Skyscraper Souls (1932)

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Skyscraper Souls Warren William SkyscraperSouls Cast 5 SkyscraperSouls Cast 1
David Dwight …
Warren William
Lynn …
Maureen O’Sullivan
Sarah…
Verree Teasdale
SkyscraperSouls Cast 3 SkyscraperSouls Cast 6 SkyscraperSouls Cast 4
Tom …
Norman Foster
Jenny …
Anita Page
Ella Dwight …
Hedda Hopper

Skyscraper Souls: A Monument to Mankind’s Hubris

They laughed at me when I said I wanted a hundred-story building. They said it wouldn’t hold together. But I had the courage and the vision and it’s MINE and I own it! It goes halfway to hell and right up to heaven and it’s beautiful!

One of the things that really fascinates me in the films of the 1930s is how they reckon with The Great Depression. Some verge into fascism, others despair, a few eke out a small measure of hope.

Comparable in many ways to MGM’s then-recent hit Grand Hotel, Skyscraper Souls has a larger ensemble and a bigger message. For an MGM prestige picture, it does something rather daring: it tells the story of the Crash of 1929 in a microcosm, and, worse, it makes the cruel stock manipulator who destroys a wide array of lives the most sympathetic character in the picture.

That’s David Dwight (Warren William), who has built a skyscraper that tops out at 100 stories and looms over the Empire State Building. I mean, just look at this thing:

As if Dwight just wanted to be able to look out his window and spit on his next door neighbors.

As if Dwight just wanted to be able to look out his window and spit on his next door neighbors.

David Dwight is obsessed with one thing, and that is gaining control of the building that bears his name. He’s taken out an illegal bank loan and invested his entire fortune before the movie begins, and by the picture’s end he will have paid women to seduce investors, lied to his company’s board, and destroyed the bank he works for all in the name of retaining sole possession of the skyscraper.

He maintains the audience’s sympathy through the virtue of being both likeable and shrewd. While it’s easy to imagine titans of industry recklessly manipulating for their own greed, Dwight’s rather simple desire (he eschews any thought of making money purely for the sake of having money) comes across as refreshing. The movie even allows him plenty of lateral movement with a number of well put speeches where he points out to the men he back stabbed that if he had worked in their favor, he’d be a hero to them rather than a villain.

Dwight knows that he’s in a world of escalating greed. He’s a cunning manipulator, working every angle to get what he wants. William imbues him with a sense of humanity while doing this, too, so when it comes time to betray his friends that David’s decision isn’t made to look easy or callous. He’s the type of man who destroys lives, but his motives are refreshingly simple: if it wasn’t him, it would be someone else. That’s how capitalism works.

That being said, David’s obsession with his building also adds to the enjoyment of his character. It doesn’t take a strict Freudian to point out that every time Dwight refers to his ‘building’ you could substitute the word ‘penis’ in there and not lose any essential meanings.

An art deco cathedral to a man's ego.

An art deco cathedral to a man’s ego.

That takes us back to the rest of the ensemble cast, or as they may be better known as, the great fleeced masses. David is sleeping with a fair number of them with the blessing of his ebullient wife, Ella (Hedda Hopper). The two enjoy a relationship wherein he gives her money, and she gives him the excuse not to worry about any of his mistresses getting too serious.

The most central of said mistresses is Sarah (Verree Teasdale), the beautiful building manager who has been attending to David for almost a dozen years. She’s supportive to a fault and professional in every respect.

What makes Sarah really interesting though is her relationship to her secretary, Lynn (Maureen O’Sullivan). Lynn is young and sweet, but not entirely stupid. Sarah treats her like a daughter, and retains a rare maternal affection that movies rarely showcase. Lynn, for her part, is young and naive, new to New York and wary of love without appropriate financial backing.

The gold digger of 1932.

The gold digger of 1932.

That is where Lynn and her enthusiastic beau Tom (Norman Foster) diverge. Did I say enthusiastic? I meant grating. Tom is a bank clerk with a sense of entitlement taller than Dwight’s building. His attempts to flirt with Lynn are grating, as he follows her and pesters her with continuous libidinous advances. It’s galling when the tactics work, even as he becomes instantly jealous and controlling at the drop of the hat. That he and Lynn are the film’s token ‘good couple’ raises some issues that I touch on below.

