Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell are a pair of burlesque dancers. Blondell gets offered a job to dance and strip for a couple of clients, and she gets put on leave when she doesn’t comply.
- Burlesque dancers complaining about their lover’s wives.
- “Do you like me in a material way or just in the finer ways?”
- The rather dimwitted Allen Jenkins declares, “No one’s been married and legal in my family for three generations!”
- “I feel like a horse’s neck.”
“Yeah – and I feel like the rest of the animal.”
- Several scenes have Joan Blondell bouncing about without a bra. I point this out for purely archival purposes.
- The film opens at the burlesque, with a bunch of scantily clad women dancing for a half empty auditorium. Also, check out the marquee:
- Oh, and the whole plot is that a pair of gold diggers are trying to seduce a man so they can implicate him in the scandal and get his money. And they’re unobjectively the glorified for this.
You have to love the brazenness of the films of the early 1930’s. I’m sure you understand at this point that I certainly do, but I mean beyond the swearing, near nudity, risque plots and freewheeling structures.
Take a look here at Havana Widows, a movie solely focused on a pair of gold diggers who’ve decided to go to Cuba and lay a trap for a some rich sap. Does this movie treat this plot with contempt? No, these are our heroines: they’re going to make it rich, dammit, and we’re going to root for them, no matter how they do it.
They start out as burlesque dancers, doing the job that their bodies allow them to. Sadie (Farrell) is the schemer, and Mae (Blondell) is the body. After Sadie gets fined for spending a performance scratching her back, and Mae gets a week off for not complying to entertain some business clients with some dancing and whatever else may occur, the two decide that it’s time to stop living off of show business. Where’s the good life?
This is when an old friend shows up touting an enormous terrier and a story of Cuban excess that makes their eyeballs pop out. Millionaires lining the shores of Cuba, just waiting to be taken advantage of!
Since Sadie and Mae don’t have the money to make it there, they borrow it from Herman (Jenkins), a dimwitted gangster who’s infatuated with Mae. Soon they’re off, and soon Herman is in deep to his boss. He’ll show up again later.
It doesn’t take long for Sadie and Mae to find their mark, as the bed in their hotel suite is occupied by an underwear-clad Deacon Jones (Guy Kibbee, The Dark Horse), a horse racing tycoon with a penchant for pretty ladies and too much drink. He’s notably married to Emily (Ruth Donnelly, who we’ve seen in Female and Private Detective 62), and he’s the father of the handsome and suave Bob (Lyle Talbot, the ‘friend’ of Blondell from back in Three on a Match).
Mae catches sight of Bob and is instantly smitten. The downer: he doesn’t have a dime to his name. So Sadie pushes Mae to continue to try and seduce Deacon with the help of a drunk attorney (Frank McHugh, the comic relief guy in Parachute Jumper).
If you can’t tell from all of the credits I just listed, this film is a bonanza for character actors, representing a hell of lot of Warner Brothers’ talent in the early 30’s. Why they chose this picture is a matter for quiet speculation, but when you have this many stars studding the matter, it probably wouldn’t hurt to put them in something a bit more solid.
Also notable: the Cuba depicted of the 30’s apparently involves absolutely no one speaking Spanish, a rather risque tango, and fabulous nightclubs. Not probably a realistic depiction, but I imagine that it’s portrayal of Havana as a playground for rich and wealthy Americans wasn’t too far off. If you want to see it in reality, here’s a travel newsreel depicting the city at that time (via Gadling).
Back in the movie, Sadie and Mae find their bills coming due, and entrap Deacon in an abandoned house. They throw Blondell into what I can generously call the most beautiful dress I’ve ever seen (see the next picture on the right, though it doesn’t really do it much justice), and she spends ten minutes chasing an underwear clad Kibbee around.
Yes, I know I posted that picture of Blondell undressing to the right, but anyone who’s wanted to see Guy Kibbee forcibly stripped, here’s your movie.
The whole setup results in a mess, as Mae, Sadie, Herman, Bob, Deacon, Emily, and the lawyer are brought to court (in a scene which feels pretty similar to Bogdonavich’s What’s Up, Doc? from a few decades later). The judge makes them a generous offer to leave the country before they’re all thrown in prison, and soon they’re setting sail back to America, not richer, but certainly content.
Though Bob does take Mae trying to repeatedly seduce and blackmail his dad pretty well, but that’s neither here nor there.
Joan Blondell’s bubbles
The highlight of this film, unsurprisingly, is Joan Blondell as the wise talking eye candy. While Glenda Farrell isn’t exactly pig’s spit– and she’s not thrust into nearly as many low cut dresses– Blondell never gives off the sense of dumbness that one would expect from the role she’s got.
There’s a calculation to Mae, and it’s underlined by one of Blondell’s signature props: a stick of gum. Few other actors or actresses would put something in their mouths that might obscure their performances, but Blondell uses the gum as an indicator of mood and and indication of thought process: when she’s chewing a piece during the opening dance number, it’s an instant sign that she doesn’t give a hoot. When she’s doing so again in the final scene on the boat, it’s because she’s become content.
But, more than that, the gum becomes so indicative of the characters that Blondell turned out in the early 1930’s, that wisecracking broad who doesn’t take guff. She never takes out her gum out of politeness; it’s a symbol of independence and defiance. You’ll see this a lot in similar characters– women who don’t give a hoot– but Blondell never takes her performance in the shrill direction you usually get with similarly temperamental divas.
And this concludes the most you’ll ever read about gum chewing in early 1930’s film.
The tropical paradise that wasn’t
Having said all that (which is quite a bit, if you hadn’t noticed), Havana Widows definitely has its high points and its lows. The movie is far more charming than funny, but less charming than it should have been. The plot is a fairly familiar for the time, and nothing extraordinary is done besides lining it up with a number of great actors.
On a fun note, Farell and Blondell ended up being a weird sort of impromptu comedy team as this movie was a smash hit. The duo later starred together in a half dozen films as women all trying to make their way in the world. These included We’re in the Money and Kansas City Princess.
As for Havana Widows, if you love the actors involved, give it a shot. There just isn’t much else to it.
- Andre Senwald reviews this one for the Times, and they’re even less kind than I am. I also am amazed someone tossed out the phrase “en déshabillé” in a film review, considering I have no idea what that means.
- I found this interview with Joan Blondell’s biographer, Matthew Kennedy. It doesn’t really get into Havana Widows, but it gives a good idea of who Blondell was behind the scenes.
- Here’s an interview with Blondell herself from the early 70’s. The best line: “Then [Jack Warner] complimented me on my jugs and said I was young and fresh, but warned me not to become loose in any way.”