Toronto Film Society presented The Strange Love of Molly Louvain on Sunday, May 12, 2013 as part of Season 66 May Festival: The Pre-Code Weekend.
Lee Tracy, Mick LaSalle writes, usually played reporters and publicists, media men, fellows who could sell snow to Eskimos and make them like it. He played men who made nothing, who built nothing, whose talents would have gone unrecognised in any other country, men who sold information, precursors of workers in today’s information economy—and do it all very fast and loud!
He plays a reporter in his first important film role, today’s film, opposite Ann Dvorak as the title character. They live in the same boarding-house, and he keeps coming into her room to use the phone, lifting up the base and flipping the earpiece into the air with one hand. He has no idea that this “tinsel girl,” whom he starts romancing but doesn’t take seriously, is the fugitive from justice whose story he has been covering. He’s a wise guy and know-it-all who thinks he understands women, but he does have redeeming qualities. As the Daily Mirror wrote at the time, “The character’s fundamental decency is skilfully established by the engaging Mr. Tracy.” That was the story with Tracy’s characters. Beneath the smoke screen, there was a decent guy in there, someone who has a conscience and was nice to his mother.
Tracy was born in Georgia in 1898. After service in World War I, he went to New York and tried to bluff his way into a stage career, claiming to have all sorts of experience he didn’t have. The ploy sounds like something out of a Lee Tracy movie, except it didn’t work. Even so, after just a few months of stage training, he did start to get roles, and in 1926, he became a star in a play called Broadway. James Cagney was his understudy.
It’s always nice to show a film starring Ann Dvorak. The only child of two vaudevillians, Warner Bros seemed to be grooming the talented actress for stardom when they purchased her contact from Howard Hughes and cast her in the title role in The Strange Love of Molly Louvain. It was on the set of this film that she met and fell in love with co-star Leslie Fenton. The two soon eloped and sailed to Europe for a year-long honeymoon in July of 1932. Ann is best remembered for her roles in pre-Code film.
Caren Feldman, May 12, 2013
Savant feels like joining a fan club for actress Ann Dvorak. A few years ago I’d seen the talented beauty only in the Hawks/Hughes Scarface, but her haunted eyes and slim figure dominate Pre-Code attractions like College Coach and Three on a Match. Dvorak’s “bad” girls are irresistible: compromised but soulful.
Four men pursue Dvorak in The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, an exemplary Warners drama that’s honest about the lives of young women adrift in the city and hungry for work, love, and respectability. A dance hall girl remarks that three of her friends have quit and “taken an apartment together”, wink wink. They’re doing all right now, she adds. From a play by Maurine Dallas Watkins, the author of the original play Chicago, Molly Louvain is directed by Michael Curtiz, who doesn’t let a single sordid inference slip by unnoticed.
Poor Iowa girl Madeleine Maude Louvain (Dvorak) thinks she’s going to marry a boy from the country club, but he leaves her alone and pregnant. Molly has little choice but to become the consort of traveling salesman Nicky Grant (Leslie Fenton of The Public Enemy). In Chicago three years later Molly drops her child off in paid care, and walks out on Nicky, who has become a wanted thief and known criminal. Taking a job at a dance hall, she reunites with Jimmy Cook (Richard Cromwell), a bellboy who loved her in Iowa and is now a college student. But Nicky intercepts the couple and bullies them into joining him for a car ride. They don’t know that the car is stolen until the police close in on Nicky and shoot him down. Wanted for the murder of a policeman killed by Nicky, Molly bleaches her hair and hides out. Jimmy wants to marry her, and she almost agrees, even though she knows he’s far too inexperienced. Instead, fast-talking reporter Scotty Cornell (Lee Tracy) bursts into their lives, offering Molly a few weeks of fun and ease, in Paris or Hollywood. He’ll be able to leave as soon as he’s finished his latest assignment for his paper: trapping that notorious woman Molly Louvain.
The more Pre-Code movies one sees, the more evident becomes the Warners’ commitment to stories about Americans deeply impacted by the Depression. The New York Times reviewer had no patience for The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, calling it “wearying and unsavory” and commenting on its “reckless and brainless” heroine. The reviewer can’t see how any rational person could fall in with a thug like Nicky Grant, even though the screenplay is specific about Louvain’s utter lack of options — Nick can help support her baby. The beauty of the movie is that Molly Louvain accepts the raw deals dealt her as the price of being poor and socially unacceptable. Her only asset is her ability to attract men. Molly goes out of her way not to victimize the naïve Jimmy. The cynical Scotty is the right guy for her, but he’ll first need to be convinced that she’s not a “Tinsel Girl” — a cheap plaything for a short term romance.
The Strange Love of Molly Louvain moves rapidly from one arresting image to another. Young Jimmy takes in the sight of Molly changing her stockings, a typical bit of Pre-Code cheesecake. Convinced that she can handle the oily Nicky, Molly doesn’t mind leading him on when he sweet-talks her with promises of free samples of his wares. Showing up at a fancy house for what she thinks will be an engagement party, Molly is turned away at the door — her beau and his mother have canceled the party and left town. Like Hitchcock’s Marnie, Molly dyes her hair to avoid detection. Not knowing what he’s doing, Scotty determines to capture Louvain through the dirty trick of having the radio announce that her baby is deathly ill. The conclusion is strangely uplifting. Molly remains in a heap of trouble, but she finds a love based on respect.
