Love isn’t all flowers and roses. Sometimes it’s going on a honeymoon solo or being in a love triangle with your father (which happens twice in this collection, so maybe it’s more common than people think).
RKO Classic Romances is a two-disc Blu-Ray set of Pre-Code romances from RKO Radio Pictures. Sin Takes a Holiday came out in 1930, but the rest premiered in 1931, and while the image quality reflects that, it’s certainly not to the point of being detrimental (and all of the films are subtitled, so that’s sound covered, too).
Watching this collection, these aren’t mushy, feel-good romances. A lot of them are about unhealthy relationships, but if these aren’t the films for getting into the Valentine’s Day spirit, they do have a certain “down with love” flair.
Starting with Galentine’s Day pleaser, Millie, Hollywood hasn’t always been too willing to acknowledge the predatory nature of older men dating underage girls. If anything, in order to cast older actors as love interests, Hollywood has helped normalize it. This isn’t to say there aren’t healthy couples who have a significant age difference, but it’s usually older men, not women, in the movies.
John Francis Dillon’s Millie is a film that subverts expectations at every turn, and it starts with Millie (Helen Twelvetrees) getting married. Jack (James Hall) never exactly proposes to Millie. He tells her they’re going to getting married and that’s what happens, but it’s not purely that the film shows their marriage falling apart. It’s that Millie doesn’t even have a honeymoon period. Maybe she smiled during their vows. Dillon doesn’t show the wedding, but by her wedding night Millie is terrified and part of that has to do with the expectation of sex.
The first time we see Millie after her wedding is when she and Jack are being shown to their hotel room and the fear is palpable. From the bellman locking the door, to Millie’s posture when she sits, she might say the words her husband wants to hear but Twelvetrees’ performance ensures there’s never any doubt about how she really feels.
Basically, Millie says more with subtext in the 30’s than most films do today with words. It’s also just plain smart. Sure, movie time means a year can pass in a moment, but Millie never ignores the fact that change takes time. Millie eventually gets divorced, but it takes time, and sure it’s just an intertitle that says “blank” years later, but for someone who might feel like they’re stuck in a bad marriage that intertitle is a sign to never give up or lose hope.
Millie also feels extremely progressive, when it comes to showing Millie as a mother who decides to let her daughter live with her ex. While many films would use that decision to paint Millie out to be a bad mom, Millie recognizes that Millie can be both – independent and a great mother. She even has a supportive mother-in-law (Charlotte Walker), which is practically unheard of.
It’s one thing to write layered, female characters but another to utilize them and screenwriters, Charles Kenyon and Ralph Morgan, make sure Joan Blondell and Lilyan Tashman aren’t wasted, either, as Millie’s girlfriends, Angie and Helen. The same can’t be said for ZaSu Pitts and the actress who plays Bobby in Horace Jackson’s screenplay for Sin Takes a Holiday. Directed by Paul L. Stein, Sin Takes a Holiday is about a secretary named Sheila (Constance Bennett) who gets talked into marrying her boss, Gaylord (Kenneth MacKenna), because he’s afraid he’ll have to marry someone else and a marriage in name only will preserve his bachelor ways. Pitts plays one of Sheila’s roommates (the other actress is uncredited) and for a moment her arrival seems to signal that Sheila won’t have to honeymoon by herself, but Sin Takes a Holiday is ultimately more invested in self-congratulatory men than it is in women. While Pitts appears in a few more scenes, that’s it. Instead, Bennett shares most of her scenes with Basil Rathbone (despite not having much chemistry with him) and not enough with MacKenna.
Luckily Betty Compson fares better in George Archainbaud’s The Lady Refuses, which gives her a role almost as plump as Twelvetrees’ in Millie. It all starts with the kindness of strangers. Desperate to avoid getting arrested for prostitution, June (Compson) decides to knock on the nearest door, only to have it be answered by a man who’s quick on the uptake and willing to pass her off as his niece.
Sir Gerald (Gilbert Emery) is rich, and June isn’t but they’re able to have a frank conversation, in which Gerald shares his concerns about his son, Russell (John Darrow), who’s dating a gold digger (Margaret Livingston) and drinking too much. June thinks she can extricate him from the situation, so Gerald agrees to pay her, and it’s an ill-conceived plan from the start, but while a lot of films revolve around lies and the truth coming out, June is never afraid to face the music. To that point, you know a movie is good when it doesn’t need music to fill the silences and while screenwriter, Wallace Smith, could’ve made the last scene stronger by not offering a glimmer of hope at the end it’s still far from happily ever after.
Unfortunately, with Victor Schertzinger’s The Woman Between, the lack of music does stick out. Stepmothers have been getting a bad rep since Snow White and Howard Estabrook’s screenplay plays right into the stereotypes. Instead of being able to prove her stepchildren wrong, The Woman Between shows Julie (Lili Damita) being unfaithful to her husband (O.P. Heggie) and with the worst person possible (though, due to a contrived twist, Julie doesn’t realize that). There is a better film buried inside this movie – one where Julie’s career is embraced instead of pooh-poohed – but the acting is stiff, and only the ending manages to pull off a surprisingly romantic gesture.
When a man tries to curb a woman’s ambitions it’s perfectly acceptable, but when a woman tries it, you get Lloyd Bacon’s Kept Husbands. Dorothea (Dorothy Mackaill) is a woman who knows what she wants and what she wants is to marry Dick (Joel McCrea). She’s not, however, willing to give up her lavish lifestyle, which is why she plans to have her father (Robert McWade) bankroll everything. Does that make Dorothea unreasonable? Sometimes, sure, but what Kept Husbands never acknowledges is that Dorothea isn’t responsible for her husband not speaking up for himself. He doesn’t have to do everything she says yet the film blames her, and while Forrest Halsey and Alfred Jackson’s screenplay definitely sides with Dick, it’s still interesting to see Mackaill in the traditionally male role.
RKO Classic Romances is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Classics and Lobster Films.