Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- The opening shot of the film is a nude woman from the back. We quickly hear someone shout, “Turn around!” Alas, it turns out its a pair of workers moving a painting to auction.
- Insanely jealous husband Andrew Poole (Roland Young) about her wife’s office job, “Can you imagine men being calm and businesslike with a woman who looks like this? […] Can’t you see them all, sitting around… talking sex?“
- Husband to wife: “You mean if I get a job, you won’t give up yours?” “No.” In fact, the wife is the very model of independence in the film until act three kicks in.
- The plot is mostly a light comedy about a wife named Shirley (Genevieve Tobin) going on a cruise while taking a ‘vacation from her marriage’. Her friend to her: “You’re always saying you’re afraid you might have missed something, well here’s your chance!”
- Last week I can of went off about colonialism, and, wouldn’t you know it, this week there’s a costume party and someone puts on brown face and dresses up as Gandhi. A few characters even get to mispronounce his name. Gandy? Really?
- Not really super saucy, but I like his line to his confidant, “Oh, Judy, you have an indecently intimate knowledge of my nature.”
- At the barbershop, the hair tonic is really booze, and Andrew, on the run from a doting heiress, enters the barbershop covered in lingerie, with a garter belt attached to his back.
- “Your husband’s probably just a fish when it comes to lovemaking– husbands generally are.”
- A lothario who is trying to tempt Shirley into an affair uses a perfume called Stolen Love. “I keep it in my cabin– especially for you.”
- The climax to this movie is unbelievably disturbing in its implications. But you’ll have to read on for that.
Pleasure Before Pain
Nothing I’ve seen in Pre-Code really had me prepared for the third act of Pleasure Cruise. Few things I’ve seen in my entire film watching career could have prepared me for it. Considering the first two acts were completely charming and adorable, the film’s third act, which consists of a heinous crime being committed and then played for laughs, came from something so far beyond consideration, it left my mouth agape in befuddlement. For the first time in a year, I’ve seriously begun to reconsider adding a fourth rating to the site, a “WTF?!” rating.
But the reasoning for that constitutes a major spoiler, so first the nice stuff.
Pleasure Cruise starts out with Andrew Poole, an English playboy, watching the remainder of his family’s fortune getting auctioned off. The Depression has depressed his fortune out of existence, so now it’s time to move in with his doting fiancee, Shirley. After giving her his last possession– a cigarette case with his initials on it, “The souvenir of a fiance who turned out to be a fiasco.”– they sing a song and bemoan their fate.
Luckily, Shirley works at the local bank– she’s a sassy, independent woman who’ll happily support her man.
They’re soon married, and the film skips ahead a year to find Andrew wearing an apron and utterly emasculated, tending to chores and pounding along on his novel. However, he’s very much realized that he’s married to a sassy, independent woman, who he’s terrified could do a lot better than him.
(Spoiler alert: she can.)
He’s become a jealous, bitter jerk, and one night, when she’s joshing him about his jealousy, he suggests they take a ‘marriage vacation’. He quickly realizes his error, but can’t help but watch in terror as she books a pleasure cruise to the Baltic. Andrew realizes what a mistake he’s made and tags along to stalk her as a barber on board.
Comedic shenanigans ensue, as Andrew tries to cover up his presence and distract potential would-be suitors– spreading rumors that she’s a crook or that her jealous husband is on a murderous rampage. To up the creep factor a bit, he even peeks in on her when she’s taking a shower, just to make sure there’s no one else sneaking around inside.
We also get some stock wacky characters on the ship who get to perform some background, including Una O’Connor and Herbert Mundin— who later go onto costarring in a romantic subplot in 1938’s Adventures of Robin Hood, which tickled my fancy a bit.
Meanwhile, Shirley charms her way through some swarthy fellows, carefully informing each one of her marital situation and assuring their nervous glances, “My husband trusts me implicitly.” As Shirley gets closer to deciding whether or not to let herself be seduced by the opulent Richard (Ralph Forbes), Andrew gets more and more torn up as all of his schemes seem to collude in pushing Shirley further and further away.
