“Now what’s indecent or immodest about me, dear?”
Proof That It’s Pre-Code:
- Its theme song is “Let’s Misbehave,” which I imagine probably could be inserted into a lot of the Pre-Code movies I watch.
- Remarking on one’s honeymoon: “Last night I felt every way!”
- One man has a very strange way of massaging a mannequin’s leg. Though I suppose any way is kind of strange
- After showing off a new and risque swimsuit, a woman turns around and the sign “Model to be Made” is attached to her behind.
- The titular Gertie undresses in silhouette titillatingly.
- Our protagonists are swimsuit designers, and they show off evolution of the swimsuit to this point: it just keeps going up the leg.
- Our main characters get drunk on hard cider, “Straight from George Washington’s apple tree!”
- The whole plot relies on one woman’s many, many marriages.
- Speaking of, there are some married men kissing on their ex-wife.
- Of course, the humor also relies a couple of times on an old man’s pants falling down and lady’s underwear.
I spent the better part of the last month of updates working my way through some of the more well remembered films of Pre-Code, from Animal Crackers to Island of Lost Souls. While those movies were usually more or less a boatload of fun, I’ve been aching to return to some of the more obscure treats of Pre-Code; why talk about what everyone already knows about, after all.
Enter Gold Dust Gertie. 37 votes on IMDB. Let’s give this a shot.
Gertie stars Winnie Lightner, an actress completely unfamiliar to me. That’s not much of a surprise since she was only in a baker’s dozen of films, deciding to drop out of the rat race to marry her sweetheart (Director Roy Del Ruth, who did the awful Beauty and the Boss).
Lightner has some charm to her, and a rather surprising double chin; even back in the 30’s, it’s kind of shocking to see a woman with actual womanly proportions put on the screen. She’s good with a joke, too, and is zippy enough that you can buy her as a tornado in heels. She’s got Katherine Hepburn’s mojo and isn’t afraid to use it.
But Winnie is only a third of the film’s main trio. Now if you’re like me and you freeze up when the words ‘vaudevillian comedy duo’ is tossed around, I want to assure you that this one ain’t so bad. Olsen and Johnson (Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson) were one of the rare duos whose gimmicks weren’t pervasively aggravating; Olsen laughs like an idiot and Johnson gets flustered easily. Neither man has the advantage over the other, and they certainly get some good gags split between them.
As for the plot, Gold Dust Gertie has some strange but welcome vibes to it. Ole and Johnson are Elmer and George, friends who live in the same house and have married to separate halves of a pair of twins. The complication arises that both of these men have apparently in the past shared the same wife– at separate times, mind you, but it’s still quite striking, especially since neither man seems to point out how truly awkward that must be between friends.
Elmer and George work as women’s swimsuit designers but unfortunately work under Mr. Arnold, a conservative old man who is still horrified that women’s swimsuits have shrunk past the knee in length. He also believes marriage is forever, etc, and will fire Elmer and George if he ever discovers their past.
When Gertie shows up demanding alimony, some fairly typical screwball results ensue. She decides to take the duo’s design that was rejected for showing the shoulders and promote it herself, but only after seducing Mr. Arnold and taking his antiquated moral code out to the cleaners.
Her seduction of Mr. Arnold is not for love by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, seeing as how this is at least marriage four for Gertie, it’s not hard to wonder if she ever married for love, especially considering the callous way she dangles their jobs in front of her ex-husbands. The peculiar thing about Gertie, though, is that while her seduction here is obviously self gratifying and enriching, the movie doesn’t condemn it in any way. She’s a force of nature, and takes total pleasure in what’s she’s doing.
“The weaker sex!”
“Yeah, and growing strong!”
It’s a message of empowerment, as it’s illustrates the change from the Gloria Swanson heroine of the 20’s who was virginal and the woman of the 30’s, who’s had more lovers than the audience is probably told about. Taking the idea that women’s swimwear is crafted by men for their pleasure, the movie turns this idea on its head as Gertie uses the swimsuits as a way of demonstrating her independence and power for Gertie. The lead duo who subtly try to exploit women with their designs are instead henpecked.
Hell, that’s more feminist than three quarters of the movies made this year.
The women are clearly in charge in Gold Dust Gertie, and what’s nice that there isn’t a subtext of injustice to their power. These women are this powerful, the men are this weak, there is no condemnation of this relationship here at all. It’s strangely refreshing.
Outside of the subtext, it helps that the movie is more often that not pretty funny, with luckily Olsen and Johnson playing against Lightner pretty well. The film has a few dead spots, as some comedy doesn’t age gracefully, but probably the hardest bit to get through is the ending sequence. It’s a motorboat chase created with some fairly clunky rear projection and toys; I’ve created better in my bathtub at age 5.
But I suppose the charm of age helps it out too. Gertie isn’t a lurking classic, but it’s definitely a fair sight better than it’s apparent lack of reputation serves it.
P.S. – I got momentarily confused when one guy exclaims “You must be all a-Twitter!”. I’ve got to spend some time off of the internet.