High Pressure (1932)

Proof That It’s Pre-Code:

  • The best I’ve got: “I found a good man!” “Where?” “At the hotel!” “… really?”
  • One character takes a lot of glee in saying, “Bank presidents have been committing suicide so fast that it’s hard to find one!”
  • Also, there seems to be a message in here about jobs and that “can do” spirit these movies specialized in.

Currently one of my roommates is among the great unemployed. There are times I envy him, getting to spend his days doing what he wants, drinking when he wants, and playing Duke Nukem Forever.

Okay, maybe not that last one, but I’m not a weirdo masochist like he is.

Of course, the national perception of the unemployed is different nowadays. Where in ages before you had legions of work-craving men combing the streets with a battered newspaper in hand, you instead now have a nation of dispossessed people sitting in front of laptops attempting to force themselves to send out one more resume before returning to blogs filled with LOLcats.

It’s a damned tough situation, either way.

This guy is Jewish, but he’s not portrayed as comically evil! That’s a good sign.

High Pressure flirts with the Great Depression’s business ideals briefly and quickly reaffirms that the American dream is alive and well– get rich quick at any price, honest or no. It’s strange to watch this communicated in a comedy from the 30’s, and one of the reasons the film is unsuccessful is because its ideals are communicated through multiple layers of labored subplots.

Do we care if the secretary and the newspaper reporter get married? Is there supposed to be any sexual tension between our antagonist and the woman he can’t live without? Do I always start asking rhetorical questions in a review when I’m desperately trying to make myself interested in writing about a boring movie?

The plot of the film involves a lucky, fairly stereotypical Jewish guy that finds an inventor who promises him the formula to turn sewage into rubber. He hunts down brilliant but madcap Gar Evans, a promotion man who quickly has a business set up and running before the inventor disappears. Evans has to manage his love life, his sales team, rival rubber companies and a host of other problems while he makes sure that he gets that secret formula.

This is the first William Powell movie I’ve reviewed for this site and most certainly not the last. Powell has a sophistication that a lot of leading men strived for in the ’30’s, but few ever managed the extremes Powell could take it to. Watch him in something better like My Man Godfrey and you have to be impressed by someone who can so breezily float in an uptight and mannered society while still retaining his disaffected propriety.

There’s a fairly strong supporting cast here (including Guy Kibbee as another sad sack), but also some weak ones. Evelyn Brent as Powell’s long disaffected fiance is charmless, and, as underwritten as a lot of the plotlines are, her’s suffers the most.

But the real problem with High Pressure comes from the ethics department. Powell creates a massive organization by convincing others to quit their jobs and follow his lead– they’ll be the salesmen who will reap the profits from this venture. However things don’t work out so well for the lot of them, even though Powell gets away with a rather nice compensation package and without having to spend any time in jail. There are shades of Enron here seven decades before it happened.

“And that’s why I’m better than all of you. Later, suckers!”

The strange thing, though, is that this series of events is apparently supposed to be inspiring. The film ends with a reiteration of the salesmen’s training seminar, which included a company sing-a-long with lyrics like, “You can pack your troubles away and smile, smile, smile!” Are they supposed to be smiling now, or simply more aware of what kind of brazen actions got them into this mess?

So what is High Pressure? Are we on the worker’s side, where the movie is a cruel joke about the evils of business, or are we on Powell’s side, which is a grandstanding illustration of how easy it is to fool the suckers and get away with the cash? Either one will work, but it only speaks to the ambiguities present in a movie that simply had a lot of nothing to say.


P.S. — If anyone in the Bay Area needs someone for an entry level office position, please take my roommate. I can’t stand any more talk about Duke Nukem Forever. I just can’t.


Danny lives outside Tokyo, Japan, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter, and two yappy dogs. He blogs bi-weekly at pre-code.com, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934, and can be found on Twitter @PreCodeDotCom.

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