The movie is pretty amusing up until this point, with each of Andrew’s schemes deservedly going awry, but what happens next is… horrible. Let’s talk about something cheerier first. (I’m trying to push this off. You’ll understand why when you get there.)
Genevieve Tobin: Perky And Slick
Genevieve Tobin was never a huge star. Her biggest roles– and the only other films of her I’ve seen her in– was Ernest Lubitsch’s One Hour With You (1932) and the clunky Bette Davis vehicle Petrified Forrest (1936).
She makes a hell of an impression here, though. Most Pre-Code actresses, love them as I may, exaggerate themselves in increments for their comedic roles. Tobin resists letting herself slide into those heightened comedic realm, and gives the character the same sort of breezy charm without any baggage or effort.
I think it helps that her character in this film is incredibly daring and commanding, moreso than Andrew certainly gives her credit for; unfortunately . The film contains several fantasy sequences wherein people look at picture frames and see a fantasy projected– their fears personified. This sort of surreal touch underlines Shirley’s power since both times it happens, it happens from her perspective, even when Andrew is looking at the frame.
The second time this happens is as Shirley is sitting in her bed, more than a little tipsy. This is the best scene in the movie, as Tobin teeters carefully, and spends a wordless two minutes communicating with the picture of her husband on her desk. Her emotions are racing; at first, she’s eagerly tempted by the man who’s promised to come to her room later and ‘make his way’ silent and in the dark.
But then she catches sight of the picture frame, and sternly shakes her head, her smile never leaving her face. She’s been naughty, but she knows where the line is and when not to cross it.
Scenes like this are typical in the first half of the movie, with Tobin carefully and calmly in command of herself, but devilishly letting a smile cross her lips– she knows all the decadent possibilities, even if she’s too good to take them.
Unfortunately, she doesn’t close the latch exactly right.
The Third Act Twist
Okay, this part needs spoilers, so unless you’re one of the 14 people who’ve seen this movie according to IMDB, you may want to steer clear. Or, if you never plan on watching this film, soldier on, good reader, because you’re about to exposed to one of the most nakedly disturbing third acts of a film I’ve ever seen.
Keep in mind, up until this point, Pleasure Cruise is a light comedy. For the 30’s, I’d even say this is a sexual farce. At no time has Shirley given any indication she knows her husband on board, and so far his schemes have only directly impacted the men who’ve attempted to seduce her. She’s been a little bit hurt by the gentlemen’s rejections, but fine and still herself.
After missing the lock on the bedroom door, she turns off the light and passes out. Meanwhile, the man who was supposed to make his late night rendezvous with her is delayed– he’s been locked in his cabin by Andrew. And here’s where the film jumps off the rails, as Andrew slathers himself in Richard’s “Stolen Love” perfume and sneaks into Shirley’s room. He snags his cigarette case he’d given her before he has his way with her.
So she wakes up fully aware that she’s had sex last night, but she doesn’t realize it’s not with who she thought it was.
She was, by all measures, raped.
Now, films– as distasteful as it is for me to say this– have been using rape as a punchline for a long time. Usually it’s man-on-man rape that’s exploited for humor, such as in Let’s Go to Prison, Horrible Bosses or Sorority Boys, all stellar films by any measure. Sorority Boys even shows us the unknowing frat boy sliding himself across the ass of the man he thinks is a woman in the middle of a date rape. Hilarious.
Male on female rape humor scenarios are fewer and far between, with the only one coming to me off the top of my head being Your Highness from last year. In a scene that was, to be polite, one of the most shameful things ever put to film, Justin Long bewitched Zooey Deschanel into wanting to be raped, and then couldn’t get it up.
But, hell, at least in those films, there was rape in a comedy and it was played for laughs. The film’s did not inject their shitty, shitty jokes with gravitas or pretend like they were about something much deeper than they could even fake.
