Sunday, February 14, 2010

Tonight's Movie: Penthouse (1933)

PENTHOUSE is a crackerjack pre-Code crime drama with a great cast and a witty script by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, screenwriters of THE THIN MAN (1934). PENTHOUSE was directed by THIN MAN director W.S. Van Dyke and stars Nora Charles herself, Myrna Loy.

Jack Durant (Warner Baxter) is a society lawyer who dismays his partners and social circle by taking on criminal cases and thus associating with disreputable types. Jack's girlfriend Sue (Martha Sleeper) dumps him for Tom (Phillips Holmes), but then comes running to Jack for help when Tom is accused of murdering his mistress, Mimi (Mae Clarke).

Jack quickly realizes that Tom didn't commit the murder and sets out to solve the crime with the aid of a diverse group of people including high-class call girl Gertie Waxted (Loy), Police Lt. Steve Stevens (Robert Emmett O'Connor), and gangster Tony Gazotti (Nat Pendleton). The genial Gazotti wants to repay Jack for saving him from the electric chair and will do anything to help him, including having a couple of his men (Raymond Hatton and Arthur Belasco) constantly shadowing Jack to cover his back.

The screenplay does a good job with the intricate plot and large cast, somehow making room for both plenty of storyline and showing off its interesting characters. Pendleton's Gazotti is terrific, and he's matched (and then some) by the very funny Charles Butterworth as Jack's butler, Layton.

There are some really excellent one-liners; Hackett and Goodrich at times seem to have been rehearsing for the next year's THIN MAN script. Some of the pre-Code dialogue raises eyebrows, yet it's delivered with charm and is obscure enough that it will sail over the heads of younger viewers.

Loy's Gertie is so smart and delightful that it's completely believable a society lawyer would want to make an honest woman of her, despite her previous occupation. (One of the unanswered questions is how a woman with Gertie's appeal and intelligence fell into that lifestyle.) While the characters around him deliver many of the best lines, Baxter is fine as the attorney turned detective.

Baxter and Loy were reunited in 1934 for Frank Capra's BROADWAY BILL and again in 1936 for TO MARY - WITH LOVE.

Like Myrna Loy, Nat Pendleton also appeared in THE THIN MAN in 1934. That same year he memorably played gangster Legs Caffey in FUGITIVE LOVERS. He appeared in over 100 films, including the DR. KILDARE series, before retiring in 1947.

Brian's Drive-In Theater has a nice biography of Pendleton. His full name was Nathaniel Greene Pendleton, after his ancestor, Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene. It was fascinating to learn that Pendleton, who often played uneducated types, was a graduate of Columbia University and spoke four languages. He was also an Olympic silver medalist in wrestling in the 1920 Summer Olympics.

The cast also includes C. Henry Gordon and George E. Stone as villains. Samuel S. Hinds has a one-scene appearance as one of Jack's disapproving law partners. Beautiful Theresa Harris (AND BABY MAKES THREE) plays Mimi's maid. Tom Kennedy plays one of Gazotti's employees.

PENTHOUSE runs 90 minutes. It was filmed by Harold (Hal) Rosson and Lucien Andriot. The gowns were designed by Adrian. I'm not sure I cared for the wing-like front of the gown Loy wears throughout most of the film, but she carries it off in style.

PENTHOUSE was just released on DVD-R from the Warner Archive.

It can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies. (Note: The article on the TCM website incorrectly states that Mae Clarke played Baxter's fiancee.) The print I recorded a few months ago was excellent.

Leonard Maltin's CLASSIC FILM GUIDE gives the film a 3-1/2 star review and calls it a "neglected gem." It was an extremely enjoyable film which I look forward to watching again in the future. PENTHOUSE is one of those wonderful little discoveries which are part of what makes being a fan of classic films such fun.


Blogger Moira Finnie said...

"Penthouse" (1933) sounds so delicious the way that you describe it, Laura! I love the early Myrna Loy and Nat Pendleton was always a pleasure to see, especially in pre-codes like this and rollicking minor comedies such as "Sing and Like It" (1934).

Since I am currently engrossed in David L. Goodrich's excellent dual biography, "The Real Nick and Nora: Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett" reading your evocative post seems even more apropos. Btw, after "Penthouse" opened to good reviews, a breakthrough for the couple, the writers had a visit from a man who claimed that unless they purchased an ad from The Hollywood Reporter for $46, their next film would be labeled a stinker! Frances Goodrich said that Variety and Film Daily also approached them with a similar racket. Let's hope things are a bit better today. Maybe?

Now, if I can just track down a copy of "Penthouse" it certainly sounds like I'd enjoy it. Thanks for the fine review.
All the best,

3:46 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Moira!

I read THE REAL NICK AND NORA a few years ago and enjoyed it very much. I hadn't had a chance to look and see if there was anything about PENTHOUSE in it. Thanks for sharing!

Hope you're able to see it before too long -- if TCM doesn't schedule it soon perhaps the Warner Archive will have a sale...

I'll keep my eyes open for SING AND LIKE IT, I'm not familiar with that one.

Thanks for stopping by!

Best wishes,

3:52 PM  

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