|Released by RKO | Directed by William A. Seiter
Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- An old man is running around with a showgirl who calls him ‘popsie wopsie’.
- Our protagonist smacks his secretary. On the face. And on the rear. And asks her cheekily how old she is just for good measure.
- “Aw, dear, why don’t you save the whispering till it counts?”
- “Tell her to keep her WHAT on?!”
- “Get the lead out of WHERE?!”
- Our hero, Bill Poster, keeps “giggling water” in his office water dispenser to help the time pass with a kick.
Is My Face Red?: An Unsurprise
“Hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil.”
“Say, if I followed that advice, I’d starve to death.”
It was good to be a journalist in pre-Code Hollywood. Even if you’re not doing verbal loop-de-loops like Lee Tracy, you’re usually guaranteed to be amoral, admired and hated in equal measure, and, naturally, to get at least one woman by the time the curtain drops. Any promises to mend your muckraking ways are usually accompanied by a big wink. Let’s not kid ourselves here.
Is My Face Red? follows into the usual template, with Ricardo Cortez playing William Poster, an ear-to-the-keyhole columnist who, to borrow a phrase, comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. He and his bootblack (Clarence Muse) keep fresh gin in the water cooler to help the slower hours pass, and then he sashays down to the speakeasy to listen in on whispers. Poster has a long suffering showgirl fiance played by Helen Twelvetrees with the maximum of annoyance, as she dearly loves him but hates the hours he keeps as he lollygags around New York getting into jams and fixes.
Plenty of side characters keep the proceedings moving. Robert Armstrong plays a rival reporter who’s always scooped by Poster, and drowns his sorrows consequently. Poster’s secretary, Arline Judge, gets flustered and zippy as the best girl Fridays do. Zasu Pitts, in a series of sequences that sure feel tacked on in post-production, plays a flustered phone operator who has to handle many of Poster’s more silly calls with her usual air of the surreal.
The script is witty and terse. It gives Sidney Toler, best known as Charlie Chan and for being one of the big heavies of the era, an excellent little monologue where he describes, in close-up, a story wherein he carefully explains just what will happen to Bill if he reports on the murder he just committed. It involves losing eyelids and the ilk– one of those great, unbroken and sinister stories that’s probably more horrific to imagine than any display could properly achieve.
But that also speaks to the major weakness of the film. Cortez’s fast talking Winchell-lite is hardly phased by this. He’s too above all of his doings. While Cortez can be slimy and cruel with charm (see his vastly underrated turn in the original Maltese Falcon), his Poster here is too teflon. He’s also not helped by the lengthy subplot– oh, hell, I’ll upgrade it to plot– that sees him entwined with a society girl named Mildred who is charmed but clearly too ritzy for his means. It’s another pre-Code “don’t date the rich, they’re screwy jerks” moral but without much of a spring in its step.
The patter still works though, and if you’re a fan of any of the actors, it’s a pleasant enough ride. It’s just missing something. For a movie about a dirty guy, it’s just a little too neat and clean.
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Trivia & Links
- Cliff Aliperti, in his new book Helen Twelvetrees: Perfect Ingenue, explains that the film had a upbeat happy ending tacked on after previews. He also explains that it was originally a one act play starring Roscoe Karns before it went on to being three acts and, finally, this film. As for Twelvetrees, despite the fact that she’s top billed, she was usually ignored in reviews in favor of the other actresses or Cortez’s antics. He continues:
As the love interest, she isn’t allowed to be very interesting, and her Peggy is forced to react too spitefully when she breaks with Poster. While it’s nice to see Helen again before the end of the film, Peggy’s return to Poster’s side is the final stamp on her as a weak, throwaway character, whose blind loyalty isn’t something we’re supposed to bother dwelling upon anyway.
- Andre Sennwald in the Times, obviously knowing a thing or two about 1930s journalism himself, gets a kick out of the film’s amorality. He even quotes the film several times, which is pretty rare for reviews of the era.
The superstructure of the production is not too impressive, but “Is My Face Red?” makes a good entertainment.
- Everson’s film notes from the 70s mentions that this one doesn’t hold up well to its contemporaries and seems like an odd project for director William A. Seiter (who is much better remembered for his comedies).
[O]ne never knew whether the hero was going to triumph or get himself killed off. “Is My Face Red?” could go either way, especially as Cortez is the most unsympathetic of the various Winchell composites, and we won’t spoil the fun by tipping it off here. As always, the more unsympathetic the character, the more delectable the ladies that flock to him. Anyone who is pursued by the Misses Twelvetrees and Esmond is to be envied indeed!
- Obscure Hollywood Films talks about the film’s appeal 80+ years away.
The viewer enjoys the companionship of these dynamic, smart-alecky, and fast thinking characters. Their devil-may-care attitude and willingness to go anywhere and do anything in order to discover and report the news provides thrills and amusement.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film is available on Amazon thanks to Warner Archive.
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Cliff Aliperti · December 4, 2015 at 1:18 am
Thanks for including the excerpt, Danny—I’ll try to have the book available for others very soon! I think we both need a do-over/clean slate on this title: everybody back then saw it before Blessed Event, whereas I’m betting you and I didn’t. Cortez can’t touch Lee Tracy, but then, nobody knew that when this first came out.
tom chelsey · February 11, 2019 at 6:07 am
This oldie is getting a lot of play of late on TCM, possibly because its a pre-code, out of curiosity, or its just fun to watch. I’ll take the latter after all these years. What the arm chair critics seem to forget is that a host of these films were produced for entertainment, not critical acclaim. They made a buck or two for the studio and on to the next project. The point here being to just sit sit back, hopefully on a late night ( or as we used to call the Late Late Show) and just watch the old masters go through their motions. Ricardo Cortez did a fine job with whatever was handed him, coupled with the very beautiful Helen Twelvetrees. Lets not forget Arline Judge, who kind of walked the same path as Una Merkel, with a lot of good wise cracks, and the menacing Sidney Toler before he became the heroic Charlie Chan. A lot of fun and memories.
Cynthia Anderson · April 25, 2020 at 3:29 pm
Well said! Loved Ricardo & Helen’s chemistry, on display in several great scenes.
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