Slander House (1938)

US / 66 minutes / bw / Progressive Dir: Charles Lamont Pr: B.N. Judell Scr: Gertrude Orr, John W. Krafft Story: Scandal House (1933) by Madeline Woods Cine: M.A. Andersen Cast: Adrianne Ames (i.e., Adrienne Ames), Craig Reynolds, Esther Ralston, George Meeker, Pert Kelton, William Newell, Dorothy Vaughn, Edward Keane, Vivien Oakland, Ruth Gillette, Mary Field, Robert Homans, Blanche Payson.

Once upon a tine she was plain Helen Smith from NYC’s 10th Avenue, but now she’s Madame Helene (Ames), proprietrix of the swanky Helene’s Rejuvenating Salon on Park Avenue. She’s comfortably engaged to prominent society physician Herbert Stallings (Meeker), and she looks set to ascend to the ranks of the glitterati.

But then fast-talking cad-about-town Pat Fenton (Reynolds) walks into her salon and her life, and from there on things can never be the same for her.

Adrienne Ames as Madame Helene.

Progressive Pictures was a Poverty Row studio whose business model was to release B-features with salacious titles yet relatively innocuous contents. This one’s not just SFW but safe for screening to the average pre-school group, although they might find it a trifle boring. (Except for the bit with the monkey. The bit with the monkey is more or less guaranteed to set pre-school kids and Three Stooges fans a-chuckle.) A slight puzzle here is that Progressive bought the rights to a novel that does indeed have a salacious title, Scandal House, and then—even though the phrase “scandal house” turns up in the dialogue—actually diluted the title’s salacity a bit, to Slander House, before release. Were they worried they might get complaints on the grounds of false advertising?

Craig Reynolds as Pat Fenton.

What’s on offer at Helene’s Rejuvenating Salon seems straight out of the (web) pages of Goop. As Madame Helene’s brassy sidekick Mazie Mason (Kelton) explains it to new customer Mrs. Louise Horton (Vaughn),

Mazie: “I can tell you all about our course. We use an electrical cabinet to open your pores. Then we place you upon a table where we manipulate the fat, first applying a strong solution so that, when the fat cells break down under treatment, the astringent tightens the skin, preventing flabbiness. Then you should have face, neck and skin treatments to restore youthful contours.”
Mrs. Horton: “But how much will all this treatment be?”
Mazie: “Only a hundred and fifty dollars. In advance.”

According to the inflation calculator I use, $150 in 1938 was equivalent to something a bit north of $2,500 today. Hmmm. Goop-style prices, too.

Pert Kelton as Mazie Mason.

Adrienne Ames (sometimes billed, as here, as Adrianne Ames) was one of Hollywood’s now-forgotten heartthrobs, and she seems to have had aspirations not unlike those of Madame Helene at the start of this movie: marry rich men, maintain an expensive wardrobe, and make it in society. On screen, she comes across as a sort of bargain basement Loretta Young.

George Meeker as Dr. Herbert Stallings.

Although played for the most part as a comedy of errors, much of the confusion being sown by Pat’s catty discarded floozy Ruth De Milo (Ralston), Slander House does have a subplot that veers toward tragedy, involving the philandering of middle-aged Louise’s boozy lawyer husband George F. Horton (Keane).

Dorothy Vaughn as Louise Horton.

The screenplay, by Gertrude Orr and John W. Krafft, is chock-a-block with good one-liners. I could quote a dozen here, but the one that particularly caught my fancy was the description Mazie’s newsman boyfriend Terry Kent (Newell) offers of Madame Helene’s eminently worthy fiancé: he’s “about as exciting as a dummy without a ventriloquist.”

Esther Ralston as Ruth De Milo under the ministrations of Mary Field as Bessie.

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4 thoughts on “Slander House (1938)

  1. It’s funny you mention Adrienne Ames as a “bargain basement” Loretta Young. For a second, I thought she was Loretta Young in the first image you posted.

    One question re: the beautification process. Maizie says, “We use an electrical cabinet to open your pores.” What does that mean? A whole cabinet to open pores? It sounds gruesome.

    • There’s indeed quite a resemblance, and it continues in her screen presence.

      What does that mean? A whole cabinet to open pores?

      I haven’t a clue! I assumed it was something like one of those old steam baths — you know, a sort of metal box that people would sit in with only their heads and maybe their legs sticking out. But I think the moviemakers were simply getting her to reel off a bit of Goop-style pseudo-techno bamboozlement BS.

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