Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Back Pay

A few weeks back, TCM showed the 1930 film Back Pay. IMDb claims that it's not available to purchase on DVD from Amazon, but lo and behold you can get it on MOD from the TCM Shop. Granted, it's pricey at $19.95 for a 56-minute movie, but what are you going to do.

Based on a story by Fannie Hurst, whom you might better remember from having done Imitation of Life, the movie stars silent star Corinne Griffith as Hester, a department store clerk in the backwater town of Demopolis, VA, circa 1916. Gerald (Grant Withers), from another department, loves her, and wants her to marry him, but she can't accept. There's no way they could raise a family on just his salary, this being the era when married women didn't work except by necessity; women had to stay home and raise the kids. So marry the guy, and put off having the kids, saving the money that would have been spent running two separate households. Except that she's not really keeping a separate household, since she lives with her aunt, who runs what is presumably a boarding house, but has vibes of the arrangement Barbara Stanwyck's dad had for her in Baby Face, what with the way one of the male roomers treats her. She meets somebody from New York, and immediately runs out on her aunt to get a train to the city, since she believes that to be the only way out of her dreary life in Demopolis.

In New York she winds up as the kept woman of industrialist Charles Wheeler (Montagu Love, one of those names that shows up well down the credits in a host of 1930s movies but whose face you might not recognize). She lives the high life with him and his circle of friends, while he's constantly trying to get her to marry him. The group goes on glamorous vacations together -- at least, glamorous by the standards of 100 years ago, to various Eastern mountain resorts. One of those vacations takes her not far from Demopolis, so they take a detour to her home town, where she sees Gerald again. You know she still has a bit of a candle for him.

I said at the beginning of the post that the opening scenes are circa 1916, which of course means that the US entry into World War I isn't far behind. It's the small-town boys who go marching off to war, from places like Demopolis, but they go through New York first, and when Hester sees them, she wonders once again whether she's doing the right thing by staying with her rich lover. Gerald is one of those boys, and wouldn't you know it, he gets mustard gassed, leaving him blind and the rest of his health in a parlous state. The rest of the film descends into some rather extreme melodrama.

This is one of Corinne Griffith's last movies, with the claim being made that the talking pictures didn't like her voice. Sure, she has an accent, but I didn't find it terribly bad. Griffith isn't the problem here; it's the story. On the one hand, it's much too brief. There should have been more time spend on what exactly was going on in that boarding house, for example. And the melodrama once the movie hits WOrld War I, boy is it obvious, hitting you over the head and becoming almost laughably pathetic. Possessed, which came out only a year later, covers the material better and much more intelligently, even though it's only 20 minutes longer. In addition to the story, there's also a problem with the time period, as all the cars (and supposedly the fashion and hair styles) are contemporary to 1930 and not World War I era.

It's a shame Back Pay doesn't show up on TCM a bit more often, because it would be better to see it first before you decide whether you want to drop a twenty on the MOD DVD.

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