Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Movie Justice: Skyscraper Souls

All the better to see you with my dear. Warren William plays the big bad wolf to Margaret O'Sullivan's Little Red Riding Hood.

Earlier this week our new President declared that the heads of companies who were going to take government bailout money were going to have a salary cap of $500,000 a year. He said that the level of executive compensation was "shameful." Since these titans of industry had no shame for the wreck they made of our economy, the new head of government was going to teach them a bit of humility. During the Great Depression, the legend has it that shame for their failure drove some Wall Street executives to plunge to their deaths by leaping out of tall buildings. How true that image is, may be open to some debate but it's never left the public imagination because the bloody symbolism of it just feels right somehow. Greed and risky behavior pushed over the first domino and some of those who were responsible at least felt shame.

I've been watching that Great Depression through the warped carnival mirror that was the Hollywood movie during the pre-code era a lot for this blog. That story of shame of those who broke the machine is not the story that is most often told. The most popular story of shame in this era was the Prostitute movie. Its not just the titilation (though there was plenty of that) that attracted producers and audiences alike to the "oldest profession." There was something about the condition of the prostitute, a person forced by economic circumstances to compromise their very souls and sell their bodies that spoke to people in the early thirties. Skyscraper Souls (1932) is perfect example of what I'm talking about. There are many different kinds of prostitution in the film, with the wonderful irony, that the one card carrying whore (Anita Page) goes straight in the end.

Skyscraper Souls
is often compared to Grand Hotel because all of the action takes place with in the titular building and the various stories of the inhabitants intertwine and connect in powerful ways. Yet, this film is so specific to the time in which it was filmed that it seems to be warning us from beyond its nearly forgotten pre-code grave. The movie was based on the 1931 novel Skyscraper which came out around the time of the completion of the Empire State Building, which was financed by money raised during the final hours before the Stock Market crash of 1929. This was a time so early in the depression, it was as if the Titanic had just hit the iceberg and the band were still playing. People had no real idea yet what they were in for, which is what makes it such an interesting movie for our own time.

Skyscraper Souls is that Empire State story shrunk down to a more manageable size, even to the point that the building in question is a mere 72 stories high. The chief energy behind the building is David Dwight, (Warren William) a young ruthless financier who wants the building as a lasting legacy to his own ego. He plays at love as thoughtlessly as he plays at business and he keeps a wife (Hedda Hopper), a secretary/mistress (Veree Teasdale) and is currently working on his secretary's protegee (Margaret O'Sullivan). The latter is in love with a poor bank clerk (Norman Foster) who also works in the skyscraper, but she is seduced by her Dwight's wealth and power. Warren William is wonderful as the slippery, charming and completely conscienceless man. Finding himself in trouble with creditors who want to take his building, he fights dirty and causes an artificial stock run which temporarily enriches most of the characters in the film. Dwight bides his time, causes the stock to crash and winds up owning the building outright, as well as impoverishing his romantic competition in one fell swoop. Faced with bankruptcy, disgrace and most importantly shame, one of his business partners commits suicide. Dwight is not impressed. He knows that in times when everyone is falling down, the one can remain standing will wind up with everything left worth having. That is an important lesson from the first Great Depression. Not everyone was wiped out. Many rich men became even richer when their competition went under. A few profited by the suffering of many.

This being a movie, even a pre-code movie, justice must prevail. Dwight's secretary, getting wind of his plans to retire her to a nice house in Schenectady (Dwight is at least a generous John with his ladies) and his preference for her young friend, takes a revolver and kills the man she loves before flinging herself off the building. Movie justice is served.

Since the President's announcement earlier this week, many have pointed out that the money wasted on executive compensation and $2,000 wastebaskets was merely a drop in the bucket and that the salary cap is pure political theater. It's movie justice. Those who were on the receiving end of it should be glad it wasn't worse.


Cliff Aliperti said...

Excellent movie that needs a DVD release (and we know exactly what DVD series should have featured it by now!).

I'm due for another viewing of this, as it's really one of my co-favorites along with the similar Employee's Entrance, where the somewhat dastardly Warren William character fares better in the end.

Unfortunately, both of those movies are crossing over in my mind as I write this, so I guess my comment is to say thumbs up on the Skyscraper Souls write-up and I'm crossing my fingers that Employee's Entrance follows sometime soon :)


Jennythenipper said...

I'll keep an eye out for Employee's Entrance. Wouldn't it be awesome if there was a plush Warren William box set put out? I can dream, can't I?

Cliff Aliperti said...

I think the best we can hope is that he gets similar treatment to Norma Shearer in one of the Forbidden sets (Volume 2?).

But okay, Warren William is my favorite, and I've seen most of his movies, so I feel qualified to pick 6 favorites for your proposed box set :)

Give me this one (Skyscraper Souls) and the aforementioned Employees' Entrance, then we'll add The Mouthpiece, Bedside, The Mind Reader, and The Match King. I think those six would give everyone the perfect feel for why this guy has a small cult following.

Now, can we get someone to print that for us?


kda0121 said...

Warren William was so wonderful as a slippery, slimeball, but he was also pretty darn good in his good-guy roles. Check him out in the comedies Goodbye Again or Smarty, both with Joan Blondell. I also loved him in the Lone Wolf series. He was perfect as the reformed jewel thief. And lest we forget, he was film's first Perry Mason. His shenanigans were a far cry from Raymond Burr's stoic portrayal.

Merrill said...

Hi Everyone,
I have a whole section on this film in my new book, "Skyscraper Cinema: Architecture and Gender in American Film" (University of Minnesota Press, 2009). I went through all the scripts and read the novel too!Warren William also starred as the wolf in "Under Eighteen."
Merrill Schleier
We need a DVD!

Jennythenipper said...

Sounds like a cool book, Merrill. I'll check it out!

I'm interested to read what you have to say about the The Fountainhead.

Merrill said...

Couldn't read your response. It is not in regular script.

Merrill said...

Couldn't read your last response from July. Did you read my material on The Fountainhead? what did you think?

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