|David Dwight …
|Ella Dwight …
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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:
Here are some extra screenshots I took. Click on any picture to enlarge!
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.
- 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.
- 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
- Featured in Wikipedia’s List of Pre-Code Films.
- 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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