Sunday, 25 July 2010

Skyscraper Souls (1932)

The first thing that came to mind while I was watching MGM's 1932 "Skyscraper Souls" was how much like a WB film it felt. From the choice of leading man (Warren William) to the main theme of ruthless capitalism, it brought memories of Roy del Ruth's 1933 "Employees Entrance". It is clearly a social message film more in tune what was being produced in Burbank than in Culver City. The criticism of manipulating and/or playing the stock market for easy gain must have been too raw for Depression audiences, but one that hasn't lost its relevance. However, I didn't enjoy it half as much as I did the later film. Not that this is a bad film - it just takes forever to get interesting.

The plot concerns the life of the owner, creditors and employees of the Dwight Building (might be Dwight Tower or something similar), the only true love of business man Dave Dwight (Williams). Among them are the young secretary (Maureen O'Sullivan) of his long term assistant and mistress; a jeweller (Jean Hersholt) in love with a call girl; a married investor looking for a new business opportunity and some fun away from his wife; a man (Wallace Ford) in love with a married woman and a few others.

On the positives, Warren William scores really high. He was arguably the king of Pre-code. He had a charming ruthlessness that made him perfect for this sort of parts. The party scene where he tries to seduce Maureen O'Sullivan by getting her drunk is often unconfortable to watch, not because it's bad, but because it's so well done. And yet, his final scenes show him being not entirely a monster, truly behaving like a gentleman. I also quite liked O'Sullivan's poor beau, in particular in a scene where he seems unable to forget or forgive what he so desperately wants to forget and forgive.

On the other hand, one of its problems is that wastes too much time with secondary plots that could have been easily cut (one assumes that MGM was trying to emulate star-filled films like "Dinner at Eight" and "Grand Hotel") and distract from the core: Warren William's unscrupulous businessman. The Jean Hersholt sub-plot serves no purpose: we are even denied an on-screen conclusion, merely being told what happened. Slightly more relevant but nevertheless taking too much space is the love affair between Wallace Ford's character (curiously enough, William's main antagonist in "Employees Entrance") and the married woman that seems to be in perpetual need of money.

Towards the end it also suffers from being a MGM film. While WB occasionally had the guts to put some really realistically uncomfortable endings in its Pre-code films (and go no further than "Employees Entrance"), here we have a complete cop-out, moralising ending, which in the last scene particularly made me cringe. And yet again things aren't necessarily that simple. O'Sullivan's change from the beginning of the scene (the look of contempt and envy when she sees William's wife) to the happiest of endings clearly allows for the possibility of that rather than repenting, she's resigning herself and that deep down she has been forever tainted.

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