Here, watch the remarkable first 30 seconds of Scandal for Sale:
The rest of the film is (for the moment) on YouTube. It’s a pip.
Night Work (1930)
You figure mountain climbers pretty much know all the mountains. You meet a mountain climber, you figure they can just rattle off the major peaks on Planet Earth. You probably can’t surprise them with peaks they didn’t know about. “Mount Whitney? No, never heard of that one.” That’s not a mountain climber, friend.
Not so with movies. I’ve been in this game since the early 1990s, well over half my life. I’ve watched hundreds of movies from the 1940s and 1930s – with a recent rate increase, thanks to my ever-growing distaste for current cinema. Still, I didn’t know that Eddie Quillan was somebody. Turns out he was. Turns out he had over 200 film and TV acting credits, beginning in the silent era and ending with shows like Matlock and The A-Team. Turns out I would have seen him in up to a dozen pictures, including John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath and Young Mr. Lincoln.
Furthermore, for a time, Quillan was a comic star in his own right, expected to carry vehicles in the same manner as W.C. Fields and Laurel & Hardy. Well, maybe he was more in line with Dick Powell – a bright kid with a bright face, an actor who seemed to draw power from the Hollywood sound stage, just like the big lights.
Night Work is a pre-Code comedy mish-mash with very little to distinguish it, except its patchwork quality. It begins as a department store comedy – there were plenty of those, going back at least as far as Chaplin’s The Floorwalker. Quillan plays a low-level window dresser who serves double duty as the “fired man”; whenever a customer complains, Quillan pretends that he’s from the department that has erred, and after a little dumbshow, he’s “fired”. Nobody isn’t in on the fake-out except the customer, and he resumes his duties dressing the dummies.
Next there’s some hijinks at the orphanage, and we get something like two dozen face-pulling professional toddlers eager to pitch their talents as the next Shirley Temple, only we didn’t have Shirley Temple in 1930.
Then the orphanage stuff leads into some half-hearted adoption melodrama, which isn’t really very melodramatic.
Night Work is shaped like a string, and from that string are hung comedy and musical bits. It’s practically an anthology of audience comfort mechanisms. There’s the one where Quillan, looking to avoid getting canned for fraternizing, pretends that the girl from the such-and-such counter is a real dummy, and begins undressing the wide-eyed lady so his boss is none the wiser. The kind of thing that would show up in a Carry On movie or Are You Being Served? Waiting tables at a night club, Quillan tries to catch a few Z’s while the band plays a hot tune. He tries to silence a particularly spicy trumpet by hanging a hat over the bell, to no avail.
Lonely Wives (1931)
Russell Mack’s movie career is dense but brief – after spending the largest part of the 1920s in theater, he joined pictures around the advent of talkies, took 2-3 directing assignments a year until 1934, then (seemingly) abruptly packed it in. He lived until the early 1970s (departing finally at the age of 79), so you can rule out a plane crash, manslaughter, drug overdose, and alcoholism, the usual culprits for a studio residency abbreviated just when it’s getting going.
Lonely Wives is a different type of comedy than Night Work. It’s one that’s hard to do well – the kind of Noises Off!-style farce where, when people run out of things to do, they scream or cry, or someone walks in with a pistol, that kind of thing. Edward Everett Horton, who acquired immortality as a supporting player for Lubitsch, Sternberg, and Fred Astaire, is the star – in a trick dual role, no less. Here he’s an uptight, married attorney who turns into a Casanova at eight in the evening. He also plays a gifted stage actor who claims he can mimic anyone, so that, once he dons a Lenin-esque mustache and goatee, he resembles the first Edward Everett Horton, who, of course, doesn’t usually have a beard in movies. Lonely Wives runs 70 minutes, and like many 70-minute movies, it seems to be made up of 10 bits of business that each take 40 minutes to explain and execute.
Scandal for Sale (1932)
This fast-talking newspaper melodrama led me to the above to pictures, not the other way around; without Scandal for Sale, I probably wouldn’t have landed on Lonely Wives or Night Work. Mack seems to be a very minor director who can carry good material over the finish line without tripping. From the available evidence, Mack lives to serve, and recognizes the strengths of his collaborators.
Chief among the virtues of Scandal for Sale is its leading man, Charles Bickford. A genuine lifelong badass with biographical details including an attempted murder charge at the age of nine, when he shot a motorist who ran over his dog, and an unpleasant run-in with a lion in 1935 that left him heavily scarred, Bickford can be credited with the original “gravelly voice” of talking pictures. He was also gifted with a high degree of gravity and confidence – like having a jackhammer on the screen. He was made of stone and he rolled.
Bickford wasn’t long for leading man roles, but a salty/peppery 75-minute drama about getting the scoop at all costs turns out to be just the thing; he’s plugged in, and the picture moves. There was a time when movies didn’t overstay their welcome.