I went to see this film because it was described as classic pre-Code — i.e., made before the censors in Hollywood took all the sex and nudity and corrupt cops out of film — and also because it stars the elegant Warren William, so skilled at playing the slithering, soulless society cad (you’d never guess he’d been raised in a tiny burg in Minnesota by looking at his Roman nose and high-society accent). But within a few minutes I realized that Skyscraper Souls is one of those rare films that has so many current-day tie-ins to financial irregularities and real-estate fraud that one can only marvel at its rediscovery. On the surface it looks like an old-movie melodrama that warns us about the multiple dangers of the city; but ultimately it seems to be one of those rare documents that shows us how relevant the 1930s Depression is to our own.

Almost all the drama takes place within a single skyscraper — the fictional Dwight building, which towers over even the Empire State Building. Warren is David Dwight himself, the man with the vision and political ties to get the building built, overcome skepticism, and stand as the figurehead for capitalistic greed and risk. From the beginning, we know he’s at risk for defaulting on his massive loan and that his investors want to pull out. He calls the building “a model of engineering, this spirit of an age crystallized in steel and stone.” “It goes halfway to hell and right up to heaven and it’s beautiful,” he rhapsodizes.

But Dwight isn’t the central character: that belongs to the young Lynn Harding (Maureen O’Sullivan, Mia Farrow’s mother and Jane to Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan). Just look at that dark hair and pixie smile — the Irish immigrant O’Sullivan was a delight. As Lynn, she’s new to the city where she works as a secretary for her mother’s oldest friend, Sarah, a sophisticated 30-something businesswoman in a secret and doomed extramarital affair with Dwight. Sarah has promised to protect the youthful, innocent Lynn against the dangers of city life. She’ll need protection, because the Dwight Building is full of wolves eager to get a bite of her — one of whom will be the ur-wolf, Dwight.

The usual misogyny infests this world of skyscrapers and high modernism. As Lynn makes her way to work every day, men in the building swarm around her like flies, asking her out for dinner and a little pawing. One of these is Tom (Norman Foster), a young office worker trying to make it in the big city. Tom begs, cajoles, harasses Lynn until she agrees to go out with him — and then tries so desperately to work his way around her bases that she comes to work the next day in tears, furious and humiliated. No wonder when the dashing, womanizing Dwight pays attention, she’s flattered. We’re supposed to prefer Tom and view his stalker/date-rapist inclinations as boyish ignorance, but one can’t help but think that all of her options are bad.

Meanwhile, Dwight struggles to regain control of his building. He’s seriously over-mortgaged and deep in dept to the point of being close to losing the building to the bank altogether. Threatened by his investors, he decides to take the risky move of artificially inflating bank stock during one crazy day of Wall Street trading. Since he lacks money for this, he enlists a partner — a dumb millionaire sucker, easily entranced by the women Dwight sends his way — and the trading begins. Lynn’s sort-of boyfriend Tom throws in his life savings and invests, as does all of Dwight’s business investors. Then, at the appointed time, Dwight sends the stock crashing to the ground — now possessed of the funds to buy himself out of his debts. In short, he sacrifices everyone around him, and the public good overall, to pursue his capitalist vision.

Hell ensues and the body count piles up. The film offers up some stunningly dark visions of the financial desperation wrought by such greed — darker, really, than almost any other early 20th-c. film I’ve ever seen except Erich von Stroheim’s silent masterpiece Greed (1924). When his former partners confront Dwight about his perfidy — which has led to at least two suicides — Dwight is unmoved: 

Listen, if I double-crossed somebody else for you I wouldn’t be a double-crosser. I’d be a financial genius. You’d profit by it. You’d love it. You’d love me. I’d be your pal, your leader. But I put one over on you, so I’m a double-crosser. It’s all in the point of view, gentlemen. But don’t despair. There’s lot of small fry that you can double-cross. Just like the good old days … before you got out of your class.

It’s kind of amazing to see inklings of what film could do before the moralists got their hands on script approval and storylines by 1934 or so, thereby changing the possibilities for film. Films became relentlessly clean for decades — until the slow demise of the Code by the 1970s. It’s not just that pre-Code movies offered so many scenes of female undress; they also had the chance to portray the ugliest side of the Depression in a way that seems stunningly modern now. Just think about the rosy, pull-yourself-up message of this summer’s Larry Crowne: and then think how different the summer movie season would be if our films portrayed the true devastation of our own financial crisis. Not uplifting, to be sure — but true.