Oh, who else have we got. The building is inhabited by a kindly Jewish jeweler, Jacob (the great Jean Herscholt), who is in love with a model cum prostitute, Jenny (Anita Page). There’s also Myra (Helen Coburn), who loves Slim (Wallace Ford) but is married to Bill (John Marston).

All of these characters (and a few more, just for kicks) find their lives crisscrossing at points, each driven by greed and desire, and most left with only acts of desperation to deliver them to salvation. When Dwight and a rival manipulate the holding company’s stock price in order to crash it, everyone buys into the roller coaster and ends up devastated.

It's nice that the film focuses so much on Tom being financially devastated since he was repellant enough to make a stock crash seem like a halfway good thing.

It’s nice that the film focuses so much on Tom being financially devastated since he was repellant enough to make a stock crash seem like a halfway good thing.

In this way, the film again touches on greed. Everyone is easily blinded as soon as the stocks go up; even the board, jabbed at by the back stabbing Dwight that this could be an attempt to overtake the company, refuse to stop investing their every asset into the business. Willful ignorance and unflagging hope ruin fortunes and, in more than a couple instances, kill.

Jacob was the only character who really escapes the bad half of the occasion, if only because he knew that the stock market was a gamble rather than a sure thing; he bet only as much as he could afford to lose, and while he did lose it, he’s rewarded for his smart thinking and kindness.

Dwight almost escapes from it unharmed as well, but once he finally has total control to the massive ode to his masculinity that is the Dwight Building, it turns out that his recklessness may still have a price. The film is daring in that it doesn’t punish him for all of the grief he caused all of the other characters, but merely for one betrayal. Once David has what he really wants, he becomes cruel; he even realizes this in his final scene as the blood drains slowly from him.

Clever in money doesn't mean clever in bed.

Clever in money doesn’t mean clever in bed.

Skyscraper Souls cleverly takes place entirely in the Dwight Building, which showcases how complete the structure is. Dwight maintains his lavish apartment there, while tenants include banks, jewel merchants, a stock exchange and many more. If the city captured the imagination of the 19th century, it seems apparent that the compact communities of the skyscraper were poised to do so for the 20th.

All that being said, the movie wouldn’t be half of what it is without Warren William, who has a great physicality he throws into the proceedings. Not only does he gesticulate with a joyous frenzy and leer with a charming twinge, he towers over the other characters. Watch how Dwight spars joyously with Elle or the clever tenderness he shows toward Sarah.

Spoilers.

The Sarah and David relationship is the most crucial in the picture. David shows her the most kindness, but that may come out of sympathy. He treats Sarah as training ground for his manipulations, using her as a sounding board for things he’s already done and gauging her reaction. Despite her professionalism, David is a big blind spot for Sarah, her biggest weakness by far.

If it weren’t for his selection of Lynn for a mistress, it’s likely she would have accepted his gifts at the end rather than choosing a more dramatic ending to their relationship. Even then, over David’s corpse, she still pledges her love to the man who used her for more than a decade. That is how good David is.

End spoilers.

"M'am, I can't help but notice you're not being sexually harassed."

“M’am, I can’t help but notice you’re not being sexually harassed.”

The movie’s ending, unsurprisingly, finds Tom and Lynn back in each other’s arms. I noted before how abrasive Tom is before, and I can’t shake the feeling that the film isn’t a huge fan of him either. One scene, after he begins to act like a jealous cretin, involves him walking straight into a store’s pyramid of toilet paper, and I can’t help but feel that that moment speaks volumes to his personality.

In the end, people make due with the crash, and those who survive it endure, a little more weary and a little more poor. The moral of the story isn’t about endurance, though; it’s that capitalism and greed can bring anyone to ruin, especially the good intentioned. Even when you have enough money to build a monument to yourself, it won’t make a lick of difference once you’re gone.

Proof That It’s Pre-Code

  • Tom and Lynn get engaged in a minor slapping match in which he gets a big one in on her:

Slap him more. MORE.

  • In something I never thought I’d hear in a Pre-Code, a drunk and giggly Lynn accidentally says ‘shitty’ rather than ‘silly’, and the movie makes a gag about it.
  • Jenny tosses off an insult to Tom: “Try a little sip of the magnesia!” Magnesia being a laxative, of course.
  • On champagne: “There’s a law against it, isn’t there?” “And what a poor law.”
  • “There’s a lot of fun being in love without babies.”
  • And, naturally, scantily clad ladies:


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Gallery

Here are some extra screenshots I took. Click on any picture to enlarge!


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Trivia & Links

  • Warren William.com dotes on this one, drawing a long comparison between the novel on which the movie is based and how the changes reinforced David Dwight and made him a great character. Cliff notes:

By expanding Baldwin’s nugget of Dwight into a towering personality, the Skyscraper itself come to life, and fleshing out Dwight’s backhanded dealings to show them to us on the screen, thus making us complicit to his dealings and better understanding his motivations, MGM succeeds in humanizing a Depression-era monster.

  • The quintessential Movie Diva talks about the film’s origins as well, and also discusses the film’s preoccupation with sexual frustration.
If this shot doesn't kick in your paternal instinct, I don't know what to tell you.

If this shot doesn’t kick in your paternal instinct, I don’t know what to tell you.

  • Yes, at one point Tom does indeed humming the song “Singin’ in the Rain” a few decades before it achieved its greatest fame.
  • If you were looking for a bevy of Warren William photographs, the ‘I can’t believe this exists’ blog dedicated to the works of El Brendel has got you covered.
  • The Hollywood Revue has a good, well, review of the picture. A lot of reviewers compare Skyscraper to Grand Hotel, and Angela here even goes to the next level by pointing out that Anita Page and Joan Crawford actually wear the same dress in both films. Great observation.
  • Director Edgar Selwyn had a hell of a career. Though he only directed a handful of movies (including the excellent War Nurse), he was a playwright, theater owner, producer, and millionaire. Check out his fascinating bio.
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And, yes, Dwight’s character makes a joke about being ‘The Big Bad Wolf’ at one point during the movie, making this the movie Upperworld only dreamed of being.

  • I don’t normally do this, but if you want to watch a movie that covers some of the same ground (unlikeable characters who destroy each others lives to survive) but made 80 years later, check out Margin Call.
  • Mordaunt Hall in the New York Times says that the film “affords a rich measure of entertainment” and then proceeds to describe every single thing that happens in it. Never change, Mordaunt, never change.

Awards, Accolades & Availability

  • This film is available in the brand new Forbidden Hollywood, Volume 7 collection. You can get that on Amazon and Warner Archive, and can be rented from Classicflix.
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Danny

Danny is a librarian who lives in Western Germany with his lovely wife, adorable children, and geriatric yet yappy dog. He blogs bi-weekly at pre-code.com, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934, and can be found on Twitter @PreCodeDotCom.

23 Comments

Caren · May 24, 2013 at 5:26 am

Read about this film in Dangerous Men and have wanted to see it since. Your fab review has increased that desire! Thanks.

    Danny · May 25, 2013 at 8:58 am

    Sure thing! Hope you enjoy it!

Grand Old Movies · May 25, 2013 at 9:39 am

Great post on this film and William’s performance, which is complex and layered. The film is very pre-Code in its look at various marriage arrangements, such as Hopper and William’s alliance of convenience and Hersholt’s you’ll-learn-to-love-me proposal to Page. As for the unbearable Norman Foster, he was a helluva better director than an actor (directed the Mr Moto films and some of the Toler Chans, also Journey Into Fear). He was also once married to Claudette Colbert – go figure.

    Danny · May 25, 2013 at 4:13 pm

    There’s no accounting for taste. Or sheer dumb luck. Thanks for the info!

justjack · May 25, 2013 at 9:54 am

A great movie, and a great example of pre-code. I can’t remember for sure any more because I’ve since seen him in many other movies, but this may have been the flick where I said to myself, hmm. I’m going to have to remember this Warren William fellow.

I love the elevator gif you made, with Edward Brophy in between O’Sullivan and her idiot boyfriend. He does an awesome job of silently commenting on their argument. Love his cringe when she gets in the zinger.

    justjack · May 25, 2013 at 9:56 am

    Or wait, is he actually pronouncing judgment on Idiot Boyfriend in reply to her silent appeal?

