Millie (1931)

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Helen Twelvetrees in a melodrama for the ages!
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US / 85 minutes / bw / RKO Dir: John Francis Dillon Pr: Chas. R. Rogers Scr: Chas. Kenyon, Ralph Murphy (i.e., Ralph Morgan) Story: Millie (1930) by Donald Henderson Clarke Cine: Ernest Haller Cast: Helen Twelvetrees, Lilyan Tashman, Robert Ames, James Hall, John Halliday, Joan Blondell, Anita Louise, Edmund Breese, Frank McHugh, Charlotte Walker, Franklin Parker, Charles Delaney, Harry Stubbs, Louise Beavers, Harvey Clark, Aggie Herring, Geneva Mitchell, Hooper Atchley, Lillian Harmer.

Willows University student Jack Maitland (Hall) captures the heart of poor but lovely redhead Millicent “Millie” Blake (Twelvetrees) and persuades her to elope with him. Three years later they’re installed in a luxury New York apartment with Jack’s mother (Walker) and the couple’s infant daughter Connie (uncredited). In theory Millie should be content that she has all the good things in life, but in reality Jack is neglecting her—being frequently away “on business”—and she’s much of the time forced to relinquish her child to the cares of a governess (Harmer). So she’s delighted when one day, out of the blue, she gets a phone call from her childhood friend Angie Wickerstaff (Blondell).

Angie (Joan Blondell) and Helen (Lilyan Tashman) are cutting corners.

Angie has come to NYC to live with her pal Helen Reilly (Tashman), and suggests the three of them meet up at a local café; what she doesn’t mention on the phone is that she and Helen are hoping to touch Millie for a loan before they get thrown out of their shabby pad for non-payment of rent. The meeting doesn’t quite work out the way they’d hoped, however, because Millie soon spots that one of the other customers in the place is Jack—not stuck in a business meeting after all but smooching with a blonde who’s obviously a long-term fixture.

Millie promptly demands—and gets—a divorce. However, her pride bars her from accepting any alimony from the betrayer. Reasoning that Connie will have a far better start in life being reared in wealth, Millie leaves the child with Mrs. Maitland and gets herself a job on the cigar-stand in the lobby of the Amster Hotel.

There she’s chatted up by various of her clients, such as wastrel journalist Tommy Rock (Ames), rich banker Jimmy Dammier (Halliday) and, in a sort of dutifully avuncular fashion, Jimmy’s friend Mark (Stubbs). Jimmy is very kindly toward her and generously lavishes her with goodies—he seems at this stage of the movie to be the epitome of the good-hearted rake, although we’ll see his darker side later—but in her heart she prefers Tommy, who does fun things like take her out to the Coney Island amusement parks. As she says of him,

Millie: Oh, he’s the nicest man . . . and he doesn’t try to paw me.”
Angie: “She goes out with men for the darnedest reasons.”

Finally, after a drunken party at Tommy’s place, Millie makes her choice between her two suitors, deciding to spend the night with Tommy. Although this isn’t spelled out, it seems she thereafter moves in with him.

Millie (Helen Twelvetrees) and Tommy (Robert Ames) have fun on Coney Island.

Jimmy (John Halliday) seems to understand Millie (Helen Twelvetrees) so well.

But then history (sort of) repeats itself. Jimmy throws a major bash to celebrate Millie’s promotion to be manager of all the Amster’s concessions and Tommy’s new appointment as publicity manager of Jimmy’s bank. Tommy is late for the party, and then he’s even later for it . . .

. . . and then a tipsy guest, Clara Roscoe (Mitchell), blows the gaffe: Tommy has been widely unfaithful, and is currently canoodling in the apartment of one of Clara’s friends.

Up to the time when Millie realizes at the party that she’s been betrayed all over again, the movie more or less fits the mold of the pre-Code saucy romantic comedy. Jack and Millie’s first night together (well, the start of it, anyway) is played very much for laughs, with Twelvetrees outrageously hamming up the role of the nervous virgin on her bridal night while Hall, as Maitland, conveys a man being both patient and impatient at the same time.

Millie (Helen Twelvetrees) and Jack (James Hall) on their honeymoon night.

Even Millie’s pain at the discovery of Jack’s perfidy is diluted by some humor so that we don’t take it too seriously, as when Helen and Angie await the imminent encounter between philandering husband, floozy and wronged wife with relish:

Helen: “Mmm, I’ll bet that dame [Millie] can sock.”
Angie: “Her father was a blacksmith.”

