March 31, 2009
Last Monday night, TCM aired all six films from Warner Bros. new box set of early William Wellman talkies, Forbidden Hollywood, vol. 3. I’m still picking my way through, but 1931′s Other Men’s Women is an obvious highlight. Possessing speed and clarity in equal measure, and blessed by energetic supporting turns by James Cagney and Joan Blondell, it’s overflowing with minor pleasures. With the railroad as its working class milieu (the original title, “The Steel Highway”, was changed shortly before it’s premiere), the film builds its rhythm from the steady hum of the locomotive, it’s whistle cooing over the lead credits. In the opening sequence, Bill White (Grant Withers) slinks into a hash shop, his wise-ass cracks clearly impressing the brassy counter girl. In between his razzes he counts out a rhythm on the table top, keeping track of some internal beat in his head. After shoveling in his eggs and coffee and telling the gal to “have a little chew on me”, he sprints off to catch the last train that had been rumbling by in the background the whole sequence – he had been counting off its cars. Tempo is emphasized straight off, and neither Wellman nor his collaborators apply the brakes for the duration of its 70 minutes.
Maude Fulton adapted her own story for the screen, and William K. Wells is credited with the dialogue. Fulton, unknown today, had established herself as a vaudevillian and playwright before she started contributing to film. In a fascinating 1917 profile in the NY Times, written after the success of her play, “The Brat” (which John Ford brought to the screen in 1931), her circuitous path to Broadway is outlined. Raised in the Kansas newspaper biz by her Dad, the editor of the local daily, she wrote a novel by the age of 15, “whose theme was ‘The Curse of Rum’”. She bounced from job to job, including singing pop songs at a department store, until she learned stenography and was hired by a railway office, where she likely soaked in the bravado of the train engineers that suffuses Other Men’s Women. Bored with office work, she soon lit out for the stage in NYC. She was performing in Mam’zelle Champagne on the roof of Madison Square Garden in 1906, when the millionaire Henry K. Thaw shot and killed architect Stanford White for fooling around with his young wife, Evelyn Nesbit (who was also romanced by John Barrymore). Thaw’s trial was the first to be dubbed “The Trial of the Century.”
Before this brush with infamy, she had teamed up with dancer William Rock. “Rock and Fulton” became a minor vaudeville success from 1900-1912, their 20-minute routine playing some of the better houses in town, according to the reference book Vaudeville, Old & New. By the time she was 30, Fulton began to suffer from rheumatism and had to shift into writing full time. In the Times piece, just beginning her playwriting career, Fulton displays a disarming humility:
“I know that I have no great intellectual gifts and that I have no great talents, but I will say this for myself: I am an indefagitable worker and I aim high. If this [The Brat] is not a great play – and it isn’t – remember that it is my first, and I am not through yet.”
She never equalled The Brat’s success on stage, with her follow-up, The Humming Bird (1923) failing to make much of an impression. But both were made into silent films, and her career behind the camera began. But I digress…
Fulton’s scenario for Other Men’s Women is a basic love triangle. Jack Kulper (Regis Toomey) and Bill White are best friends and railroad engineers, but both also happen to be in love with Kulper’s wife, Lily (Mary Astor). Tensions rise and tragedies mount until a spectacular bridge collapse caps the doom-laden tale. With the train whistle’s metronome setting the pace, Wellman wastes no time in setting up the central conflict. Jack invites Bill to stay for a few days and dry out, after his stuttering landlady kicked him to the curb. The childlike idyll of the first few days, mock-fighting and chases ’round the yard, are quickly unmasked for their flirtatiousness. Wellman utilizes an audio motif to mark the shift in atmosphere. When Jack first arrives home, he whistles to announce his arrival. The second time we hear the whistle, Bill has professed his love and Jack’s world is about to collapse. This simple inversion carries a great emotional wallop, his lilting tune turned tragic in the space of ten minutes.
Wellman is adept at this kind of repetition – eliciting slightly different tones from each one. Take Grant Withers’ catch phrase, “have a little chew on me”. Used in the opening scene with a sneer and a hint of sexuality, the next time he says it, to old pal Cagney on top of a train, it’s with complete sincerity. Later, after dismissing Blondell’s marriage proposal, she cuts him off with, “if you offer me a chew of gum I’ll knock your block off.” For each context, the phrase works differently, and the cumulative effect makes Blondell’s retort all that funnier. It’s even flexible enough to play a pivotal role in the final, storm swept finale.
Other Men’s Women is remembered, if at all, for being the film Cagney appeared in before The Public Enemy (also directed by Wellman) which launched him to stardom. As Bill’s close friend Ed Bailey, he’s already irrepressibly physical. In one magical scene in a club’s lobby, he’s shown stripping out of work clothes, revealing a tux underneath, and soft-shoeing laterally to the dance-floor. It’s a privileged moment for a character only present in three sequences – and he nearly taps away with the picture.It was his second film with Blondell, after they both reprised their roles from the play “Penny Arcade” in Sinner’s Holiday (1930). Ms. Blondell gets a few zingers in, including her tart: “I’m A.P.O…Ain’t puttin’ out.”
Wellman pairs the train whistle from the opening to the climactic struggle, as Jack and Bill throw hay-makers in the engine room. There is a cut to a close-up as Jack’s right cross pulls down the whistle rope, their battle now syncopated to the music of their transport. Violence and disfigurement follow, as death haunts the two friends the rest of the film,with Wellman and cinematographer Barney McGill darkening the palette until the train’s final run takes place in manic silhouettes and dense fog. As emotions and steel are wrenched apart, the crux of Wellman’s directorial personality become clear. As Dave Kehr noted in the comments section of his blog (where the best auteurist criticism is appearing these days): “His was a style based on speed, fragmentation, and violent collision — he’s on the path that leads to Sam Fuller, not Howard Hawks.”