Thursday, August 2, 2012

Pre-code Myrna Loy

TCM's star for the second day of Summer Under the Stars is Myrna Loy. Loy is probably best remembered either for playing Nora Charles in the six Thin Man movies (the first airs at 11:00 PM), or for the wives any man could love (and I mean that in a good way) in movies like Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (6:00 PM), The Best Years of Our Lives (8:00 PM) or Cheaper By the Dozen (overnight at 12:45 AM). She's good in all of these movies, but she's really interesting in the movies she did before enforcement of the Production Code became strict in 1934. TCM has been showing a bunch of those this morning, and will be showing one more overnight: Penthouse, at 2:15 AM.

Warren Baxter plays Jackson Durant, a society lawyer who unfortunately finds the sort of law he practices in polite society boring, so he defends gangster Tony Gazotti (Nat Pendleton, who also shows up this evening in The Thin Man). This causes him to lose his job at the society law firm, and be looked down upon by society, to the point that he even loses his fiancée, Sue (Martha Sleeper). So he takes up with Gertie (Myrna Loy), a high-priced call girl, even having her stay in his apartment!

Things are about to get more interesting, though. Sue comes crawling back to Durant. Not because she loves him, but because she needs his help. Her new boyfriend Tom (Phillips Holmes) has been accused of a murder he didn't commit, and she needs Durant to get Tom off. I mean, if Durant could get a gangster to beat the rap, why not a respectable person? And this is a doozie of a crime -- Tom stands accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend, Mimi (Mae Clarke), who was also a gangster's moll! Durant likes the challenge, and he starts to act like Perry Mason. That is, he doesn't defend the case in court; he solves it before it even gets to court. And, unsurprisingly, he does it with the help of Gertie and even Tony.

Penthouse is one of those movies that I saw ages ago, so my memories may be a bit fuzzy. For example, looking at the plot synopsis given on TCM implies I may have gotten wrong exactly when Durant and Gertie meet. But Penthouse is one of those breezy early 1930s movies, inexpensively made but with a lot of pizazz and entertainment value. If you haven't seen Myrna Loy's early career, this isn't a bad place to start. She played a lot of exotic vampish roles, but some of them were ethnic characters, as in Stamboul Quest or Thirteen Women, which I suppose might be off-putting. (It could be worse; I haven't mentioned the Fu Manchu movie where she plays Chinese!) Penthouse showcases Loy in a role that's not exactly clean, but isn't ethnically incorrect. It's one of the many, many films that have made their way to the Warner Archive, so you can catch it any time you want.

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