Proof That It’s Pre-Code:
- Just to drive how old this film is: “The airplane is the greatest invention of the age!”
- “You dictate so rapidly!” “I do everything rapidly.” “Oh, Baron…”
- Sleeping around and sexism galore. “Women are for non-working hours!”
- Some America bashing. Mind you, Hoover was still in office when this was written and made, so that’s not super surprising, but then there’s also…
- Darwin quoted and discussed. Hilariously, he’s discussed in the context of social Darwinism, which boils down to a lot of Libertarian philosophy. The film spends its first hour with the message of “BOOTSTRAPS” firmly implanted on its forehead, and spends the last ninety minutes instead insisting that, while hard work and enthusiasm are fine, maybe spreading your legs for your boss is a pretty awesome Plan B.
I’m not a woman. I know this may come as a shock to some of you, but, sadly, there are no busty nerdy chicks writing about Pre-Code Hollywood. Or, if there are, please let me know.
But besides that shameful sentence a moment ago wherein I admitted that I have a thing for busty chicks, I’m normally one who finds gender a fascinating subject for analyzing film. During these Pre-Code reviews, I’ve more or less had to tone down the level of objections I would normally have towards the depiction of women: suffrage for women is only ten years old when this era began.
That being said, a remarkable number of these films have demonstrated extremely strong and in-control women. Most of the ones I’ve watched have ditched the familiar ‘helpless girl’ aesthetics that D.W. Griffith trafficked in for most of the silent era and brought us what can best be described as the post-It girl: sexy, confident and in charge. I’ve never seen prostitution presented in nearly as positive as a light as its shown in the 30’s: selling your body is just something you can do. Anything for some cash.
Where Beauty and the Boss differs from most of these other films is that the prostitution isn’t some act of equality, but because of the demands of male ego. Forcing a woman into prostitution for your own dignity is pretty ugly no matter what age it’s in, especially when it’s provided in the guise of a romantic-fucking-comedy.
Let’s head back to the plot and we’ll pick my disgust back up when we get to it. Warren William (yeah, the jerk from Dr. Monica) is a baron banker just returned from a trip to the United States. He has nothing nice to say about his American friends, and quickly returns to his favorite game in Europe: seduce the stenographer. He plays impossible to get at first, and then, after firing the girl, he pays her a generous sum and engenders himself to her with some wine and embraces.
He says with a straight face, “Pretty women should never think!” I don’t think he ever really changes his mind about that either.
Meanwhile, young Susie Sachs (played by Marian Marsh, proving that someone behind this film loved themselves some alliteration) is out on the street. It’s the Great Depression! It’s depressing! She sneaks past a few gents and gets an interview for the stenographer position. The baron is skeptical at first, but she gets the job after a brief discussion of social Darwinism I mentioned above and the banker’s shock because of how poor her family is. In a modern adaptation, they’d probably have to drop that last part since it would get more than a few laughs of incredulity.
Soon, the mousy Susie also has a crush on the boss, even though his list of Parisian lovers alone is staggering. Will she get a makeover, become hot, and convince him to taker her to bed as well? Sure! Will he fire her first? Well, uh, yeah. Will he get rid of his extensive list of lovers as well? Well, no, it doesn’t look like it.I think the movie tries to pretend like he’s going this way, but William just can’t sell it. He’s the guy who proudly declares, “I can’t expect you to act entirely without temperament! After all, you are a woman.”
What is the point of Beauty and the Boss? Well, isn’t it just easier to sleep with the boss than to be an underling? I guess. It’s moral is that the easy way is probably the best way, and it’s not hard work but being a sexy mistress that pays off. I’m not sure that’s a message I could ever personally agree with. In fact, you could even say it revolts me on several levels.
What little wit there is– “How did you find the American women?” “I took a taxi cab!”– is quickly squandered. Everyone is playing to the bleachers for their performances, and incredibly grating. And, of course, balls of cheese like this aren’t helped by being completely socially regressive.
I don’t blame the girl’s character for what happens to her, but the filmmakers for insisting it to be so. At the end of the movie, Susie has gone from street urchin to secretary. But as soon as she declares that “food no longer satisfies, I need expensive stuff and love” it becomes dreadfully obvious that the emphasis isn’t on the love. Susie became a material girl. How maddeningly sad.