Ms. Dvorak’s ability to embody a convincingly debased but essentially virtuous heroine is no mean feat; the role comes with its share of cynical wisecracks but the character is quite serious. Leslie Fenton sketches his salesman-turned desperate crook in only a couple of brief scenes; although he’s a rat, we realize that he’s just as stuck on Molly as the others. (In real life, Dvorak and Fenton appear to have met on this movie. They married just before its release and stayed together for fourteen years.) Lee Tracy’s Scotty is an almost inhuman dynamo, bursting into rooms, dodging bills and gambling debts, calling on the radio salesman across the street to turn up the music. Tracy doesn’t talk quite as fast here as he does in Blessed Event, where his head seems ready to explode. Less impressive is Richard Cromwell’s idealistic kid, who looks like a lovesick puppy when he catches Molly kissing Scotty. The movie has one crime sequence, a fairly raw peek into a dance hall and plenty of cynical The Front Page– like shenanigans with the press corps and the cops — Frank McHugh, Guy Kibbee, Charles Middleton. Poor Molly is verbally brutalized by a police captain who has no intention of keeping his promises — he’s gotten Molly to surrender herself with a contemptuously underhanded trick.
Director Curtiz has already perfected his personal method of keeping his movies at a brisk boil, with swift montages and a nervous camera that stays put only when characters engage in intimate conversations. The main apartment set incorporates a window view of a street beyond, a nice realistic touch not achieved through rear projection.
www.dvdtalk.com, DVD SAVANT REVIEW, GLENN ERICKSON, December 15, 2010
If it were needed, the little-known and neglected “The Strange Love of Molly Louvain” is another reminder of what a versatile and dynamic director Michael Curtiz was, especially in the early 30’s. The only film really designed as a vehicle for Ann Dvorak, it’s a reminder too of what a fine little actress she could be when given the chance—as she is here, especially in the closing sequences. It’s no disgrace that once again Lee Tracy steals every scene he’s in, and wraps up the whole proceedings so effortlessly. Dvorak is fine—but Tracy is great. As a thorough heel, without even the usual Warner formula saving-graces, he creates such a dynamic screen character that even the last-reel reformation seems thoroughly logical and convincing. Tracy apart, the film is a lightning-paced, Ben Hecht-styled melodrama, full of irreverence, bite and ironic humour, with frequently overlapping dialogue adding to the already frenetic pace. Authentic street exteriors are brilliantly intercut with studio replicas—one of the smoothest examples of such work that we’ve seen—and many of the old standing Warner sets (including the dance hall from “Taxi” & “2 Seconds”) are brought into play. An exciting, impressive and moving piece of filmic drama, it’s a thorough vindication of the “factory” policy that seemed to rule Warners right through the 30’s. It’s a Warner “product” all the way—and how I wish we had such efficient “product” on the market today.
WILLIAM K. EVERSON, April 14, 1964
THE STRANGE LOVE OF MOLLY LOUVAIN, based on Maurine Watkin’s play, “Tinsel Girl”; directed by Michael Curtiz; a First National Picutre.
All that can be said in favor of “The Strange Love of Molly Louvain,” the film now at the Warners’ Strand, is that it has a cast of twenty players and that several of them strive hard to make their scenes diverting. But, with due respect for the zealous efforts of Lee Tracy and Ann Dvorak, this film is both wearying and unsavory.
It is an adaptation of “Tinsel Girl,” a play by Maurine Watkins, and is a case of a reckless and brainless girl named Molly Louvain, who after an affair with a rich young man is left to take care of her baby. Subsequently she becomes the inamorata of Nick Grant, who poses as a salesman, but who spends most of his time as a thug and murderer. Why Molly casts her lot with Grant is the principal mystery of this production.
In Chicago, Grant kills a policeman and is arrested, while Molly and a youth referred to as Jimmy, who is presumed to be in love with her, speed off in the automobile Grant has stolen. Later there is the encounter between Molly and Scotty Cornell, a tabloid reporter who never suspects for an instant that the young woman to whom he has taken a fancy is Molly Louvain, because she has turned her brunette tresses to gold with aid of several bottles of peroxide of hydrogen.
Comes the time when Molly suspects Scotty of tricking her, but he is the man who declares his great love for her in the end. Whether Molly goes to jail or not, she and Scotty decide that they will battle it out together.
Leslie Fenton gives a satisfactory portrait of Grant. Richard Cromwell as Jimmy tries so hard to express the despair occasioned by love that he makes one feel uncomfortable. Besides Miss Dvorak and Mr. Tracy there are several others, including C. Henry Gordon, Guy Kibbee, Evalyn Knapp and Claire McDowell, who do all that is humanly possible with their roles.
The brightest spot on the program is Bobby Jones’s golf lesson, which this time is concerned with that temperamental club, the mashie-niblick.
NEW YORK TIMES, by Mordaunt Hall, May 9, 1932
Notes compiled by Caren Feldman