|Kurt Anderson …
|Martin West …
|Miss Hall …
Employee’s Entrance: Sorting the Successful From the Failures
I think our antiheroes nowadays have gotten a little too clean under their collars. When I mention the phrase, your mind probably turns to Disney cartoons where the parrot Iago starts to team up with Aladdin, or you race back to The Fast and the Furious series which follows car thieves who live glamorous lives but almost coincidentally end up doing the right thing.
And, sure, the 1930’s had their share of gentlemen thieves, with William Powell taking loot and women’s hearts as he pleased, but when the men and women of the 1930’s got nasty, the film’s often followed along. To modern audience’s, Warren William’s Kurt Anderson is a monster, an almost physical embodiment of the tyrannical power of capitalism. He exploits, he destroys, and, at the end of the day, he continues to do so because it makes everyone more money.
That damns a lot of people along the way naturally. Anderson is the manager of a department store– one of those high class, high prestige places that existed in New York back in the day. In a decade under his reign, the store’s sales have increased more than ten times. He’s ruthless, dismissing senior employees without a shrug and noting, after one jumps out of the store’s ninth floor window, that all men should kill themselves after outliving their usefulness.
If you think Anderson sounds like a bit of a crotchety man, don’t let that fool you. He’s a man of power, and since he’s in charge of hiring, he knows the best way to relax is to trade work for sexual favors. From the female employees, at least. And the male ones… well, we can talk about that more below.
When he discovers Madeline (Loretta Young), a starving girl who has tried to spend the night in the store’s model house (one of the movie’s many moments mocking traditional domesticity). He treats her to a feast and, when she tries to make her way to his apartment’s door, he stops her and demands payment for one brand shiny new job.
Madeline begins working as a model for the store, but the incident clearly unnerved her. While she had been flirtatious to Anderson, it’s quite apparent that she fears ever running into him again. Luckily for her, he’s got other matters on his mind for the moment.
Where the film turns Anderson purely into an anti-hero rather than a unsympathetic creature is by showing us the people he works for. The store’s owner is Franklin Monroe, who descended from the gene pools of James Monroe and Ben Franklin; again, presumably, these two themselves didn’t procreate on their own. He controls the board of directors along with a portly cousin, and Monroe stays mostly concerned with attending ceremonies and vacationing in the Mediterranean. The rest of the board are a number of bloated bankers, who are only happy when there’s plenty of profit for them to roll in.
The film loves to subvert things, and the American revolution is one of its prime targets. Besides Monroe’s lineage, the often-absent owner continues to send telegrams to the store’s employee’s full of thundering speech and encouragement. He relies on Thomas Paines’ “These are the times that try men’s souls” to refer to the Depression, but it instead reveals an executive who merely continues to buy into the platitudes of the American way with no substantial interest in its actualities. American history is a punchline for the new reality.
Anderson is the epitome of the Depression’s new paradigm, a ruthless businessman who is willing to fight for every dollar. Early in the film we see a bust of Napoleon that fades into Anderson’s hurried face. He’s cruel and heartless, and encourages the same traits in his employees. This is the fate that befalls young Martin (Wallace Ford), an eager to please ideas guy. Anderson promotes him to assistant and demands that every waking moment is spent in service of the company.
But, wouldn’t you know it, Martin meets Madeline, and after a quick flirtation involving sheet music, they’re married. Unfortunately, Martin’s complete obedience to Anderson, the man who coerced Madeline into sex, kind of puts a damper on the whole thing. Martin keeps his marriage a secret, and things come to a head at a company party. Martin gets trashed and starts singing “Sweet Adeline” and Madeline runs into Anderson again in a side room.
He gets her completely wasted, and offers her his room key so that she can sleep it off. Promising to be a gentleman, he instead waits for her to fall asleep before moving in. And fade out.
I’ve read a quite a few reviews (check out below if you don’t believe me), and I’ve seen the word ‘seduced’ thrown out a surprising number of times. For the 1930’s, that may have been what this was, but taking advantage of a sleeping woman nowadays is far more taboo. And, yes, this Pre-Code film may end with Anderson left virtually unpunished for committing rape.
If you’re baffled at this point what Anderson does that could possibly win himself any sympathy from the audience, his back story seems to offer hints. He was too poor for the girl he loved back in Minnesota, and now he has money, which he promises never to lose. He also does one other key thing: he keeps jobs. When the bankers try to force him out for refusing to cut down the workforce, he rebels and desperately tries to find the wandering Monroe to back him rather than move an inch on his position.
Anderson is pretty human after all. Even though he espouses a firm belief in one night stands, the only woman we ever see or even hear of him interested in is Madeline. Some have speculated that his interest in aggressive young Martin may sublimate (or transfer) his desire for most of the movie, and, indeed, if you call Employees’ Entrance a film with a love triangle, it’s certainly one of the stranger ones out there.
