Year: 1932
Director: Monta Bell
Cast: John Gilbert, Virginia Bruce, Paul Lucas, Bodil Rosing, Reginald Owen, Olga Baclanova, Hedda Hopper

Karl (Gilbert) arrives at his job as the new chauffer for the Baron and Baroness von Burgen (Owen and Balcanova) on the day of the butler, Albert’s (Lucas) wedding to Anna (Bruce), the Baroness’ maid. Everyone is charmed by Karl, but soon he proves to be a cad, trying to steal money from the cook, seducing Anna, and blackmailing the Baroness.

Watching Downstairs, it’s kind of hard to believe Gilbert’s sound career didn’t work out. Sure, he didn’t have voice most expected him to have when they watched him in silent films, but this movie is just a tour de force for him. Not only does he star in it, he also wrote the story, which is a pretty impressive one. And his performance is amazing. It’s kind of interesting to see a character who is so completely irredeemable, yet so charming at the same time. He’s a horrible person, but he’s attractive and sexy, and Gilbert owns the role completely. After watching him play the romantic hero so often in silent film, it’s amazing to see such a transformation.

Gilbert’s definitely the high point of the film. While the rest of the cast isn’t bad, they don’t shine the way he does. Virginia Bruce does give a very good performance, and I think she’s more beautiful here than she ever was. And, like I said, it is a very good performance. Anna becomes quite the complicated character. She starts out as a sweet, innocent wife. Then, when Karl seduces her, she’s almost overwhelmed with guilt. But the confrontation scene between her and her husband shows a different side. While she still feel guilty, she shows a strength and a morality that’s not exactly black and white. She’s sorry, but lays a good deal of the blame on her husband, for loving her in a way completely void of passion.

Paul Lukas is decent, compared to Karl and Anna, the character of Albert is pretty boring, even after his passion rises after discovering the affair. He’s a character that’s hard to like or feel really sorry for. In this case, all the sympathy goes to Anna in this situation.

Downstairs is a very tight and well told drama. All the scenes flow together very nicely. It’s really perfectly paced. Not a shot feels out of place or tacked on. They all tie into the story. And it’s so full of pre-code goodness. The fact alone that the main character is basically a villain is something you wouldn’t see in just a few films. Same with the fact that the wife is committed adultery and is still the heroine of the story in the end. And then there’s Karl’s ending, who seems to pay for his sins in the house of the Baron and Baronss. But after leaving that job, he simply moves on to another one, presumably to pull the same tricks yet again.

By Katie Richardson

The Man in Possession (1931) and Personal Property (1937)

The Story: Raymond Dabney returns to his family after serving a prison term. His adoring mother welcomes him back with open arms, but his uptight father and brother Claude want to pay him to leave town. Raymond refuses the insulting offer and stumbles into a job working for the sheriff as a man in possession, assigned to the home of socialite Crystal Weatherby. Crystal is formerly wealthy, but has fallen on hard times after the death of her husband and cannot pay her bills, so Raymond must stay at her house and make sure she doesn’t try to sell any of her possessions. Crystal, meanwhile, is attempting to marry a rich man who can take care of her problems.

The fundamental difference between these films comes down to the times in which they were made. Six years may not seem like that much of a difference, but in terms of filmmaking it’s an enormous difference. The Man In Possession was made in the middle of the pre-code era, when a story about a morally questionable man staying alone in a big house with a sexy socialite could flourish. In 1937, the production code was being strictly enforced, and so many possibilities for this story are simply not allowed.

The Man In Possession….. Directed by Sam Wood
Starring…..
Robert Montgomery, Charlotte Greenwood, Irene Purcell, C.Aubrey Smith, Reginald Denny, Alan Mowbry

Robert Montgomery is cast as Raymond, and there’s nobody who could have played the role better. He was the best actor of the era. He had a huge range, but he seemed to delight in playing these kinds of roles – sexually charged, morally questionable, but ultimately decent and incredibly romantic men. He rules the role with a special gleam in his eye. He’s sexy, he’s mischievous, and we can tell from the very beginning that no lady would stand a chance resisting him. He’s not at all intimidating, though. He’s charming, and as the film goes on he becomes more and more romantic.

Irene Purcell is his leading lady. Purcell was a stage actress, and she made less than 10 films (and only a few of note). But she’s really a delightful actress. She has a quality that makes her perfect for Crystal in a way no other actress could be. She doesn’t feel like a movie star, which makes her more believable and likeable as social climbing schemer. Actresses like Joan Crawford or Constance Bennett could have played the role, but not as convincingly as Purcell. Crystal is a really unique character. She’s classy in a way, but it’s a feigned class. Like Montgomery, there’s a little gleam in her eye. She’s just coarse enough to be his perfect match.

The Man In Possession uses its pre-code status to perfect advantage. Like I said before, it’s a story that’s tailor-made for the era. These two beautiful, mischievous people spending the night in a house alone together? How can that be anything else but a pre-code set up. Their chemistry alone in scenes where they’re simply verbally sparring almost seems indecent. And then there’s the sex. It’s some of the most blatant I’ve ever seen in classic film. Obviously, it’s not an explicit sex scene, but it’s more than implied with the two of them kissing, falling back on the couch, the light turning off, and Crystal sighing Raymond’s name. And then, if there was any doubt about what happened, the next morning the maid finds Crystal’s nightgown at the end of the bed. Ripped in half.

But beyond the pre-code goodness, it’s just a great romance because of the chemistry between Montgomery and Purcell. They don’t just have sexual chemistry. They fell like two souls who are perfectly matched. It’s more than sex. It’s completely believable that in the span of one night together the two have fallen completely in love. That’s why the film works so well. It’s more than just a fun sex romp. It’s a wonderful love story.


Personal Property
……. Directed by WS Van Dyke
Starring….
Jean Harlow, Robert Taylor, Reginald Owen, Una O’Conner

Robert Taylor doesn’t really fit into the role of Raymond. He’s incredibly handsome, and he has a certain sex appeal to him, but not really the kind that the character needs. Try as he might, Taylor never seems like he can really be a bad boy criminal, at least not in this point in his career. In the 1940s, he created a fantastic gangster in Johnny Eager, but obviously in 1937 his talent hadn’t really evolved past the handsome good guy leading man roles. He never pulls off the mischievousness that is the main characteristic of Raymond. Nor does he really pull of that raw sexuality that initially draws Crystal to him in the first place.

I adore Jean Harlow, but she isn’t right for the role of Crystal either. Harlow was a wonderful actress with a huge range, and it seems like she should be able to play Crystal, perhaps as a lighter version of her Dinner at Eight character. But somehow in this film she doesn’t find the proper balance that the character needs between crass gold digger and romantic heroine. Most of the time she simply comes off as too unlikable and completely without class. It’s such an odd performance, because Harlow was one of the sexiest, most charismatic actresses of her time, but here she is neither charismatic nor sexy.

Of course, the biggest flaw of Personal Property is that it’s not a pre-code film. It’s kind of baffling that anyone would think it was a good idea to make this story into a movie during enforcement, and it’s a little baffling that the Hays Office would even allow the story to be made. What results is one of the most ridiculously tame films that’s just huge film of untapped potential, and the whole thing just feels completely off.

Perhaps some of the film could have been saved had Taylor and Harlow had the chemistry to at least make this a decent love story. You’d think that two such beautiful people would have better chemistry, but there’s absolutely none there. It’s impossible to believe these two are even attracted to each other, much less falling in love with each other. It seems possible that they don’t even like each other. Personal Property doesn’t work as a sex romp, it doesn’t work as a romantic comedy. It doesn’t work at all.

By Katie Richardson