      Danny · May 25, 2013 at 4:14 pm

      He’s pronouncing judgement on him, after hearing Foster literally begging for a date. I share the reaction.

        justjack · May 26, 2013 at 6:24 am

        The great Edward Brophy! Gadzooks, how I idolize these great character actors and sidekick types! Brophy, Alan Jenkins, Frank McHugh, James Gleason, Edward Gargan, Nat Pendleton, Sam Levine, Donald MacBride, Edgar Kennedy, George Tobias…. Warner Bros had the best ones, or at least the most, but every studio had ’em.

          Danny · May 30, 2013 at 3:09 pm

          The joy of watching all of the films from a specific period of time is discovering these character actors as you go along, and then realizing you’ve seen them in twenty other films. It’s an interesting experience to say the least!

Judy · May 27, 2013 at 1:49 pm

Great performance by William in this – he’s very good at playing characters who overreach themselves, as in ‘The Match King’. Unfortunately I’m getting this film a bit mixed up in my mind with a couple of other movies centred on office buildings (Counsellor at Law in particular), so I need to see it again soon. Enjoyed your review, Danny.

    Danny · May 28, 2013 at 5:38 pm

    Ha! Well, both Skyscraper and Counselor end with someone trying to jump off a building, though Counselor involves less success. Thanks for the compliment, hopefully I’ll keep finding great high rise pictures!

Jnpickens · May 29, 2013 at 3:11 pm

I’ve been following some of your posts are realized I had never commented. I looove Skyscraper Souls (and anything Warren William, really). This was an excellent review.
I just wanted to let you know how much I love your blog (and the layout) and like how you break it down with reasons why a film is pre-code.
Keep up the good work 🙂

    Danny · May 29, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    Thanks, I appreciate the kind words! And not nearly enough people tell me nice things about my blog design. 🙂 Thanks for reading!

      Jnpickens · May 29, 2013 at 8:13 pm

      P.S. I just followed you on your Twitter accounts. I’m @HollywoodComet 🙂
      And I’m impressed by nice layouts, always looking to improve my own lol

        Danny · May 30, 2013 at 3:08 pm

        Sweet! Followed you back, and I’ll definitely poke around your site and offer unprovoked suggestions wherever possible.

          Jnpickens · May 30, 2013 at 3:13 pm

          haha only if you feel like it. I love my logo, it’s the lay out that struggles. I probably should just pay for one

          Danny · June 1, 2013 at 6:29 pm

          Well, since you didn’t care either way:

          – Add social medias to the top of the sidebar, move the ‘Designed by’ to the bottom.
          – Move categories into the sidebar too
          – And I always like a site index just to browse.

          That’s just off the top of my head. It’s not a bad design, and there are many great free options (like this one) out there, that unless you’re in this to make money, you shouldn’t have to pay for one. 😀

Andrew Gilmore · May 1, 2014 at 3:26 am

More proof that it’s Pre-Code: Gregory Ratoff about five minutes into the film uses the word “mamzer”, which, for the gentiles in the audience, is Yiddish for “bastard.”

    Danny · May 2, 2014 at 9:48 am

    Well, my Yiddish definitely ain’t what it used to be, if it ever was anything at all. Thanks for the tip!

Laura Boyes · May 18, 2016 at 6:57 am

Hey, I was looking up what you had to say about Skyscraper Souls, which I just re-watched today, and found you gave a shout-out to me, moviediva, for which I thank you, kindly! I love your website, and that means a lot!

    Danny · May 23, 2016 at 10:03 pm

    I don’t say this often to anyone I haven’t specifically married, but I love you, MovieDiva. Your site is the best. 🙂

      Laura Boyes · June 3, 2016 at 3:34 am

      Danny! I love you, too! Your site is also the best! I’m programming a series of Art Deco movies at the North Carolina Museum of Art this fall, and I’m sure I’ll refer to your treasure trove, often. xo!

That guy Tony · June 6, 2019 at 9:51 am

MovieDiva just presented this last night at The Carolina Theatre cinema in Durham, NC. My wife and I can’t believe we’ve never seen it before on TCM or back in the day when UHF TV stations played “old movies” all night long.

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