US / 76 minutes / bw / MGM Dir: Harry Beaumont Scr: Bayard Veiller Cine: Norbert Brodine Cast: Helen Twelvetrees, Robert Young, Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt, John Miljan, Monroe Owsley, Robert Warwick, Gertrude Michael, Wilfrid North, Tommy Jackson, Louise Beaver (i.e., Louise Beavers).
Naughty nightclub life.
This was the first of two movies released in 1932 to be based on a celebrated Philadelphia murder case, in which Eddie Allen killed Francis “Skinny” Donaldson, the lover of Eddie’s younger (in fact, underage) sister Rose. The other was Two Against the World (1932) dir Archie Mayo, with Constance Bennett, Neil Hamilton, Helen Vinson, Allen Vincent and Gavin Gordon, which I haven’t seen but obviously should. Although the Eddie Allen/Skinny Donaldson case was widely described as an honor killing, justified under the so-called “unwritten law,” there seems from my limited reading about it to have been a good deal more involved—it was a sort of premeditated self-defense killing. In Unashamed it’s reworked as something akin to a crime passionnel.
Joan (Helen Twelvetrees) dreams of romance as she dances with Harry.
Rich man’s daughter Joan Ogden (Twelvetrees) has contracted an unsuitable relationship with wide boy Harry Swift (Owsley), whose main talents are gambling, playing polo and spending money he doesn’t have. Although Joan is 22 and theoretically her own woman, she won’t receive her family inheritance until she’s 25—unless she marries beforehand, but then only with the consent of her father Richard (Warwick).
Harry (Monroe Owsley) and Joan (Helen Twelvetrees) do the apassionata snog on the terrace.
Joan also has a very odd relationship with her younger brother Dick (Young); they’re constantly expressing their sibling love for each other not just verbally—he vows to shield her from life’s bad guys—but physically. When we first see them dancing together in a nightclub, and kissing, it comes as quite a jolt to discover they’re sister and brother, not lovers. This pattern continues through the movie. It’s hard to tell if the portrayal was deliberate—suggesting tacitly that the bond is “unhealthy”—or if director Beaumont and the two actors simply Got Things All Wrong. But the screen chemistry’s definitely there, and it’s quite disturbing.
Joan (Helen Twelvetrees) tries to tease Dick (Robert Young) out of his hangover.
As for Harry Swift, we know he’s a cad from the start. Back at that nightclub, after he and Joan have spent a while kissing passionately and declaring their love on the terrace, she departs with Dick, who’s a bit the worse for wear, to make sure he gets home okay. A friend (uncredited) of Harry’s approaches him:
Friend: “I say, Swift?”
Friend: “Well, what are you doing out here? Enjoying the moonlight?”
Harry: “Nope. Just talking to three million dollars. And not bad looking, either.”
Matters come to something of a head the day Ogden Sr. is approached by a grocer called Heinrich Schmidt (Hersholt). Harry Swift’s real name, it emerges, is August Schmidt. The humble grocer has come to beg Ogden to keep his daughter away from Heinrich’s son August. Even though Heinrich knows August is rotten through and through, August is, ever since the boy’s mother died, all that Heinrich has:
“Mr. Ogden, you have a lot of money. If that boy of mine gets money he’ll never come back to me. That’s what I’ve come about.”
Heinrich (Jean Hersholt) begs Ogden to make Joan steer clear of Harry.
When Joan arrives just as Heinrich is leaving, and is incredulous that her beloved could have failed to tell her his real name, Heinrich explains:
“It isn’t his name. He just takes it like he takes everything else.”
If I had to point at a standout performance in this movie, it would be Hersholt’s as the anguished father. (Warwick, by contrast, is pretty stuffy as the other widowed father.) When Heinrich first enters Ogden’s office, crossing the carpet with a timorous determination, we hear his ill fitting boots squeak with every stride; he is clearly out-of-place among the affluent Ogdens. And yet almost at once we recognize that, despite his lowly social status, he’s the natural gentleman of the two. His counterpart may have the polish of privilege; Heinrich has the integrity of spirit.
Yet he’s still vulnerable to the machinations of his son. When Harry calls round to scrounge $2,000 from him—ostensibly for a business investment, in reality to flash at the Ogdens as “proof” that he’s earning money—Heinrich at first refuses him. “Yeah, go on, hit me. It wouldn’t be the first time.” But the older man’s powerless when Harry resorts to emotional blackmail, invoking the spirit of the deceased Frau Schmidt.
