November 27, 2012

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One of the advantages of being home for the holidays are the huge gaps of time that open up when work and other daily annoyances fade from view. In the lazy hours surrounding Thanksgiving I hunkered down in front of my family’s DVR and monolithic tube TV, searching the TCM schedule for something to while away the hours with. One particular item caught my eye, an early morning screening of Gregory La Cava’s Bed of Roses (1933). The description mentioned steamboats and female con-artistry, two of my favored subjects, so I clicked record in sweaty anticipation. The film turned out to be far more than an amiable time-killer, but an astoundingly subversive pre-code with some of La Cava’s finest lowdown dialogue. Wondering what other gems lay hidden in early 1930s La Cava, I also tracked down The Half Naked Truth (1932), which was a looser but still uproarious bit of scam artist screwball.

The Half Naked Truth was the fifth film Gregory La Cava directed for RKO, and the third straight produced by David O. Selznick. Following two dramas on which he didn’t receive a screenwriting credit (Symphony of Six Million and Age of Consent), La Cava was handed The Anatomy of Ballyhoo, the 1931 memoir of press agent Harry Reichenbach. Filled with outrageous incident, La Cava and Corey Ford’s script is a marvel of escalatingly elaborate scams, testing the limits of American gullibility, although much was probably re-written on the set. In a 1937 letter proposing La Cava be hired as a director-producer, Selznick wrote: “La Cava would drive me crazy as a director with the rewriting he does on set, for as you know I don’t like any projection-room surprises or shocks, but if he were his own producer we could take chance that he would shock himself.” Selznick never made him producer, but conveyed the kind of on-set improvisation that led to La Cava’s freest movies, which crackle with possibility.

Changing the name to The Half Naked Truth, the movie follows Jimmy Bates (Lee Tracy) on his rise from carnival barker to Broadway impresario. Eager to prove that not only is there a sucker born every minute, but probably every second, Bates invents outrageous backstories for his gal Teresita (Lupe Velez) and pal Achilles (Eugene Pallette) at every stop, from scorned orphan to Turkish Princess, and it makes him money every time. He states his position to the carnival owner: “the world wants excitement, sensation, baloney!”. Part of a spate of comic con man movies that flowered during the Depression, including Hard to Handle (’33, with James Cagney) and The Mind Reader (’33, starring Warren William), The Half Naked Truth made light of the fact that the only possible way to make a living was to lie, cheat or steal.

Lee Tracy is ideal casting as the motormouth promoter (despite later being sued by Selznick for repeatedly showing up late to the set). He spits out hilariously ridiculous lines with a mix of bravado and self-absorption, as when he tells Lupe Velez to, “stick with me baby, the next stop is Broadway”, as the fair burns down behind him due to his previous scheme’s spectacular failure. By the time he brings a lion into a hotel room or invents a nudist colony that parades through NYC, it becomes clear he can sell anything to anyone.

After directing the bizarre liberal fascist fantasy Gabriel Over the White House (1933, read J. Hoberman’s An Army of Phantoms on that one), La Cava was assigned another scamming Depression-era character in Bed of Roses (1933), this time a cynical prostitute hustler played by Constance Bennett. The original script by Wanda Tuchock was spruced up by La Cava and Eugene Thackrey (both receive “dialogue” credits), and is a boozy dip into the world of drunk-rolling Johns and blackmailing rich patrons. Lorry Evans (Bennett) is a jaw-droppingly amoral character who uses her formidable sexual allure to rob a boll weevil exterminator and cotton barge captain (Joel McCrea), before having herself installed in high-rise luxury by publisher Stephen Paige (John Halliday).

While Jimmy Bates bent the law to climb the ladder of success, Lorry is an out and out criminal, and Constance Bennett’s buzzed, almost slow-motion performance makes it seem positively alluring. The strengthening Production Code had just begun, and some were concerned about the film’s tone. In April of ’33,  Studio Relations Committee head Dr. James Wingate urged the film’s producer Merian C. Cooper to, “show some positive qualities of retribution and regeneration that will counter-balance this apparent glorifying of an unscrupulous adventuress.” It is unknown what changes were made to the original script, although later scenes of Lorry living an ascetic lifestyle to “prove” she could go straight were likely added due to urgings such as these.

The role of “unscrupulous adventuress” was a departure for Bennett, with The Motion Picture Herald describing it as, “quite different from Connie’s usual society stuff”, and Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times wrote in his review that it was, “disconcerting to see her emerging from a reformatory”. But Bennett seems to relish the opportunity to go slumming, with a shoulder raised and back arched, as if a bow pulled taut before flinging itself at its target. Bennett is aided in her tawdry crimes by Pert Kelton, who plays the even seamier Minnie with a spot-on imitation of Mae West, her suggestive nasal drawl and thunderous hip swagger enough to bring a few middle-western rubes to their knees.

What gives Bed of Roses an emotional kick, however, is the no-nonsense romance between Lorry and the cotton barge captain, Dan. Their meet-cute has Dan fish Lorry out of the bay after she escapes from the cops, with Lorry then tossing him into the drink for impugning her virtue. The romantic climax is no top of the Empire State Building affair, but a charged exchange of sharpened words in a shabby tenement.

The mix of McCrea’s open-hearted sweetness and Bennett’s world-weary resignation elicits not sparks but genuine warmth, and their courtship is without illusions. Neither care for past improprieties – Dan brushes off the revelation of Lorry’s whoring past with a shrug – both are only concerned for what the present may bring. It’s a tough and loving and uproarious work, and should be placed alongside My Man Godfrey (1936) as Gregory La Cava’s best. And after forcing my parents to watch it the day before Thanksgiving, my mother would agree. She said it was her new favorite movie.


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