Girls About Town (1931): George Cukor’s Pre-Code Comedy, Starring Kay Francis and Joel McCrea

Girls_About_Town_posterThe fall of 1931 marked the premiere of Girls About Town, which would be Cukor’s last picture at Paramount for almost a decade.

An inconsequential romp, in the “gold diggers” comedy tradition, the story concerns two smart girls acting as “professional” entertainers for out-of town millionaires. One of the girl falls in love and goes straight, while the other sends her friend back to his wife and returns to her profession.

Tarts in the big city were not new types to explore for writer Zoe Akins, but fearing censorship, Akins bathed the film’s heroines in a charming innocence.  The women had lovely wardrobes, money to spare, and a succession of rich men, but at the end of the evening they just smiled and said good night–as if this was the extent of their activities. “What if the audience wonders where do these girls et all those fancy clothes” Cukor sarcastically teased Akins.

Girls_About_Town_3The film was directed by Cukor with a light touch, sharply pacing its comedy sequences. In one of the finnier scenes, the girls attempt to raise money by auctioning off their ill-gotten clothes and jewels.  A rowdy scene results, which in tone and catty sophistication looks ahead to later and better Cukor comedies, such as The Women in 1939.

Despite the material’s underlying dishonesty, Cukor finessed a highly polished acting from his cast, which ultimately saved the picture.

Lillian Tashman’s excellent performance, reminiscent of the kind of roles that Jean Harlow played, was particularly surprising.  Tashman had usually played heavies, never before given the opportunity to tap into her real persona.  Cukor recognized Tashman’s lively and outrageous Peronality; his eye for casting was already well hewed by years in the theater. Through his direction, Cukor was able to relax Tashman, allowing her to be as amusing onscreen as she was in life. Cukor was good at facilitating this kind of transformation, bringing out Tashman’s lighter side, something he was unable to do with Bankhead in Tarnished Lady.

The rest of the cast was more than adequate.  Kay Francis’s natural elegance (she wore clothes well) contrasted well with Tashman’s vigor.

The young and attractive Joel McCrea, on the verge of becoming a star, played the lover who won’t fall for careless girls unless they reform.

Character actor Eugene Palette, in the role of the old Michigan millionaire, was also amusing.

Girls_About_Town_2Aside from good acting, Girls About Town marked the emergence of what would become Cukor’s distinct cinematic style: Elaborately staged scenes that seemed fresh and unobtrusive. In a scene where Francis and McCrea go to the zoo, Cukor’s camera tracks their stroll past the cages with a long dolly shot, interrupting their dialogue from time to time with a casual look at the animals. This smooth, fluid camera work conveyed a natural quality to Cukor’s technique, one that didn’t call attention to itself and yet reflected the director’s sensibility and feeling about the material.

Girls_About_Town_1Though The Royal Family of Broadway enjoyed prestige and commercial success when released, Girls About Town and Tarnished Lady, which at the time were considered routine, hold up much better.  Based on original screenplays, they were unencumbered by the contrived conventions of the stage.

Cast

Kay Francis as Wanda Howard

Joel McCrea as Jim Baker

Lilyan Tashman as Marie Bailey

Eugene Pallette as Benjamin Thomas

Alan Dinehart as Jerry Chase

Lucille Gleason Mrs. Benjamin Thomas

Anderson Lawler as Alex Howard

Lucille Browne as Edna

Louise Beavers as Hattie