The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932) by matthew c. hoffman

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In 2014, the Park Ridge Classic Film Series will be honored to have special guest Christina Rice, author of the upcoming biography on actress Ann Dvorak. We are planning to have a book-signing in April at the Pickwick Theatre. The first film I immediately thought of showing for this occasion was 1932’s The Strange Love of Molly Louvain. (This rarely seen pre-Code drama is now available through the Warner Archive.) Dvorak fans are grateful her early films are finally seeing the light of day. Molly Louvain makes a great case that she was the best actress on the Warner lot. (Yes, the same lot Bette Davis called home.)

Dvorak plays a young woman who gets ditched by her rich boyfriend after it’s revealed she’s pregnant. It’s not the first time she has been abandoned; she tells her beau that her mother had left her when she was only seven. With the shadow of the past hanging over her, Molly picks up the pieces of her life and makes a living in the city as a hotel cigarette girl. However, she quickly gets involved with a hustling salesman, Nicky, played by Leslie Fenton (Dvorak’s soon-to-be husband). Molly has other admirers, too, like the lovesick Jimmy (Richard Cromwell), the bellhop at the hotel. It’s respectability that Molly desires. Due to circumstance, however, she has few options left on how to achieve it.

She hits the road with Nicky, who can provide for her child. But his criminal activities take their toll on Molly and she makes the decision to part ways with him. With her daughter already in paid care, she gets a job in a Chicago dance hall. Here, she reunites with Jimmy, who turns up at the hall with his college buddies. The two old friends intend to catch up on old times, but Nicky catches up with them. He takes them for a ride in a stolen car. After a shootout with the police that leaves Nicky wounded and one cop near death, Molly escapes with Jimmy in the car.

Now a wanted woman, Molly dyes her hair platinum blonde to avoid the police dragnet. She keeps a low profile in a boardinghouse with Jimmy, who desperately wants to marry her. Their dream of a fresh start is interrupted by one of the building’s tenants, a fast-talking, cynical reporter by the name of Scotty (Lee Tracy). Scotty thinks he knows women and has Molly marked as a cheap tinsel girl: “Looks swell on a Christmas tree but you can’t stand up in the rain.” But he falls for her like every other man. Scotty is no Clark Gable, but unlike his naive rival, he’s got enough personality to win her over. While stealing her away from Jimmy, he concocts a scheme with the police to capture the notorious Molly Louvain. He doesn’t realize that his tinsel girl and Molly Louvain are one in the same.

Richard Cromwell and Ann Dvorak (with some pre-Code cheesecake)
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The story is based on a play called Tinsel Girl by Maurine Dallas Watkins, who had authored Chicago. Though its stage roots are evident– we can easily imagine it as a play– the film is far from stagebound. The Strange Love of Molly Louvain is another kinetic Warners pre-Code that zips along under Michael Curtiz’s direction. The apartment, where so much of the drama takes place, feels real. A nice touch is the radio store across the street that serves Scotty’s needs. Though Warners’ vision of Chicago is overall somewhat confused, there is nonetheless a gritty, urban realism to the proceedings.

Molly Louvain offers an honest glimpse into the lives of Depression-era women. These pre-Code women are often compromised and led adrift. But in the case of Molly, they exhibit a fundamental virtue; she refuses to allow the bad breaks to define her. She wants to be decent. Her desire to be good is clearly evident in how she treats Jimmy. She could easily have used him for her own advantage, such as the scene where he is still working as a bellhop. Instead of making Jimmy use his own money to buy her new stockings, Molly talks the hustler, Nicky, into giving her a free pair. She is resourceful, and a survivor of the Depression. However, on a deeper level that transcends time and place, her story is as relevant today as it was then. What is it that draws some women to men they know will hurt them? The only man she turns away is the one who cares for her the most. These things still go on. Molly Louvain astutely dramatizes this inscrutable, relationship dynamic.

With the possible exception of Three On a Match, this is Dvorak’s best performance. Her realization that she has become her own mother is one of her finest scenes in the movie. Molly Louvain was Dvorak’s first starring role, and she shines even brighter next to Lee Tracy and Richard Cromwell, primarily because neither were major stars. Her pairing with Tracy, in particular, lacks the magic of, say, a Cagney and Blondell teaming. I don’t know if we can really believe a woman as radiant as Molly would fall for the likes of Scotty, but the film succeeds despite this lack of chemistry. Dvorak’s role should’ve been the beginning of a long career that featured many such performances. But Ann Dvorak challenged the system and became a rebel at Warner Brothers. The problem is that she rebelled before she had fully established herself as a star. In the years that followed, she often played in support in parts far more limiting.

Beyond her acting, Dvorak made another contribution to the film. She also performed a song on the piano that she herself composed called “Gold Digger Lady.” It’s just one other facet on display from a highly talented actress. As author Laura Wagner writes in Killer Tomatoes: Fifteen Tough Film Dames: “It’s Ann’s movie all the way– a heartbreaking, highly effective role, allowing her to run a wide gamut, from youthful exuberance to bitterness, regret, pain and passion, to mother love, sacrifice and redemption.”

Lee Tracy and Ann Dvorak
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Lee Tracy’s performance in Molly Louvain is indicative of what he brought to most of his roles. He was the archetype of the wisecracking reporter of 1930s cinema. Some viewers feel Tracy steals the film with his mouth, and he certainly does enliven the story. His bit of business with the phone is a case in point. Scotty is a character seen in dozens of movies dealing with the press. Molly Louvain is akin to those early newspaper genre movies like The Front Page. (Interesting to note that Tracy had played the dynamo reporter in the original stage production of The Front Page). Tracy portrayed similar characters in films like Blessed Event. His career would take him onward to MGM where he appeared in a handful of memorable films in 1933 including Dinner At Eight.

Richard Cromwell’s performance won’t stand the test of time with contemporary audiences. Those who have seen the film have described him as wooden or simply dull. But the more times I see it, the more I appreciate how he comes across in it. There are guys in this world who are simply “nice kids,” and that’s all they are to women. They don’t have the quick lines that Nicky and Scotty always seem to have ready. They don’t command our attention. So for this reason, Cromwell was perfect because that’s what the role called for; he brought a lovesick angst to Jimmy. He was simply a kid in love with a girl who was no good for him. Others told him this, but he still put her on a pedestal. “Why should you get mixed up in a thing like that?” Molly asked him, showing him the newspaper headlines about the shootout. But she could just as easily have been asking him why he would want to get mixed up with her.

The cast also includes many fine character actors such as Charles Middleton as the police chief and some familiar faces of the Warner stock company like Frank McHugh and Guy Kibbee. It’s a terrific cast– and a terrific film.

Director Michael Curtiz (seated) with Ann Dvorak & Lee Tracy
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