The film’s ending devolves into a jealous lover’s spat, though you’re never entirely sure who’s jealous of who. After Anderson learns of Madeline’s marriage to Martin, he vows to take care of it, which involves Anderson being shot and Madeline attempting suicide. Anderson covers up Martin’s murder attempt (whether that’s from homosexual affection or just plain pity, that’s up in the air), and gets to keep his job at the last possible moment.
He turns cold again, maybe even colder, and gets back to business. That’s what his life is, after all; it looks like without it, he’d have nothing.
And, after saying all of this, I did want to note that the film does often delve into comedy… Yes, comedy! There are different vignettes about the usual assortment of funny customers (a Jewish man recoils at a ‘pigskin’ football, a woman asks which floor the basement is on) and Anderson’s antics can sometimes be hilariously nasty. When he pays Polly to practice seduction Monroe’s cousin for his benefit, the two trade barbs with a cruel glee.
There’s some really clever direction throughout, too. If you go all the way back up to the profiles of the characters near the top of this review, you’ll notice in two of them we’re treated to a hearty side view of Warren William’s wonderful nose. Many of the scenes just gravitate towards William, so most of the movie’s lengthy scenes in his office will either be a full shot of him, or him in the foreground as the person he’s talking to responds. He’s a constant presence here.
And it works because Warren William is so good at being able to play just so bad. Every ounce of conscience he claims to have here can be attributed to other ulterior motives, but every joke he makes lands and every bit of egotism he displays seems genuine and earned. He’s a self-made son of a bitch, and I can’t imagine another actor successfully blending such a despicable, angry creature with such understated sadness.
The rest of the cast is fine, too. Young plays a drunk extremely well, and is able to make her character seem both independently minded but trapped. A couple of great Warners character actors make a show as Ruth Donnelly pops in as one of Anderson’s secretaries and Allen Jenkins play a store detective. Alice White plays the Polly the seducer with cheer and manages to make the character both funny but broken in some of the same ways as Anderson.
Employee’s Entrance is a hard movie to take, but fascinating and lively. In the end, Kurt Anderson is a monster, and the movie doesn’t try to change that. It admires him as a monster, someone above all the poor fools in the audience, and as someone who could fix this mess. Because, at this point, his kind of action was more admirable than no action at all.
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Sex! Rape! Suicide! Scantily clad women! The Great Depression! Look, it’s Pre-Code, trust me on this.
Here are some .gifs I captured. Click on any picture to enlarge!
Trivia & Links
- If I seemed to be at a loss for interesting things to say this week, that’s simply because Cliff Aliperti has done an extensive job documenting this, calling it one of his favorite films. His Immortal Ephemera site has more of a general review of the piece, where he explains his fascination with Kurt Anderson comes from the fact that Anderson isn’t the villain of the piece. He uses this as a way to talk about American business ideals during the depression.
- Meanwhile, someone whose name is also coincidentally called Cliff Aliperti over at WarrenWilliam.com covers this and uses this to contrast against Skyscraper Souls, using them to illustrate the difference between Employee’s Warner Brothers and Skyscraper‘s MGM. It’s an interesting read about the era.
- If you thought both Cliff Aliperti and Cliff Aliperti loved this picture, you should read Greenbriar Picture’s lengthy adulation, which treats Kurt Anderson (and Warren William by proxy) with unfettered admiration. Lots of great behind-the-scenes photos and newspaper ads here.
- A posting over on Nitrateville talks about how a clip of Anderson’s meeting with Polly, where he says, “I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on!”, was used in Warner Brothers’ internal sexual harassment seminars. They say it’s to demonstrate what not to do, but you never know…
- Will McKinley at Cinematically Insane talks about the pleasure that comes from watching the movie with a crowd, and a few other Pre-Code gems that were screened earlier this year.
- Karen over at Shadows and Satin enjoys the film and talks about Alice White’s performance.
- Laura (she of Miscellaneous Musings) finds Willam’s character unsympathetic and the movie doesn’t do much for her.
- Mordaunt Hall for the New York Times is cautiously pleased with the film. He finds Warren William to be fascinating, and, even if he doesn’t buy the film’s premise, it intrigues him deeply.
- Movie Diva uses the film to discuss director Roy Del Ruth, and how Loretta Young’s late-life image control tried to make the public forget about the movies she made like this one: risque and daring.
- Adorable Pre-Code dog alert:
- One important addendum to any Employees’ Entrance drinking game (finish the drink for every sexual assault!) is to do a shot every time you click on one of the above reviews and see a comment from either Cliff Aliperti or Cliff Aliperti. Dude loves this movie!
- Lastly, TCM’s Movie Morlocks look at Warren William’s career, and pick out their favorite movies of his.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- Featured in Wikipedia’s List of Pre-Code Films.
- This film is available in the Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 7 set, and from Amazon and Warner Archive, and can be rented from Classicflix.
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