August/Harry (Monroe Owsley) tries to use memories of his beautiful mom as emotional blackmail to get money out of dad.
Finally Dad (Jean Hersholt) agrees to let Harry/August (Monroe Owsley) have the $2000.
Flashing the $2,000 at Papa Ogden doesn’t work, so Harry dreams up a new plot. He and Joan will spend the night together at a hotel as man and wife and then confess the impropriety to Ogden. Ogden will thus be forced either to insist on a shotgun wedding or—although Joan’s not privy to this backup plan—to pay through the nose for Harry to keep his mouth shut and go away. After all, what other man would have her should it become public knowledge that she’s no longer . . . pristine?
Ogden Sr. (Robert Warwick) spells it out to his daughter (Helen Twelvetrees): “Joan, you can’t have that man.” Of course, she can . . .
So off they go to the hotel and the dirty deed is done. Joan seems remarkably matter-of-fact about it all the next morning as they set off to confront her father—who’s resolute in the refusal of his consent (“My dear, you made one terrible mistake. I won’t let you make any more.”) but seemingly more amenable to the notion of being blackmailed.
Cad Harry Swift (Monroe Owsley) persuades Joan Ogden (Helen Twelvetrees) to spend a night at hotel with him.
The glaring evidence.
Brother Dick, who’s been out all night searching far and wide for the missing Joan, arrives in time to hear Harry trying to extort one or other concession from Ogden. Racked with fury and anguish, he fetches out a gun and shoots dead the knave who’s ruined—ruined, I tell you—his sis.
Dick (Robert Young), face twisted in loathing, fires the fatal shot.
The rest of the movie is largely a courtroom drama—or, at least, uses the courtroom drama as the backdrop against which to play out its real tale. Dick is determined that, whatever happens, even if it means the chair for him, he will keep silent about the real reason why he killed Harry. He even pretends to his faithful fiancée Marjorie (Michael) that the crime had nothing to do with Joan or anything Joan might have done.
His lawyer, Henry Trask (Stone), an old family friend, explains that, without the defense of the “unwritten law,” he’s doomed. Trask has to make the same point to Joan. While Ogden père and Marjorie may be prepared to stand by Dick, Joan is adamant that her brother deserves everything he gets for having deprived her of her darling Harry. She refuses pleading from Marjorie to help Dick in his plight. The most she’ll agree to do, in response to Trask’s persuasions, is sit by Dick in the courtroom and “look like you don’t hate him.” Even Trask’s graphic description to her of the barbarous process of electrocution can coax no further cooperation from her.
Trask (Lewis Stone) agrees to take the case.
Heinrich’s another who’s in no mood to see Dick receive mercy under the cover of the “unwritten law”:
“[My son is] gone. And all for what? He didn’t hit the girl over the head. She went with him because she wanted to. And for that they kill my boy. Well, I’m going to be there when they put that murderer into the chair. I’m going to look right straight into his white face when they kill him. That’s my dream now.”
The movie presents us with the notion, while at the same time largely glossing it over, that there’s an enormous double standard at work here. We’re concerned about the travails of the wealthy Ogdens, stars of the social scene as they are (or have been); and Trask and the others are working to make sure Dick gets off scot free for his crime passionnel. Had it been the other way round, however, had it been Harry/August—one of the “little people”—who’d killed Dick, then there’d have been small chance of the mitigating plea being heard. We may understand Dick’s action and we may disapprove of Heinrich’s eye-for-an-eye vengefulness (while at the same time understanding that, too), but for Dick to be acquitted requires that Heinrich must be a guiltless victim of Dick’s crime. And to society, because Heinrich is “unimportant,” this doesn’t matter.
The DA (John Miljan) is in no mood for compromise.
District Attorney Harris (Miljan) is likewise intransigent; like Heinrich, he wants the death penalty—even though, at age 19, Dick’s still a minor. Harris tells the jury:
“I feel at this time I should tell you, gentlemen, there’s no such thing as the ‘unwritten law.’ Remember that, gentlemen, all through this trial: There’s no such thing as the ‘unwritten law.’ Our laws are made for us by people of our own selection, our legislators, and they’re made effective by the signature of the governor of the state. Nowhere do we find legislators saying, ‘This is the law, but we won’t bother writing it down or asking the governor to validate it or make it effective.’ That, gentlemen, does not happen. If we want a law to be a law, we make it so.”
His contempt for Joan is patent:
“Well, gentlemen, look at his sister. She’s not a trembling little schoolgirl . . .”
