I followed up The Public Enemy with another James Cagney/Joan Blondell feature. These two make a good pairing. This was also a very entertaining film–and it made one thing clear, Joan Blondell knew how to slap!
Blonde Crazy, 1931 Starring: James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Louis Calhern, Ray Milland, Guy Kibbee Director: Roy Del Ruth Studio: Warner Brothers
SYNOPSIS: At the beginning of Blonde Crazy, we meet Bert Harris (Cagney), a bellboy who works at a midwestern hotel. One day, a young woman, Anne Roberts (Blondell) applies for a job at the hotel as a chambermaid. Bert takes an instant liking to Anne, and after some finangling, he scores her the job. Anne excels at her work as the chambermaid, but between Bert’s constant advances, and the other creepy male patrons of the hotel, she learns that there is more expected of her than just bringing more towels. This is where we see Blondell show off her considerable slapping skills.
After one particular heinous encounter with a wealthy patron, A. Rupert Johnson (Kibbee), which culminated in him groping Anne. Because he has taken a fancy to Anne and because he is a con artist, Bert suggests to Anne that they get back at Johnson by scamming him. They can extort money out of him and pay him back for harassing Anne. Anne is reluctant at first, but ultimately goes along with the plan. She and Johnson go out on a date. Bert pays a pal to pretend to be a cop and “catch” Johnson and Anne in a compromising position. In an effort to protect his reputation and keep from going to jail, Johnson pays the cop $5,000. The $5,000 goes to Bert and Anne, which they split 50/50.
Anne and Bert decide to move to the more glamorous New York City, where they live the high life. One evening, they meet Dan Barker (Calhern) and his date. After getting to talking, Dan takes a liking to Bert and offers to cut him in on his counterfeiting scheme. All Dan needs is a $5,000 investment from Bert. Bert ends up giving Dan his and Anne’s money. Meanwhile, Anne has fallen in love with Bert, but is turned off by his constant desire to scam people instead of earning money legitimately. She ends up meeting and falling in love with an Englishman, Joe Reynolds (Milland).
MY THOUGHTS: I loved this movie. It was fun to see Cagney playing such a wacky character, though his “Honnnnnn-ey” catchphrase got a little tiring after a while. This was a very precode precode. There is a pretty sexy scene of Blondell bathing. And there was a funny scene of Cagney looking for money in Blondell’s bra. The scene culminates with him putting her bra over his eyes like a big pair of lacy glasses. This was a very funny film and I liked the plot with Cagney and Calhern. Milland was kind of dull, but his character was needed for the third act of the film.
I started off this year’s #PreCodeApril event on Twitter with one of the all-time great pre-code films, The Public Enemy (1931). This film is also one of the premier gangster films, and is the film that made James Cagney a star. It was also one of Jean Harlow’s first big parts. With all the hype surrounding the film and its massive starpower, it is amazing that it has eluded me until now. Of course, I knew about the famous grapefruit scene between Cagney and Mae Clarke. I just hadn’t seen the scene within the context of the film.
The Public Enemy, 1931 Starring: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Joan Blondell, Mae Clarke Director: William A. Wellman Studio: Warner Brothers
SYNOPSIS: The Public Enemy takes place over about a twenty year (give or take) span of time. At the beginning of the film, it’s the early 1900s. We meet our main characters, Tom Powers (Cagney) and his best friend, Matt Doyle (Woods), as children living in Chicago. The two boys are troublemakers and are seen engaging in petty theft around town. They work for a gangster named “Putty Nose.” Putty Nose has the boys steal small items, then he pays them for the items. Putty presumably then sells them for a higher price to someone else. Putty Nose then invites the boys to participate in a robbery at a fur warehouse. The heist goes awry when Tom is startled by a stuffed bear and shoots at it. His gunshot alerts the police to their presence, who end up shooting one of the members of Putty’s gang. Tom and Matt gun the police officer down. When the boys go to Putty for help, they discover that he’s left town. This incident establishes a grudge that Tom carries with him to adulthood.
Time passes and the two boys grow up. By 1920, with Prohibition in full swing, Tom and Matt are enlisted by a bootlegger to help distribute his illicit liquor. Tom and Matt are living the high life as bootleggers. They eventually get girlfriends, Kitty (Clarke) and Mamie (Blondell). Tom and Kitty quickly tire of one another. Their relationship reaches its bitter end (literally) when Tom pushes a grapefruit half into Kitty’s face. Eventually Tom meets another woman, Gwen (Harlow), who admits that she’s been with a lot of men. As time passes, Tom’s illicit activity and relationships with other noted members of the underground makes him the target of a rival gang.
MY THOUGHTS: This was such an amazing film. At first I wasn’t sure what to think of it, I was just anticipating the grapefruit scene. But Cagney was mesmerizing on screen. Apparently, he was supposed to have the supporting role as Matt Doyle, with Edward Woods in the leading role as Tom. However, when the first day’s rushes came back, director William A. Wellman realized what charisma and starpower Cagney had and switched his and Woods’ roles. And while Woods may have been the loser in the deal, the world is richer for Wellman’s insight. Cagney is fantastic in this film and with a less interesting lead (read: Woods), the film might have been average at best. Cagney elevates the material. The ending was truly gruesome. I was not expecting it. Joan Blondell was excellent, even in her small role. She and Cagney make a delightful team. Harlow had flashes of what made her a big star, but it is obvious that she is still very early in her career. Having watched a few of Harlow’s pre-codes, she really comes to her own a year later in 1932 with Red-Headed Woman and Red Dust.
One of the hallmarks of a classic film (regardless of age) is its rewatchability factor. There are plenty of good films, but if it’s not something that I’d ever watch again, it’d be hard for me to consider it a “classic.” I have plenty of films in my collection that many people would not consider classics, or even good movies, but if I love them, then that’s all that matters and they’re “classics” to me. With that said, for this blogathon, we were asked to write about a film that we’ve seen an umpeenth amount of times. This is a film that we’ll watch no matter how many times we’ve seen it. We’ll watch it when it’s on TV, even if we own the DVD. This is a film that never gets old no matter how many times we’ve seen it.
My collection is made up of tons of films that I’ve seen a million times. What’s the point in developing a collection of films if you’re only going to watch them once? One of my films that I never tire of watching is Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s penultimate screen pairing, Desk Set. Hepburn and Tracy made a total of nine films together. Their first film, Woman of the Year, or their last, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner might have more name recognition, but for my money, Desk Set is their best and my personal favorite.
I’ve seen Desk Set multiple times. It’s always one of my go-to Christmas films, due solely to the wild Christmas party featured in the film. This past Christmas season, I watched this film two days in a row. Desk Set has always been one of my favorite films, but up until recently, I’d always wondered about the title. What was a “desk set” ? And how does this title relate to the film? Well I finally looked up “desk set,” and unfortunately, the answer was anticlimactic. A “desk set” is literally a desk. So that answer was pretty boring and I decided that the title was meant to describe office life.
SYLVIA (answering a question over the phone): Reference department, Miss Blair. Oh yes, we’ve looked that up for you, and there are certain poisons which leave no trace, but it’s network policy not to mention them on our programs.
Dina Merrill as “Sylvia Blair” in “Desk Set” (1957)
In Desk Set, Hepburn stars as Bunny Watson, the head librarian in the reference library at the Federal Broadcasting Network (FBN) in Manhattan. The reference library is basically a manual version of the internet, where anyone can call in and request any sort of information, from baseball statistics, to bible passages, to entire poems. No question is too big or too small for the reference library. Also working in the library is Bunny’s best friend, Peg Costello (Joan Blondell), Sylvia Blair (Dina Merrill), and newbie Ruthie Saylor (Sue Randall aka Miss Landers from “Leave it to Beaver”). The women have a camaraderie and work well together. Bunny is also dating Mike Cutler (Gig Young), an executive at the network, but they’ve been dating for over seven years and the relationship is seemingly going nowhere.
(BUNNY is getting ready to meet MIKE) BUNNY: How do I look? PEG: Too good for him
Katharine Hepburn as “Bunny Watson” and Joan Blondell as “Peg Costello” in “Desk Set” (1957)
One day, a methods engineer and efficiency expert, Richard Sumner (Tracy) comes to visit the employees at the FBN. He is the inventor of the Electromagnetic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator, or EMERAC for short. EMERAC is one of my favorite things in movies, the large 1950s computer that fills up an entire room, has a lot of lights and sound effects, and shoots out pieces of paper. The head of FBN wants to possibly purchase an EMERAC and install it in the research library to help the librarians. However, as these things often go, rumors spread that Sumner is actually looking to replace the librarians with EMERAC and save FBN money over the long term.
RUTHIE: What do you suppose he’s (Richard) doing all that measuring for? Do you think we’re being redecorated? SYLVIA: Does he look like an interior decorator to you? PEG: No! He looks like one of those men who’s just suddenly switched to vodka!
Sue Randall as “Ruthie Saylor,” Dina Merrill as “Sylvia Blair,” and Joan Blondell as “Peg Costello” in “Desk Set” (1957)
At the same time, since this is a Hepburn/Tracy film, we anticipate Gig Young getting out of the picture so that they can be together. This happens when Bunny and Richard find themselves bonding over sandwiches in the cold, frigid air. Bunny impresses Richard with her ability to recall facts and use logic and previous experiences to solve the riddles he tries to stump her with. Later, the two are caught in a rainstorm and Bunny invites Richard to her home to dry off and warm up. One of my favorite parts of this scene is when Bunny, needing to find something for Richard to wear while his clothes dry, offers him one of Mike’s Christmas presents–a bathrobe with an “MC” monogram. Both Peg and Mike show up and are surprised to see Richard. They’ve even more surprised to see Richard in a bathrobe with Mike’s monogram. Oops.
