Of the three rare Columbia Pre-codes that TCM showed last week (on this blog's anniversary, by the way), I was most excited to see Three Wise Girls, starring Jean Harlow, Mae Clark and Marie Prevost as three girls who come to the big city from a small town and learn about men. I hoped for snappy patter, lots of pre-code naughtiness and knowing talk about men. I guess I wanted Sex in the City with bias cut gowns. Sadly, the patter was too much sap and not enough snap (except when Prevost was on screen, of course) and the knowing talk about men lacked irony and originality. Since Clark and Harlow were conveniently cast as lingerie models, you can guess that there was still plenty of pre-code naughtiness. I lost count how many times Harlow takes her clothes off in front of the camera.
Prevost's character completely saved the movie from getting bogged down in preachiness and it was nice to see her wind up with the chauffer she has her eye on throughout the movie, played by a young Andy Divine. The nicest surprise in this mostly forgettable picture was Walter Byron who plays Harlow's married boyfriend. Byron was an English actor who made a good career at the end of the silent era and transitioned nicely to sound. His career did a nose dive in the mid-thirties but not before he'd played the playboy boyfriend in quite a few starlet showcases. Byron is funny and instantly likable as he cheers on Harlow's exit from her soda fountain job and lecherous boss. Afterward he gives her a ride home and Harlow laments later to Prevost that he didn't hit on her. "I thought you wanted a gentleman." "Yeah, but he didn't have to be insulting about it," Harlow replies.
Mae Clark doesn't fair as well with her married boyfriend. Clark looks depressed, beaten down and tired through most of the picture. I guess its all part of the stress of being a kept woman to a married man by night, an underwear model by day and a saintly patron of her mother back home in the small town the rest of the time. Clark is a good actress, but sometimes she and Harlow don't click very well together. They can't seem to get into a rhythym and their scenes come off wooden and clunky. Clark's storyline ends up being the most predictable and tedious part of the movie, and, although she pulls off the melodrama admirably, you can't help but wish she was working with something a bit better.
Of course, the entire premise of this film--that a girl could hook an unhappily married rich man, secure his divorce and walk happily off into the sunset-- would have been impossible a few years later. Though Harlow's character is more virtuous than Clark's (she actually breaks off the relationship when she finds out he's married rather than using the money to keep her poor mother in furs), she would still be a home wrecker in the Code era. Three Wise Girls fits into the working single girl as hero mold that so many pre-code pictures did and though it offers no solution to their problems but an honest and happy marriage, at least its willing to admit in a realistic way, that a single girl did have problems.
Author of three books about classic film stars published under the name "Jenny Curtis," Jenny is equally well-known in the world of classic movie geekdom as "Nipper." If you've ever seen Bringing Up Baby or The Awful Truth, you may remember "Jerry the Nipper" on which the nom de blog is an obvious pun. If you haven't seen those movies quit reading this dang blog already and start watching some movies.
Deborah has graciously agreed to assist with copy editing at Cinema OCD. No longer will my readers have to suffer with incorrect use of the word "its." Deborah is a freelance writer and author of Other People's Children.