|Agnes ‘Aggie’ Appleby
|Released by RKO | Directed By Mark Sandrich
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Sybby (Zasu Pitts) is getting blotto in a speakeasy and exclaims, “At this rate, Mae West will have to come up and see me some time!” … what?!
- The film’s surtitle, Maker of Men, has a certain euphemistic flair that wouldn’t get by the Production Code Administration a year later.
- Can a woman be in love with two men at the same time? Aggie is no Design for Living, but it’s not far off.
- Beyond love, of course, Aggie also sleeps with two different men and without the benefits of a wedding band on anyone’s fingers.
Aggie Appleby, Maker of Men: Oh My
Film critic Mick LaSalle was talking a few months back about what he considers the necessary ingredients to make a great movie, and what traits can identify a movie as a future ‘classic’. Most of the guidelines are pretty obvious– topicality, great acting, etc. But my favorite of this was the idea that a great movie is one that ends on a note of complexity. Not ambiguity, he explains, but something that unites the film’s themes and ideas into a poignant, resonating moment.
I mention this because it has to do with today’s movie– it would be odd if it didn’t, right? Aggie Appleby, Maker of Men is a smart, perceptive film on class relations that leaves just enough questions to make the ending either absolutely perfect or absolutely devastating depending on your point of view.
Let’s hit the beginning first and work our way back from there. Aggie (short for Agnes) is a waitress. She meets Red Branahan after he eagerly jumps in a fight to protect her virtue– a cause he only learns of afterward. Red is very much focused on getting through life the easy way, with his favorite past times including cheating, gambling, and getting into scuffles with police officers.
As it turns out, the police aren’t too fond of people who routinely beat them up for kicks, so Red is sent away to prison for an indefinite amount of time. Broke, kicked out of their flat, and with only her friend Sybby to turn to, Aggie is in dire straights until she wakes up after sneaking into an apartment to find Adonriam Schlump looking at her, stunned.
Adonriam is mostly referred to as a ‘sissy’ through the course of the movie, and his completely polite and utterly dull personality is a good hint as to why. The street smart Aggie decides to take him under her wing after she finds out that he’s so painfully nice and polite he’s losing out on job opportunities left and right– usually because his interviewing strategy involves copious amounts of apologizing for taking up their precious time.
Adonriam– or Schlumpy as he’s soon nicknamed– comes from a long line of famous and important rich men, but decided to try and make it on his own in New York. With Aggie’s help and by borrowing Red’s moniker, he’s hired on a construction crew and must learn to be tough to survive.
The day he comes home with a shiner is the day that Aggie realizes that her feelings for him have gone beyond maternal. Problem is that that’s also the day that his fussy Aunt Katherine and fiance Evangeline knock on the door, which just happens to be the same day that Red’s gotten out of jail (don’t look at me, look at the screenplay). Their social status once again thrown into sharp contrast, Aggie must decide whether to stick with her new creation or go back to her faithful old lug.
And the decision ain’t easy because choices like that just aren’t. Schlumpy and Aggie have connected somewhere deep, somewhere emotionally, that isn’t just the sexual excitement she gets from Branahan. Schlumpy’s learned to trust her, and she takes that responsibility seriously. But that difference issue comes up again– not only are they from different classes, but different backgrounds, with Aggie and Branahan being clearly of Irish blood. Closing this gap may be near impossible.
Surprisingly, the film closes not with Aggie transcending her class but by deciding to settle for Branahan. Schlumpy, meanwhile, hurt from Aggie’s rejection, fights Red and impresses Evangeline greatly. Aggie’s made him a man, though not a content one.
Aggie decides to reform Red the same way she did with Schlumpy, only in reverse– getting him a classy job and a respectable name. Aggie will probably feel the same pangs of Frankenstein-ian guilt with Red that she felt with Schlumpy– she wants someone sensitive and sweet, but also needs someone voracious and sexy. Like a lot of people, she’s willing to change others in hopes of finding it, but there’s little hope she’ll be satisfied. Aggie hasn’t learned her lesson before the last reel closes out– but there’s hope she might make Branahan into a better person too.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Charles Farrell’s transformation as Schlumpy is filled with shades of subtlety and nervous yearning. Wynne Gibson in the title role also gets a lot of good slang put across, as well as a good amount of melodramatics that hang softly around her shoulders. There’s also a great sexual edge to Betty Furness as Evangeline, a woman who didn’t know where to start with Schlumpy but likes the results she sees. Lastly, William Gargan plays Branahan with such a great playfully nasty gusto that he reminds me of a great many story about my distant relatives back in the days when they roamed Washington D.C., similarly looking for a brawl just for kicks.
Director Mark Sandrich (also behind a number of Wheeler and Woolsey comedies like Hips Hips Hooray! as well as The Gay Divorcee) revels in playing between exterior and interior space throughout the film. The film’s opening credits move from the elevated train above New York and across the windows of concerned tenants before putting us in the middle of a Branahan brawl. This kinetic energy carries over to the film’s other fight scenes, where masculinity and bravado wash the frame in colorful swaths.
Because that’s what Aggie is about, really. That tenuous balancing act of manhood between the brute and the romantic and how fine of a line it really is. It’s a frequently very funny movie, and its transition to drama in the last act is a solid, thoughtful one. Aggie ends with no solid solution to the questions of masculinity and desire, but a moment of determination. Aggie will make both the man she really wants and she really needs, and she’ll stop at nothing until she gets there.
Trivia & Links
- Mordaunt Hall finally goes the distance and uses the word “mollycoddle” in his review, but is still rather down on the results, feeling the movie is too contrived.
- TCMDB has a full paragraph on this one, noting one reviewer called it, “a Bowery Cinderella”.
- Lastly, I should admit that the film’s title contains no comma, but I added it because it sounds awfully awkward without it!
Hover over for controls.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film is pretty rare. I got a copy recorded off of TCM thanks to Cliff at Immortal Ephemera. Thanks Cliff!
Comment below or join our email subscription list on the sidebar!