Monday, April 12, 2010

Tonight's Movie: Blondie of the Follies (1932)

BLONDIE OF THE FOLLIES is a fairly interesting pre-Code depiction of the Depression, in which two poor girls from an Uptown NYC tenement escape poverty when they get jobs on stage in the Follies and become kept women. Only in a pre-Code movie...!

Blondie (Marion Davies) and Lottie (Billie Dove) have had a love-hate relationship since they were kids. When Lottie leaves the poor tenement life behind, implicitly trading her virtue for a job with the Follies plus an elegant apartment and wealthy lifestyle, Blondie visits Lottie and is envious.

Lottie's boyfriend Larry (Robert Montgomery) is charmed by innocent Blondie and wants to marry her, but Blondie gives him up for Lottie's sake. Blondie hires on with the Follies and soon has a wealthy benefactor (Douglass Dumbrille), but is tormented by conflicted feelings of love for Larry and loyalty to Lottie.

At 91 minutes the film does go on a bit too long, with Blondie and Lottie fighting and making up repeatedly, but it has a number of striking sequences, particularly in the early going. The initial series of tenement scenes are an evocative depiction of Depression life, with several family members crowded into a single apartment; Blondie's brother-in-law (Sidney Toler) muses about the new income tax socking the wealthy and longingly dreams of being able to eat Southern fried chicken.

Meanwhile, the money Blondie set aside to buy a new work dress has vanished to pay the rent after her father (James Gleason) loses his job. These scenes, and the storyline in general, call to mind the previous year's film THE EASIEST WAY, about another girl seeking escape from a grinding life of poverty.

Blondie's first backstage glimpse of the Follies is another notable visual moment, thanks to director Edmund Goulding and cinematographer George Barnes; it's a beautiful swirl of activity. The speakeasy across the alley from the stage, with a fancy nightclub hiding behind its nondescript exterior, is another interesting set depicting what is, for the modern viewer, a bygone era.

I found Davies' performance a bit uneven -- she does well in the lighter moments but overdoes a few of the more dramatic scenes. I found Billie Dove's performance somewhat more interesting, although her character wasn't as sympathetic. (Apparently William Randolph Hearst had a role in shaping the film's production, to the detriment of Dove's part.) This was Dove's last major feature film. She died in 1997, at the age of 94.

Montgomery is charming as Blondie's true love. Montgomery always brings a lively vitality to the screen, and this film is no exception. The movie is at its most interesting when he is on the screen. And he has a great, if somewhat improbable, knight in shining armor moment in the film's last scene.

James Gleason deserves particular kudos for his role as Blondie's father. The sequence where he accepts his little girl's new lifestyle, in order to continue to have a relationship with her, is heartbreaking.

The supporting cast includes Zasu Pitts as Blondie's sister and Sarah Padden as her mother. Jimmy Durante pops in for a cameo in a party sequence.

Edmund Goulding also directed 1932's GRAND HOTEL, which is spoofed in a party sequence, and Robert Montgomery's 1934 film RIPTIDE. Goulding would go on to direct some of Bette Davis's greatest films, DARK VICTORY (1939), THE OLD MAID (1939), and THE GREAT LIE (1941).

This film can be seen on Turner Classic Movies.

April 2016 Update: BLONDIE OF THE FOLLIES is now available on DVD from the Warner Archive.


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