Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- When you watch Pre-Code films, it’s sometimes hard to realize just how disenfranchised women were during this time period. That’s because movies in that era went out of their way to give us strong female roles who did things like run a car company, function as a doctor, or, in this film’s case, be the lead editor on a magazine. And, the best part is, in this one our heroine not punished for being devoted to her job, and she’s damned good at it.
- Of course, the heroine’s husband is a louse who engages in extramarital sex, but that’ll happen.
- Big old goof Andy Devine claims that there hasn’t been any marriage in his family for three generations. Wait, didn’t he claim that back in Doctor Bull too?
The Particulars of the Picture
Man Wanted: Drop him off, anytime.
“It’s all part of a game… and I love it.”
Anyone who’s dispirited by romantic comedies will find Man Wanted to be a fun little twist on the genre. While we’re used to all manner of big powerful bosses being pursued by lovestruck little secretaries, all this film does is flip the usual gender stereotypes and mine the fun out of the situation. It’s not a remarkably radical distraction, but a clever one, that has a pretty fantastic finale to top it off.
But let’s get to the movie before we get to the end. Lois Ames (Francis) is the editor on a popular fashion magazine. It’s a family job that’s been passed down to her, and she’s embraced it. She works late hours, which is a good deal for her husband, Freddie (Thompson), as he prefers the playboy life with polo ponies and other cute young distractions.
Being a powerful editor on a popular magazine attracts a good slate of salesmen, and one of those men is a young daffy man named Tommy (Manners) who comes by trying to peddle a rowing machine. Right place and right time intersect, and he’s hired as an executive secretary by Ms. Ames.
He’s almost instantly smitten, but it takes a while for her to catch on. She’s happily married (as far as she knows) but also addicted to her job. He’s also engaged, but it’s to Ruth (Merkel), a girl who’s more than a little obsessed with David.
She follows him around and orders him around, neither helping much. Notably she has a little Pomeranian dog in some of her scenes, which reminded me of Mandalay. Can it safely be said that the appearance of a Pom in a Pre-Code shows you that the character has their head firmly in their rectum? Something to ponder, I suppose.
David is helped through his lovesickness– look, the guy starts doodling Lois’ name on a notepad and changing her last name to his!– by his roommate and pal Andy, who’s a lunkhead in a number of ways. One of those is that Andy actually likes Ruth but can’t stand up to her enough to tell her about it.
This makes it an interesting comparison to a lot of romantic comedies. While we’ve seen dumb guys chase after powerful women before (especially lately), most of those strike some sort of compromise where the woman acquiesces to the man. If he’s dumb and goofy, the woman must admit that being dumb and goofy is much more fun.
You don’t really get that here. In fact, when David finally can’t help but knock on Lois’ door one more time before he takes off to marry Ruth, it’s not some blabbering confession or accusation that makes her rethink things, but simply the warmth and a big goofy look in his eyes. I mean, come on. How do you think this guy feels about her?
And it ain’t easy getting there either. I don’t know if I’d trot out the word ‘sophisticated’ for the film, but it’s sweet and gentle. Director William Dieterle doesn’t have any grand visual ideas for this mixing of classes, but he does craft a couple of memorable and lovely shots.
I’ve used one twice already in this article, which is both Kay and David approaching a closed door at the same time. We’re given the split between them to watch, and a closeup on their hands to watch as both play around with engaging the other when it’s finally convenient for Lois and at the last possible second for David.
Dieterle, who would follow this up with the completely insane Jewel Robbery, may not be much for visuals but always imbues his actors and actresses with a giddy sense of naughtiness and joy that few other directors capitalized on.
Let’s go with one of the last scenes in the picture as an example. Andy loves Ruth, David is engaged to Ruth, and David loves Lois. The two are in their small apartment, talking this out, from when Andy enters the shower and still trying to convince David to stand up for himself to when we see Ruth waiting impatiently on the other end of the phone, while the water runs out of the shower and the two men’s silhouettes are seen and they share a bottle of drink.
You don’t normally see male bonding like that at this period, and both Manners and Devine nail the friendship/rivalry that a pair of guys just on the hair’s side of weirdness would develop.
Kay Francis has one of the prettiest smiles in all of Pre-Code Hollywood, and it’s a treat that we get to see a lot of it in Man Wanted. David Manners is a good goof here, able to portray about as un-macho of a man as you could get back then, but still a guy who you could understand and relate to.
That’s doubly impressive considering how much of a jerk his Tommy is to Ruth. Hell, even Freddie, who cheats on Kay simply because he’s too aloof not to, isn’t a vile rat. He didn’t mean to hurt her feelings; that’s just who he is.
So, ‘sophisticated’, not quite. But mature and fun are words that would apply. Unlike Female, Kay is never punished for her power. Even her husband leaving her is replaced by a relationship where she’s still the boss. This is a smart, funny, and surprisingly progressive film.
Took plenty of extra shots for your viewing pleasure this go around. Click for big!
And these two are for the ladies…
Trivia & Links
- Andy Devine is busting up at a copy of “Ballyhoo” at one point, which was a big humor magazine in the early 30s. Here’s the Wikipedia page on it.
- This film is available in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume 4, along with Jewel Robbery, Lawyer Man, and They Call It Sin. You can Man Wanted on Amazon.com and Warner Archive, and it can be rented from Classicflix.
shadowsandsatin · November 23, 2012 at 11:42 pm
Great write-up, Danny! I haven’t seen this in a while — I think I will go hunt it down and pop it in the old VCR . . .
Danny · November 24, 2012 at 10:43 am
It’s not a great comedy, but I think ‘adorable’ hits it on the head pretty well. Enjoy!
JennyG · February 27, 2014 at 1:11 pm
Great review. I loved this one. The film depicts both Ruth and Freddie as sucking because they don’t know anything about working, but I agree that Ruth is treated MUCH worse, with less justification. In that way the film keeps a sexist undercurrent running. (Maybe to undercut the obvious progressive feminism?) But Kay Francis is terrific as a tycoon, and the ending, I agree, is VERY satisfying in bringing together two people with electric chemistry. An overlooked gem.
Danny · February 28, 2014 at 9:12 am
Yeah, I think Una Merkel got the short end of the staff on this one, but otherwise it’s a lot of fun. I recently rewatched it with my wife (because what I do when I’ve been drinking is force her to watch Kay Francis movies that I think she’d like) and the chemistry is indeed electric. Glad you liked it!
Comments are closed.