This is not how Pleasure Cruise handles it. Shirley wakes up the next morning, pleased. She didn’t intend the indiscretion, but that sort of thing happens. Richard shows up incensed, and apologizes for the night before, and says he feels terrible. She misinterprets this as thinking that she was bad in bed– I hope you’re sinking in your seat, because it gets worse.
When he reveals he was locked up all night, she’s thrown into a tizzy. Emerging on the deck of the boat, she sees scores of men look at her and smile. Some have cigarette cases– “Which man raped me?” she thinks.
She darts between the leering grins and finally takes a moment to herself. She sees ghostly apparitions of the faces of the men on board float past. This is wrong. There’s no two ways about it– you can not give me a film with a perky lovable character and then have her raped and tortured by the thought of it.
Shirley snaps out of it and departs the ship, flying home early. No, her husband doesn’t show up to gloat, nor does he actually even plan on telling her what he’s done. He instead arranges for the beau to follow behind her and meet her back at home, and, when he arrives, Andrew shows up, to further shame his wife.
He corners both of them, and perkily asks them what they’ve been doing and how they’ve met. They scramble for answers, and Andrew laps it up. He’s spent the whole film being a jealous prick, and now he’s handily cuckholded his wife and shamed her for doing something he doesn’t know that she never planned to do.
To up the ante one final time, Andrew takes Richard aside and shows him the cigarette case– proving he was on the boat, he’s the one who raped his wife, and that he was onto Richard for the whole shame session. Richard darts, and, unbeknownest to Andrew, Shirley caught sight of the cigarette case as well.
She pieces it together. After Andrew returns to her, smug and self satisfied, Shirley calmly informs him that she’d been flirting with Richard the entirety of the cruise. He’s amazed she’d come clean, but she continues– there’s a man she’d made love to as well, and he’s in the next room.
Andrew, completely mad with jealousy again, bursts into the next room to find a mirror. He was the other man! How fucking sanctimonious.
Shirley carefully explains that she knew Andrew was on board the entire time, and that he should have trusted her to do the right thing. To the latter, of course. To the former… well, the film gives no indication of this, and portrays Andrew as having done a pretty good job of sneaking about. It allows Shirley to regain a measure of control in the relationship, reaffirming that she’s independent and smarter than him.
However, the very end is her telling him to knock next time he wants to make love. She then heads into the bedroom. He looks confused… then happy. Then he knocks on the door.
Fade to black. The end.
It’s a Shame
I… I’ve tried to portray how much disgust this film fills me with in the last few paragraphs, and I hope that I have. This is one of the most wrongheaded decisions I’ve seen in a picture, as Shirley’s interest in sex is used to shame and corral her. Andrew’s jealousy is only briefly deterred, and almost nothing between the couple is solved.
I’m not saying the film should have gone darker with the ending, I’m saying it should never have been made that dark. Maybe back in the 1930’s it was believed that it wasn’t rape if she was your wife, or, hell, if she doesn’t say no. Now it is. I still have trouble looking past things like black face or the way ethnic characters are portrayed, but usually the crux of the plot isn’t laid upon these moments.
The climax of Pleasure Cruise is the fun in watching a woman react to her rape, and Jesus-fucking-Christ, it’s deplorable. The evolution of treating women like goddamn humans has made this an utter unmitigated embarrassment to the world.
- Mordaunt Hall for the New York Times really heaps the praise on this one, and I agree that Tuttle really created some clever, memorable moments. But the ending is completely written off.
- You’ll also find that Pleasure Cruise was remade as a Spanish language film No Dejes la Puerta Abierta and it sounds like most of the plot remained intact. I do wonder about the ‘abrupt’ ending the critic mentions, though.
- The only other review of the film I could find is a piece from Obscure Classics. It’s kind of a chore to read the huge block of text, and most of it just slags the movie’s sense of humor. The reviewer is teasingly obscure the climactic rape, which is baffling. I know we can all shrug and say, “Oh, Pre-code.”, but is attributing this plot to simply age ethical? I don’t think it is.