetic, as the driven protagonist whose lust for power and wealth is so strong, he loses sight of his own humanity in the process. He exhibits a rough, feral energy here and with his pencil-thin moustache, constant gum-chewing and crude grammer skills, he’s a long way from the sophisticated socialite he was off screen. There is also some genuine sexual heat generated in his scenes with Genevieve Tobin, who plays Agnes Carter, the jaded mistress of Merritt. And it provides a sharp contrast to his more staid and almost chaste relationship with Sarah, the film’s moral center.
The first meeting between Joe and Agnes crackles with electricity once he gets a whiff of her perfumed handkerchief and takes a good, long look at her for the first time. (Director J. Walter Ruben uses close-ups sparingly for the most part here but when he does, they really make an impact such as this scene where Joe appears to be devouring Agnes with his eyes.)
Joe: That lavender water sure gets my nanny.
Agnes: Take a good whiff.
Joe: Do you use it all over ya?
Agnes: Not entirely. I use other things.
Joe: I can just see ya in a hot bath of this stuff.
Agnes: That’s indecent.
Joe: I’ve heard worse.
Agnes: Tell me worse.
For a post-Code film, SUCCESS AT ANY PRICE is brimming over with sexual innuendo and racy wisecracks and the only way you’d notice it was released after the new censorship rules were in place is the film’s final two minutes [SPOILER ALERT for this point on] which leads you to the brink of tragedy and then pulls back at the last instant for a happy, unrealistic fadeout.
Though considered an A picture by RKO’s standards (this was released the same year as the studio’s Of Human Bondage, The Gay Divorcee, and The Lost Patrol), SUCCESS AT ANY PRICE has the look and feel of a Warners programmer but it stands out in several regards. One is a sharply observed screenplay which is packed with tart dialogue by Howard J. Green and John Howard Larson, who based it on Larson’s anti-capitalism play Success Story. Larson, of course, is known to most people as one of the “Hollywood Ten,” who was blacklisted by the industry in 1947 for his ties to the Communist Party. Other well known contributors to this movie include composer Max Steiner, RKO’s prolific in-house art director Van Nest Polglase and executive producer Meriam C. Cooper (King Kong). But probably the biggest surprise and discovery for me besides Fairbanks’ unusually dark protagonist was Genevieve Tobin’s subtle but stunning turn as the woman who ignites Joe’s ruthlessness to succeed at any cost.
While Tobin’s female vamp was probably the popular image of a glamorous, sexy kept woman during the Depression era, her appearance may look matronly by contemporary standards but give her a few minutes and she begins to bloom before your eyes like an exotic hotflower flower. Not a conventional beauty, Tobin turns on the sultriness through her magnetic personality which balances a shrewd, almost mocking self-awareness with an undisguised delight at manipulating men when she’s in the mood. She also delights in flaunting her expensive clothes and access to her tycoon lover whenever she visits the office and breezes past the female office workers, reminding them of their place in the company hierarchy. She should be a despicable character – and probably would be if played by any other actress. After all, she is vain, selfish, spoiled and refuses to compromise any aspect of her high maintenance lifestyle. Yet Tobin makes her strangely likeable at times such as the scene where Merritt discovers she’s been having an affair with Joe and she candidly reveals her assessment of her new lover: “I think he’s the saddest boy in the world. He’s all twisted and funny. He wants to be a great man and he wants to be sweet.” The reality really hits home after Joe and Agnes tie the knot and Joe’s domestic side emerges as he presents his wife with a blueprint of their future home. Agnes’ response is brutally honest in her usual fashion: “What is this? Grant’s tomb? Am I supposed to raise an old fashioned family? Can’t you see me with a sweet-faced brat on each arm? I like New York. I like noise. I’d die anywhere else.”
I have only seen Genevieve Tobin in one other film – The Petrified Forest – and I have no recollection of her in it since I last saw it over 30 years ago but now I’m interested in seeking out other Tobin films based on her performance here. She has a strong screen presence much like Ruth Chatterton and in some ways her character in SUCCESS AT ANY PRICE is not unlike Chatterton’s self-absorbed, unfaithful wife in Dodsworth whose life consists of a hedonistic whirl of parties, night clubs, social engagements with prominent people and extramarital affairs – all of it part of the trade-off in attaching herself to a wealthy older man for whom she feels no sexual attraction.
This is a film in which practically no one gets what they really want but almost everyone gets what they deserve. But if it sounds heavy-handed, it’s rendered with a light touch and there is some amusing comic relief provided by Nydia Westman as the office’s slightly ditzy receptionist (she bears some physical and comedic similarities to Una Merkel) and Edward Everett Horton as her fussy boss. When they become a romantic couple and marry, prompting their departure from the company to raise a child, Joe says to them with genuine bewilderment, “I’m surprised and pleased that the two of you can create a child between you.” Whether it’s an unintentional insult or awkwardly phrased compliment, it nevertheless mirrors our own amusement at this unlikely union which is depicted as possibly the only happy, positive relationship in the movie.
There is also one memorable barbed exchange between Sarah and Agnes outside Joe’s office as the latter prepares to enter. It could easily have been a deleted scene straight out of Clare Boothe Luce’s supreme bitchfest, The Women (1939).
Agnes: Do you ever use this glamour cream they advertise so much?
Sarah: Yes, I’ve tried a jar of it once. It’s lovely.
Agnes: I suppose I’m afraid of getting old
Sarah (with mock surprise): Miss Carter, how could anyone ever think of YOU as being old?
Agnes: Oh, you mean where there’s no thought, there’s no wrinkle? Don’t kid me, Miss Griswold. I know your opinion of me.
Sarah: I never even bothered to have an opinion of you.
Agnes: Well, what’s your opinion of Joe Martin? I can’t help it if he makes a fuss over me. But I don’t take him seriously. He’s just the comic relief. (In another of the movie’s few close-ups, we see Sarah’s devastated reaction to this remark).
While Genevieve Tobin clearly has the more colorful and complex role in SUCCESS AT ANY PRICE, Colleen Moore makes the most of her virtuous office girl who knows how to maintain just the right balance between professionalism and sex appeal. Watch the way she handles the situation where Merritt makes a pass at her in his office and is gently rebuffed.
Raymond: You gotta give me credit. I don’t do this sort of thing often.
Sarah: Oh yes you do. I’m your secretary. I outta know.
Raymond: Well, my interest in women is just nervousness.
Sarah: Then don’t get nervous with me.
Raymond: Well, alright. I can’t help being sorry that you’re a good woman as well as a good secretary.
Moore was near the end of her screen career when she made SUCCESS AT ANY PRICE – it was her next to last film – and she was fourth billed. Only a decade earlier, she was the epitome of jazz-age high spirits and mirth, playing a fun-loving flapper in such films as Flaming Youth (1923) and Flirting With Love (1924). By 1927, she was the top boxoffice draw in the U.S. but even though she easily made the transition to talking pictures, she retired from the screen in 1934 at the age of 35. With few exceptions, most of her movies are now out of print or not available on any format. She’s certainly one of many silent stars who deserves the sort of career retrospective that NYC’s Film Forum occasionally stages.
I’m not quite sure why SUCCESS AT ANY PRICE is so little known today (it’s not on DVD) and I don’t want to oversell it but I think it holds up remarkably well after 76 years and it’s still topical in its depiction of unethical professional practices, corporate power plays and workers vs. management conflicts. It’s a sleeper that’s well worth discovering on your own.
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