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.

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It’s simply wrong to remember the screwball and romantic comedies of the 1930s and 1940s as wholly innocent or de-sexed.  Sure, the Hollywood Production Code eliminated a lot of the open sexuality of the earlier era, forbidding all on-screen representations of sexual contact.  Yet those rules led screenwriters to create a host of scenarios that nominally adhered to the rules yet found ways to make them erotically charged and even risky.

I can’t think of a better example than Jean Arthur in my favorite film of hers, “The More the Merrier” (1943).  To use an apt phrase of David Thomson’s, Arthur had a “rare querulous quality” onscreen that, he suggests, resulted from her ambivalence about acting and Hollywood more generally.  After serving as a forgettable ingénue in several dozen silents and early talkies, she remade herself in the mid-30s by bleaching her brunette hair and utilizing that distinctively froggy voice to great effect in films such as “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”  By that time, her unique combination of innocent idealism and worldly wisecracking seemed perfectly pitched for the era’s films.

“The More the Merrier” has a slow start, but viewers shouldn’t give up: the film really starts to jell after a somewhat belabored first twenty minutes of antics.  Premised on the wartime housing shortage in Washington, D.C., young working girl Arthur rents her spare room to the elderly Charles Coburn, who presumptuously determines to improve her love life by finding her a “high-type, clean-cut, nice young fella.”  Coburn promptly rents half of his room to the wry, laconic, tall and handsome GI Joel McCrea, who beautifully underplays his part.  The film starts to cook as soon as McCrea appears onscreen, and is propelled by the tensions over sexual propriety between the two roommates—highlighting Arthur’s delicate querulousness.  It consistently returns us to its favorite image: a scene shot through the windows of the apartment’s two adjoining bedrooms, with each room’s bed sharing the same wall, showing us how close Arthur is to McCrea as they lie in bed—even as the wall assures us they’ll behave themselves.

The best scene comes when Arthur and McCrea are wandering slowly back to the apartment one night after a night of cocktails and dancing, passing through what appears to be a sea of couples necking on stoops and sidled up against trees.  Nervous, she natters on with questions about his previous girlfriends and transparently false assertions of confidence in her engagement to the awful Mr. Pendergast.  McCrea responds only in the most cursory way, fixing his attention on getting some small touch of her skin—what amounts to small physical battle between them.  It’s a scene equivalent to those choreographed Fred and Ginger dances enacting the pleasurable friction of resistance.  McCrea doggedly tries to put his arm around her, touch her arms, run his hand along her neck; Arthur dodges.  His arm snakes underneath her cloak; Arthur evades, yet positions herself for more.  When they finally clunk down on the steps to her apartment building, McCrea’s offensive begins in earnest.  Now offering mere grunts for responses, he insistently caresses her arms, her shoulders, her back.

In a perfect movie moment, Arthur succumbs.  Her chatter is interrupted by the pleasure she takes in his increasingly successful kisses—and when he hits the sweetest spot on her neck, she simply has to pause mid-sentence:  her eyes close, her neck extends, and her chin lifts as she concentrates fully on the kiss’s delight.  At the end of the kiss, her eyes widen, her absurdly long false eyelashes bat a few times with brilliant comic disconcertion, and she stutters as she completes her meaningless sentence.  The die is cast: she reaches for his face and indulges in a long, passionate kiss on the lips.  Arthur’s great knack here is to remind us that we’re watching a comedy, yet still leave no question about the passion between them.  As they slowly walk upstairs to the apartment—that dangerously private, intimate space, where only a wall separates their beds—the tension continues to rise, and the film must create a crisis to relieve it.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZyxrUDspLQ]

Post-Code films attain their delicious tension all the more because they could show such delimited physical contact.  Considered in that context, the motif of the wall between the two beds becomes all the more sexy, enhancing desire while demanding physical separation.  McCrea and Arthur whisper pillow talk to one another through the wall and display to us in highly intimate closeups that all the boundaries between them have crumbled; only the wall sustains their chastity.  Even at the height of the Code’s influence, writers and actors undermined it with images of erotic intimacies all the more effective for the walls that fell, Jericho-style, only after these movies ended and the theater lights came back on.