BUNNY: I’ve read every New York newspaper backward and forward for the past 15 years. I don’t smoke. I only drink champagne when I’m lucky enough to get it, my hair is naturally natural, I live alone–and so do you. RICHARD: How do you know that? BUNNY: Because you’re wearing one brown sock and one black sock.
Katharine Hepburn as “Bunny Watson” and Spencer Tracy as “Richard Sumner” in “Desk Set” (1957)
Later, the employees at FBN have the greatest Christmas party. It ranks up there with the Christmas party in The Apartment. This party is absurd and could only happen in the 1950s when it was not only allowed, but encouraged to be drinking alcohol while at work. The champagne is seemingly flowing out of a faucet as the women in the reference library float around from department to department drinking and carousing. Obviously, no actual work gets done at FBN on Christmas Party Day. Poor Ruthie says, “But I don’t want to drink in the middle of the day!” but her pleas fall on deaf ears. It is at the Christmas party when Mike drops the bombshell that he and Bunny are moving to California and are going to marry. This is news to Bunny as Mike didn’t even formally propose to her. Bunny has to break it to Mike that she doesn’t want to move, and they end up breaking up–FINALLY.
BUNNY: Have some tequila, Peg PEG: I don’t think I should. There are 85 calories in a glass of champagne. BUNNY: I have a little place in my neighborhood where I can get it for 65.
Katharine Hepburn as “Bunny Watson” and Joan Blondell as “Peg Costello” in “Desk Set” (1957)
A few weeks later, EMERAC is delivered and put to work. Sumner’s prissy assistant, Miss Warringer, is there to demonstrate EMERAC. The women in the reference library have seemingly been compiling data on punch-cards to feed into the machine. Then payday arrives and the reference librarians expect the worst–pink slips. Unfortunately, their worst fears are confirmed when each woman pulls a pink slip out of their envelope. Then Sumner arrives to demonstrate EMERAC. Then the phone starts ringing off the hook with all kinds of crazy questions. The women in the reference library refuse to help due to their recent firing. Miss Warringer is forced to take the calls and the reference librarians look on in amusement as she struggles to even take the calls, let alone actually finding the answer.
BUNNY: Really, you girls kill me. I was here until ten o’clock last night and this morning at 9, I had to go to IBM to see a demonstration of the new electronic brain.
Katharine Hepburn as “Bunny Watson” in “Desk Set” (1957)
Miss Warringer enters the wrong information into EMERAC and is unable to answer the question correctly. The reference librarians use their resources in the stacks to find the correct answer. This routine continues a few more moments with each successive question, with Miss Warringer getting more frustrated by the minute. EMERAC eventually malfunctions and starts going crazy just as Bunny starts reciting the “Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight” poem to mock Miss Warringer’s misspelling of the name of the island of “Corfu.” Miss Warringer, knowing that she’s being made fun of, storms out in disgust.
Sumner understandably wants to know why the reference librarians are being so rude to Miss Warringer and he learns of their firing. Then it comes out that an EMERAC was also installed in payroll, and that machine also went insane and issued pink slips to everyone in the building, including the president! Sumner then clears up the misunderstanding (which probably could have been cleared up a hour ago, but then we wouldn’t have a movie) and explains that EMERAC is only meant to assist, not replace. The women are relieved and Sumner then asks EMERAC if he should marry Bunny. Well duh, he designed the machine and it’s a Hepburn/Tracy film, so you can imagine the answer.
RICHARD (to BUNNY): Something about the way you wear that pencil in your hair spells money.
Spencer Tracy as “Richard Sumner” in “Desk Set” (1957)
The film ends with the FBN reference library intact and Bunny and Sumner are engaged.
I love this movie. I love the scenes of EMERAC. The big computers are always so much fun to watch (see Touch of Mink, 1962). I love poor Miss Warringer’s big tantrum. I love the scenes of Hepburn and Blondell together. Blondell always makes every film better. Hepburn and Tracy were charming together. I loved Hepburn’s wardrobe and her fabulous apartment. This entire film is so much fun to watch and it’s enjoyable to see a career woman actually succeeding in her career, wanting to keep her career, and finding a partner who finds her intelligence exciting and isn’t intimidated. Sumner finds Bunny’s encyclopedic knowledge a turn-on versus Mike who seemingly doesn’t think much of Bunny’s job if he thinks that she’s willing to follow him to the West Coast with no notice. I imagine that after this film, Sumner and Bunny marry, they’re happy, and together they make the reference library better and better.
Despite being over sixty years old, Desk Set still feels modern. People are still worried about being replaced by machines and sadly, in many instances, their fears are well-founded. However, no amount of artificial intelligence will ever replace a person’s unique set of experiences, knowledge, and skill sets. Were FBN a real company that was still around today, I’m sure that the reference library would have long since been phased out once the internet became more accessible. However, I could see the reference librarians moving into the roles of fact checking, as those types of roles are always needed by television, movies, news outlets, etc. etc.