If a sound film was released before July of 1934 (when enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship guidelines began in earnest), it’s a good bet I’ll watch it. I don’t care who stars in it, who directed it, what it’s about, or which studio made it. There’s just something about the early Talkie Era that speaks to me – in a slightly tinny New York accent.
My heart always sinks a bit when I see a film on Turner Classic Movies that’s clearly of a ’30s vintage but carries a release date of 1935 or later.
“Oh, how much better it could have been!” I lament, beating my breast in mourning for the debauchery that will undoubtedly be missing.
But every now and then I get a nice surprise, and I’m reminded why the 1930s – the entire 1930s – has been my favorite film decade since I first discovered old movies. And Joseph Santley’s SMARTEST GIRL IN TOWN, an RKO comedy from 1936 with a sharply satirical script by Viola Brothers Shore, is one such cinematic surprise.
Featured on TCM as part of a month-long salute to Star of the Month Ann Sothern (and available on DVD from Warner Archive), SMARTEST GIRL IN TOWN was the sassy blonde’s third pairing with genial leading man Gene Raymond (think Dick Powell by way of Van Johnson). This time around Ann is Cookie, a broke model gold-digging for a sugar daddy to rescue her from cheap gigs in expensive clothes she can’t afford.
Cookie lives with her wise-cracking guardian angel/older sister Gwen (the always reliable Helen Broderick) who doesn’t hold out much hope that our heroine will land a big-pocketed fish.
“(You’ll) do the same thing I did: fall in love with some boob who doesn’t have a thin dime,” Gwen says. “Some big slug will come along who needs mothering, and you’ll wake up one morning and find you’ve taken on the job for life.”
Cookie protests, but this is a romantic comedy and we all know what has to happen next. The “slug” she falls for is Dick Smith, who Cookie thinks is a dim but handsome male model with a “million dollar profile” (which was the working title of the film). In fact, Dick is actually Richard Stuyvesant Smith, a millionaire playboy with a penchant for writing checks to ladies he dismisses after breakfast. And just to remind Dick of his past “breaches of promise,” his loyal valet Lucious Philbean (Eric Blore, hilarious as usual) keeps copies of the pay-off checks framed on his bedroom wall.
To stop Cookie from falling into the wealthy Italian arms of Baron Enrico Torene (Erik Rhodes), Dick sets up a faux modeling agency with Philbean as boss. Each night brings another bogus modeling shoot, and eventually Cookie and Dick end up in a clinch. And here’s where it gets interesting.
Stripped of the freedoms of Pre-Code filmmaking (where heroes and heroines could canoodle sans matrimony), Santley stages a brilliantly chaste love scene wherein Sothern simply washes Gene Raymond’s hair. What must have sounded harmless to the Hays office on the printed page becomes a hilariously hot stand-in for sex, as Dick strips down to his skivvies and Cookie vigorously massages his scalp, stopping only to admire his undershirt-clad torso. Sothern pushes it about as far as she could in 1936, clearly playing the scene as a woman who is sexually attracted to a man.
Not that I’m a perv, but that’s where SMARTEST GIRL IN TOWN won me over. There is a subtext at work here that follows the letter of the Code, but subverts the spirit of it. And, in the process, Santley (and Sothern, mostly) create a more powerful love scene than might have been achieved with the standard fade out on kiss/fade up on breakfast approach. In effect, they out-Coded the Code.
You can probably guess the rest (and if you can’t, you should watch more old movies). In addition to its subtle sexiness, SMARTEST GIRL IN TOWN boasts an all-star cast of 1930s character actors, many of them familiar from other beloved RKO films of the era. And if you’re thinking this all sounds remarkably like TOP HAT (1935), you’re right. SMARTEST GIRL IN TOWN is an Astaire/Rogers film without Astaire and Rogers, with some sexy haircare standing in for Fred and Ginger’s brand of lovemaking: dance. And there’s even a bit of music, as Raymond croons “Will You,” a catchy ballad of his own composition.
With its economical 57-minute running time, SMARTEST GIRL IN TOWN might have been a forgettably slight B-grade rom com. But with Ann Sothern, Gene Raymond and RKO’s best character actors, it’s a delightfully witty surprise, and a film that truly deserves the rare title of “Post-Code Pre-Code.”
SMARTEST GIRL IN TOWN is available on manufacture-on-demand DVD from Warner Archive in a two-film set with SHE’S GOT EVERYTHING (1937), also featuring Ann Sothern and Gene Raymond. You can read more about the film at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings.