Posted by David Kalat on April 16, 2011
The year is 1933, and times are tough all over. What of the poor little rich boy, Henry Gibson (Ben Lyon), who can’t even inherit his millions unless he gets married by his 27th birthday? And yes, Keaton fans, that’s the same idea as SEVEN CHANCES—but where Buster turned that premise into a feature-length chase scene, the movie we have in front of us here has different plans in store. Luckily, Gibson’s got himself a wife—a beautiful young debutante whose icy good looks and haughty demeanor prove her high social standing. On their honeymoon, the girl goes missing (hence the title of this flick, GIRL MISSING), and our distraught hero offers up a reward for his wife’s safe return. This is all sensible enough, and fairly familiar thriller territory. But Gibson’s life is about to be turned upside down by the arrival of a pair of gold-digging “chorus girls,” whose complete lack of restraint or decorum may very well save the day. This is a movie that wouldn’t have been made even just a few years later, and pretty much doesn’t exist anymore even today. This is Pre-Code, ladies and gentlemen, and it’s a riot.
For those of you who don’t already know the term “Pre-Code,” a quick primer: The Production Code was the set of self-imposed censorial rules that Hollywood adopted to avoid government-imposed censorship. Some things forbidden by the Code (but which occur in GIRL MISSING): “Comedies and farces should not make fun of good, innocence, morality or justice,” and “No plot should by its treatment throw the sympathy of the audience with sin, crime, wrong-doing or evil.”
But the Code was drafted in 1930 without any mechanism for enforcement–it was a “No Smoking” sign erected above the corner where all the cool kids kept on smoking. For the next five years, Hollywood happily ignored just about everything they’d agreed to do, and cranked out films of punch, energy, vitality, and fun. These things are called “Pre-Code” not because they predate the existence of the Code, but rather that they predate any enforcement of that Code. Pre-Code films are notable for their female leads–naughty and defiant in ways that the Code’s enforcement would obliterate.
And this brings us to GIRL MISSING, and its party girl heroines:
The girls are Kay (Glenda Farrell) and June (Mary Brian). They’re a double act in the Thelma Todd/Patsy Kelly mold. Kay’s the loudest, brashest, and most unruly—whereas Mary plays the “wet blanket” role. Mary argues for caution, Kay throws caution to the wind. Together they can do anything—even solve a crime.
GIRL MISSING belongs to a curious genre hybrid you don’t see much of anymore, in that it’s both a comedy and a mystery thriller. It isn’t really a blend of the two–not like THE OTHER GUYS is a farcical thriller, but more like FREEBIE AND THE BEAN–a film that sets itself out as a genuine mystery thriller, but just so happens to have some fast-talkin’ dames as the leads such that it plays like a comedy.
The mystery at play here is the unexplained disappearance of Daisy Gibson. The distraught hubby and the police treat the case as a kidnapping, but Kay’s not at all sure about that. But there are a few other crimes layered on top of her disappearance—crimes that have the police baffled. Here’s Edward Ellis as the Inspector, looking suitably baffled:
The reason he’s baffled is that he’s got the case backwards. The missing girl isn’t the victim here, but the perpetrator. Kay and June know this because they’re all in the same game together—they cuddle up to wealthy men, dangle the promise of sex to keep the sugar daddy goodies flowing, and then move on to the next conquest. Here’s how our heroines are introduced:
They know Daisy is every bit the con-woman they are, and only married Gibson as part of a bigger con. The bereft hubby and the cops have gullibly swallowed Daisy’s story, and are running around like idiots, but Kay and June aren’t fooled. You can’t kid a kidder, as the saying goes. Even Daisy’s parents are just actors hired to help flesh out the con, and they drop character and freak out as soon as the plan goes awry and people start dying:
The girls try to tell Gibson what’s going on, but during the brouhaha, the police start to wonder how these two girls know so much about the crimes. In a hilarious interrogation scene, Kay and June explain how they know their rival Daisy must be up to no good by bluntly detailing their own misdeeds. The cops, slow on the uptake: you girls are racketeers! To which June rolls her eyes: “I didn’t say we weren’t mixed up in any racket, I said we weren’t mixed up in this racket!”
Like most mystery films of the 1930s, GIRL MISSING has been strongly influenced by the traditions of detective fiction by the way of Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie mysteries and their numberless imitators. Thanks to this influence, there’s a disproportionate emphasis placed on narrative complication and red herrings. 1940s mysteries would shift away from that style of storytelling and focus more on character and mood—and thereby give rise to the film noir. Not yet, though—this is 1933, and so get ready for red herrings galore.
Kay isn’t fooled by any of those misdirections, and stays single-mindedly focused on solving the case to her own satisfaction. She’s not depicted as being any smarter than the cops, or any braver. She’s just a greedy loudmouth sexpot who happens to have inside knowledge and a jaundiced view of humanity that gives her a privileged insight into the situation. In other words—she can solve this case because she’s a near-prostitute. The very character traits that any other film would try to suppress or explain away or otherwise reject, are the attributes that allow her to win.
In this scene, she and June come to the last-minute rescue of the male lead—party girls to the rescue!
The film is directed by Robert Florey, and the above sequence is one of the few opportunities for visual and cinematic flourish that the film affords him. Most of this picture is given over to the machine-gun-fired banter between the girls. Glenda Farrell was once promoted by Warner Brothers’ PR mavens as being able to say 400 words in 40 seconds–in case you wanted to time her at home with your own stopwatch. Kay especially is an unstoppable force of nature of simply doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her, and is only interested in her own immediate needs.
By way of showing how Kay can get, shall we say, a little pushy—here’s a clip where she decides to fake Gibson’s death. Just to set up the context of this scene: they are in Gibson’s apartment, in his bed. He’s been nice enough to give them a place for the night, seeing as how they’ve saved his life and may be his only chance to get to the bottom of all this. Kay has already suggested to Gibson that faking his death might be a good next step—and he rejected her plan. Kay doesn’t take no for an answer:
Glenda Farrell is awesome—she’s the zippiest and most entertaining part of the much grimmer Pre-Code proto-noir HEAT LIGHTNING. I have to admit, though, that her performance is almost a female variation on William Haines’ screen character—and I fully own up to my inconsistent response. I’ve got nothing to say for myself, just that the things that irked me about Haines show up here too, only this time I’m in love. I said it—I’m in love with Glenda Farrell. What a crime it is that this film manufactures a happy ending for June but not Kay (well, Kay does get her money, and maybe that’s a perfectly happy ending as far as she’s concerned.)
In 1934, Joseph Breen took over the Production Code Administration (PCA) and the party ended. The rule of the PCA lasted until 1967–Breen bowed out in 1954. Prior to the PCA, it was a fertile time for interesting actresses and compelling female characters. When the PCA was lifted, those tough-talking dames and naughty heroines didn’t return. They were like an endangered species whose habitat had been destroyed.
After the end of the PCA, filmmakers were free to indulge–but while the sluice gates were opened for nudity and graphic violence, the movies themselves remained curiously conservative. Post-PCA movies, for all their ostentatious licentiousness, are reluctant to challenge social values compared to their early-30s forebears.
The “prostitute with the heart of gold” is a standard-issue Hollywood trope–but how many times have you seen one where the heroine’s sexuality and selfishness aren’t traits to be overcome but are actually the things the movie values most, the characteristics needed to save the day?
Glenda Farrell, we miss you.
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