After Tommy’s betrayal, however, while the humor doesn’t disappear, matters take a far more somber turn. This isn’t to say that Millie is by any means a rival to a weepie like Stella Dallas (1937) dir King Vidor, where Barbara Stanwyck plays a mother who likewise sacrifices her (very much older) daughter so that the girl might have a more privileged life.

Six months after dumping the faithless Tommy, Millie is hitting the bottle and playing the field. Helen is still around, and indeed encouraging Millie in her dissolute ways, but Angie has married—for his money—the far older Elmer Hawksworth (Clark) and is snooty about her old friends’ lifestyle. Jimmy still loves—or at least pants after—Millie, and Tommy phones up suddenly one Christmas Eve to beg her to get together with him again, but she prefers unrestraint as a bachelor girl.

Eight years pass, and the marks of her dissolution show on Millie’s face and in her figure. (Twelvetrees portrays the ageing of Millie astonishingly well, especially when you consider that the actress was all of 23 at the time!) Her old friends have abandoned her, Helen included. Millie’s still attractive, but even Jimmy has forsaken her for younger others . . . and when Millie discovers that one of the younger others he has in his sights is her own daughter Connie (Louise), now awaiting her seventeenth birthday and cute as a button (although with the vocals of a simpleton, which I suppose may have been the fashion of the day), she threatens to go ballistic, extracting from him the promise that he’ll steer clear of the girl.

Jimmy (John Halliday, left) and Mark (Harry Stubbs) are getting older . . .

. . . and so is Millie (Helen Twelvetrees).

Jimmy gladly gives her the promise, then ignores it, luring Connie one snowy night to his remote lodge outside New York with the intent of seducing her. However, Jimmy’s chauffeur Mike (Delaney), seeing what’s going on and stricken by conscience, phones Millie. The vengeful mother pours herself into a taxi, makes her way to the lodge, bursts in and shoots the predator dead.

Jimmy’s first sight of Connie (Anita Louise) — in church!

Jimmy’s chauffeur Mike (Charles Delaney) has qualms.

Connie (Anita Louise) reacts to the murder.

At Millie’s trial DA Sanders (Atchley) wants the maximum penalty, but Tommy and his chums have something up their sleeve and . . .

As I’ve mentioned on this site before, I feel it’s a shame that Helen Twelvetrees, a major star in her day, should be so forgotten now, and I’m making a minor, informal project of trying in my own small way to redress this perceived wrong by covering some of her movies here. Earlier examples are

I’m sure there’ll be more on the site in due course. I should note, too, that there is at last a book about Twelvetrees, so maybe she’s finally coming out of her long eclipse: Helen Twelvetrees, Perfect Ingenue: Rediscovering a 1930s Movie Star and Her 32 Films by Cliff Aliperti.

As in some of her other early outings, there’s a kind of silent-movie sensibility about Twelvetrees’s performance in Millie. Whether this is a deliberate contrivance or merely a hangover from her earlier experience I don’t know, but it’s actually quite effective on screen.

An added bonus in this movie is the presence of Joan Blondell, albeit playing a rather less prominent—and certainly less forceful—character than we’re accustomed to from her. She appears on this site so far in

but also in a bunch of movies that I cover in my A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir:

  • NIGHT NURSE (1931)
  • THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931)
  • THE FAMOUS FERGUSON CASE (1932)
  • BULLETS OR BALLOTS (1936)
  • BACK IN CIRCULATION (1937)
  • NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947)

The movie is based on a 1930 novel by Donald Henderson Clarke that’s likewise called Millie. A surprisingly high proportion of Clarke’s novels were adapted for the screen, including his follow-up, Millie’s Daughter (1939), which was filmed as Millie’s Daughter (1947) dir Sidney Salkow, with Gladys George as Millie and Gay Nelson as the daughter, now renamed Joanna; friend Helen, now played by Ruth Donnelly, is a notable part of it all too.

 

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17 thoughts on “Millie (1931)

  1. This does sound like a lot of fun. To my shame I had never heard of Helen Twelvetrees until now. What a great surname. Was it her real name or one made up for the movies?

    • No shame involved — as I say, she’s been largely overlooked by history, for some reason. Yet she had all the talent and certainly the contemporary prominence.

      Yes, it’s not one of those names that, having once heard, you’re ever likely to forget! It was her real name — her first husband was an actor called Clark Twelvetrees. Of course, that could have been his stage/screen name!

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