Friday, March 9, 2012

No, I don't mean Martha Ivers

Thanks to the Warner Archive, there are movies available on DVD that I can blog about a few days after seeing them for the first time that I otherwise wouldn't like to mention: I only feel comfortable recommending movies if they're either available on DVD or are coming up on TV soon. Tuesday was my first viewing of The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, a really fun little pre-Code.

Molly Louvain is played by Ann Dvorak; she's a young woman working a cigar counter in a small-city hotel who would really like to get more out of life. Fortunately she's got a way out, in the form of a wealthy young man from the right side of the tracks, who is going to tell his mother that they're getting engaged at a party that night. Or maybe not. Molly goes to the "party", only to find out that the son suddenly left, presumably never to be seen again. So, Molly is left with two boyfriends pursuing her: first is Jimmy, a bellboy at the hotel (Richard Cromwell). He's portrayed as obviously the good guy; the one Mother would want you to be with, but who is almost hopelessly in love with Molly since it seems as though he's never going to rise above being a bellboy. The other choice is Nick (Leslie Fenton), a traveling salesman currently selling silk stockings who has a lecherous eye on Molly. He may be a lecher, but at least he goes places, so Molly winds up splitting town with him.

Fast forward three years. Molly's got a kid, which if not explicitly stated is clearly the illegitimate result of the relationship with the rich guy who only appears in the first reel of the film. Molly's also discovered that while Nick goes places, he does so by stealing, and that's not the sort of life she wants for her son. So she leaves the kid with what is effectively a foster mother and runs away from Nick to take a job at a Chicago dance hall playing the same sort of dime-a-dance girl Lucille Ball played in Lured. And who does she meet there? Why, Jimmy, the old bellboy she knew. He's now a college student. Unfortunately, she also meets Nick, who has discovered where she's working. Nick tries to take Molly for a ride, and Jimmy joins her to try to protect her. And then they discover Nick stole the car, and get in a shootout with the police.

So Molly and Jimmy rent a cheap apartment for a week to lie low in, until they can escape. The only problem is who they have for a neighbor. It's journalist Scotty (Lee Tracy), who's a piece of work. Scotty is the sort of fixer who would make some of Jack Carson's characters look like pikers. Scotty knows it all (or thinks he does), and knows he's going to find Molly Louvain, all the while never having a clue that Molly is living right across the hall from him! Scotty does have a good idea, however, that Molly and Jimmy's story about being married is a lie, and Scotty offers to take Molly away with him, since he's either going to write the Great American Novel or go to Hollywood, and he knows she wants to go places.

The Strange Love of Molly Louvain tells a story of a love that isn't all that strange, although the movie itself is a bit odd in that it goes from one part of the plot to the next extremely abruptly, and then ends just as abruptly. Ann Dvorak is the sort of actress who was hard boiled enough to play a character like Molly Louvain in one of these pre-Codes. Molly has the sort of hardness that Aline MacMahon's character in Heat Lightning (where, incidentally, Dvorak played MacMahon's kid sister) has. Fenton is sleazy, and Cromwell is more an ornament in service of Dvorak. The revelation, however, is Tracy. His character as the agent to John Barrymore in Dinner at Eight is tough, if only because he's learned he's got a man who's killing himself and is never going to get any better as a client. Tracy would go on to play some other great roles of hard people, especially in The Best Man. But the character in The Strange Love of Molly Louvain tops them all. It's got the hardness we see in The Best Man, but the life that we see in Dinner at Eight. Dvorak is top-billed and the title character, but this is really Tracy's movie.

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