The DA insists that Joan (Helen Twelvetrees) is “not a trembling little schoolgirl.” And, you know, he’s right.
In other words, because she looks composed in the courtroom she quite obviously possesses the capacity for tramphood—no shrinking innocent seduced by a skilled lothario, she—so any claim Trask might make that Dick was acting to defend his sister’s honor is spurious. The notion that, as an adult human being, Joan might have the right to decide what she does with her own body is clearly outside the comprehension of anyone present. It’s a piece of (a)sexual politics that to a certain extent cuts against the normal pre-Code grain.
To us, watching, the comment seems almost to be a comment as much about Twelvetrees’s performance as about Joan’s character (or, according to the DA, potential lack thereof). In the several other movies of hers that I’ve seen, Twelvetrees has presented her characters as cute, cuddly ingenues, and that’s the way she appears in the earlier parts of this movie—in fact, assuming we regard her exchanges with Dick as innocent, then her physical flamboyance with him can be read as part of her ingenuousness. Later, though, she becomes far harder-edged—far more femme fatale—than I’ve seen her elsewhere. Perhaps she was making the most of a chance to escape a stereotype. Towards the end of the movie, as she gives her final testimony in court, she actually becomes too hard-edged, adopting speech and gesture modes that are completely out of character for the Joan we’ve come to know, as if the society daughter had overnight been transformed into a cynical Brooklyn taxi dancer.
As the trial proceeds there’s the opportunity for Louise Beavers to give a forceful cameo as the Ogdens’ maid, Amanda Jones, in court as a character witness in Dick’s favor. As always with her performances in such minor supporting roles, we’re left wishing Beavers had been given more screen time. Of course, this being 1932 Hollywood, she has to do the simpleton act; but by the end of her brief appearance she’s transcended that sham, her delivery of one of the borderline racist lines showing a skill that most of the rest of the cast could only covet—and making us suspect that Amanda is affecting a simpleness purely in order to thwart the DA’s interrogation.
Louise Beavers puts in a disarming turn as a character witness.
In the dock, Dick tells a tall story about how the shooting of Harry was just a dreadful accident—the gun went off unexpectedly, oh woes—and Trask lets him do so. Once again, it’s clear we’re not dealing with the little people; Dick’s act of outright perjury will go unpunished.
Joan, another perjurer who’ll go unreprimanded, tells the court that Dick murdered Harry in cold blood for no reason at all. It’s only when she reads the newspaper accounts of her testimony that she realizes what she’s done—how callous and self-serving her actions are.
Trask (Lewis Stone) explains to a stubborn Joan (Helen Twelvetrees) that essentially she’s murdering her brother.
The stage is set for a hard-hitting confrontation with Trask, where she tells him she’ll do anything to save her loving brother. At first Trask isn’t sympathetic—
“You put your brother where he is because of your own rotten love adventures.”
—but then he comes round, explaining to Joan what the implications will be to her if at long last she does the decent thing:
“. . . your life will be wrecked. You’ll be jeered at, sneered at. People will call you foul names when they see you in the street.”
At last the movie’s title, Unashamed, which for so long has seemed a complete misnomer (Joan and her family have been ashamed of her solitary sexual exploit, Harry Swift has been ashamed of his name and parentage), begins to make sense—sort of.
Dick (Robert Young) rebels against the circumstances, his betrothed Marjorie (Gertrude Michael) and his dad (Robert Warwick) pulling him back.
Not all of this movie is as good as it could be—some of the acting’s a bit dreary, while there’s definite confusion about the order of examination/cross-examination during the courtroom scenes—but the screenplay’s essentially fine (I’ve quoted it more than I intended!), the cinematography’s better than serviceable, and there are some tremendous set-pieces. The one I liked the most for its audacity comes right at the end. In most courtroom dramas the climactic moment is when the foreman of the jury proclaims the verdict. Here we learn it as the courtroom doors are opened and the crowd comes tumbling out; we pick up what the result has been from fragments of overheard conversation. It’s oddly far more dramatic than the traditional declaration from the foreman.
I have to admit I’m something of a Twelvetrees fan . . .
. . . not to mention a Beavers fan (and now something of a Hersholt fan, too!), so I’d be a sucker for this movie even if it were poor. The truth is, though, that it’s very far from poor. Despite its dated attitudes toward female sexuality, female intellect, the integrity of the law and much more, it has aged surprisingly well. It’s rather hard to find—it comes on TCM every now and then—but the effort to do so is well rewarded.
This is an offering for the Hot & Bothered Blogathon: