Sunday, March 08, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Society Girl (1932) at the UCLA Festival of Preservation

The second half of Sunday's pre-Code double bill at the UCLA Festival of Preservation was SOCIETY GIRL (1932).

SOCIETY GIRL was absorbing enough to entertain for 67 minutes, but the story of an affair between a prize fighter and a woman of society paled in comparison to the top half of the double bill, the very amusing BACHELOR'S AFFAIRS (1932).

James Dunn plays Johnny Malone, an up-and-coming fighter managed by Doc (Spencer Tracy, in his 12th film). Wealthy Judy Gelett (Peggy Shannon) meets Johnny when he provides boxing entertainment at a party she throws, and soon she's looking for him to, er, entertain her in the middle of the night.

Judy is fond of Johnny but can't imagine him fitting into her high society world, and she ultimately plans to dump him; when lovestruck Johnny learns this news it does not have a good effect on his efforts in the big championship match.

The film has some interesting pre-Code bits; for instance, we know that Judy is a bit of a "loose woman" when she finds her previous boyfriend's (Walter Byron) watch next to her bed. When he asks where she found it, she knowingly says something like "Where do you think?" Later Johnny makes very clear, in so many words, that he wants to marry Judy because otherwise what they're doing seems sordid.

Part of the movie's problem is that it provides a happy ending which wasn't especially believable. Judy seems fairly shallow throughout the film, and she's uncomfortable with Johnny's sweet sincerity, taking their relationship much more seriously than she has. It would have made more sense if she'd followed through and hopped a ship for Europe. With a relationship based largely on physical chemistry, will she and Johnny have a happy marriage with such different backgrounds?

I confess that I've never found James Dunn an interesting actor, though I'll concede he was well cast in A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (1945); thus, the film was chiefly of interest to me as a chance to see Peggy Shannon in a large role.

I've seen some of Shannon's other films, including her last, TRIPLE JUSTICE (1940); sadly, she had a rough life and was only 34 when she died of a heart attack in 1941. She's lovely in this, and she plays the role with a bit of a sharp edge which is right for the character. Seeing more of her work made the film worthwhile for me. What a shame that she would be gone less than a decade later.

Spencer Tracy is quite good in his final scene, but I found his character's constant "bit of business" tearing things up when he's stressed to be annoying, not to mention visually unappealing. Tracy is really wonderful in some films -- I think my favorite Tracy peformance is in SAN FRANCISCO (1936) -- but the more I see him, the more I realize that a little of him can go a long way. For a "natural" actor he can be as guilty of mannered or obvious performances as anyone.

SOCIETY GIRL was directed by Sidney Lanfield and photographed by George Barnes. The Elmer Harris script was based on a very short-lived play by John Larkin which starred Brian Donlevy in the Tracy role, with Russell Hardie and Clare Luce costarring.


Blogger KC said...

I'm with you on Spencer Tracy. He's one of the greats, but I often feel I respect him more than I enjoy him. "a little bit goes a long way" is a good way to describe his effect on me.

1:36 PM  

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