Penthouse (1933) by matthew c. hoffman

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Penthouse is an absolute gem ready for rediscovery. It’s every bit as sophisticated a romance and light comedy—with an air of mystery—as The Thin Man, made the following year. And it’s one of my favorite films in Screen Deco. I’m glad I’m able to play it tonight because I had wanted to show it in my Forbidden Cinema pre-Code film series two years ago. Penthouse was directed by W.S. Van Dyke and written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett. These three would collaborate again for The Thin Man. And, of course, Penthouse stars Myrna Loy– Nora Charles from The Thin Man. Here she plays an alluring nightclub call girl named Gertie.

Myrna Loy had made over 70 movies before she finally became a star. Tonight’s film was one of her breakthrough roles. Earlier in her career she had been typecast as an exotic woman of mystery, often with sinister intentions. As late as 1932 she was playing Dr. Fu Manchu’s daughter in The Mask of Fu Manchu with Boris Karloff. But director Van Dyke had an eye for talent and saw her potential. He pictured her playing American girl types where she could show off her abilities as a light comedienne. He saw her charm, wit, and comedic touch playing normal girls. Van Dyke knew she would be a star and helped to make her one.

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Myrna Loy was born in Helena, Montana, in 1905. Her father, who was a real estate developer, had named her after a nearby train station because he liked the name. When her mother almost died from pneumonia, Myrna went with her to California to recover. They temporarily moved to Ocean Park, California, where Myrna began to study dance. She took the experience back with her to Montana, but when her father died from the Spanish influenza of 1918, the family returned to the Golden State and settled in Culver City.

She left school to help support the family. Though it would be years before she’d ever appear on the screen as a star at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, she did perform there in live musical prologues which preceded the film premieres. She almost won a role in a Rudolph Valentino movie, but though she lost out, she did find work in many silent movies. Studios like Warner Brothers noticed her. Myrna usually played vamps and was pretty much stereotyped as such. She appeared in some early musicals, but the public didn’t really notice her until a few years later when she starred in films like Manhattan Melodrama, which was one of fourteen films she would make with William Powell. When John Dillinger was killed after a screening of the film at the Biograph Theatre in Chicago, some papers reported that Myrna Loy was Dillinger’s favorite actress.

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It wasn’t until she made The Thin Man in 1934 that she reached super-stardom. She would become one of the biggest and highest paid actresses in Hollywood. Some of her most memorable roles besides the six Thin Man films were The Best Years of Our Lives with Fredric March and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House opposite Cary Grant. One of my favorite Myrna Loy films of the 1930s was Broadway Bill. This horseracing drama from 1934 was directed by Frank Capra. Her co-star in Broadway Bill was Warner Baxter, our leading man of Penthouse.

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Of course, Myrna Loy may be the main draw tonight and the chief selling point for its dvd release, but it’s Warner Baxter who is the star. He plays the “gangster lawyer” Jackson Durant who is out to prove the innocence of a friend accused of murder. Baxter is impossibly handsome and suave and perfectly complimented by a sensual Myrna Loy in their surprisingly frank but casual relationship. Baxter was one of my favorite actors of the era. He always reminded me of the American version of Ronald Colman; though he didn’t have Colman’s vocal mellifluousness, he had good diction (like so many stars of the era) and screen magnetism. Baxter was actually good friends with Colman and William Powell. Nowadays, Warner Baxter is very much overlooked, but he has left a tremendous filmography. He is remembered today primarily for his role as the director in 42nd Street.

The American Ronald Colman… Warner Baxter
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He was born Warner LeRoy Baxter in Columbus, Ohio, in 1889. With his widowed mother, they moved to San Francisco in 1898. But disaster struck the family when they lost their home in the 1906 earthquake. In the aftermath, they had to live in a tent for two weeks. His mother had wanted him to work as a traveling salesman, but this job did not quell his passion to act. By 1910 he found a way into the vaudeville circuit, and after a detour in the insurance business, he returned to the stage and performed in a Dallas stock company. Around 1916 he made a few appearances in bit roles in the movies, but it didn’t amount to much.

His first real success as an actor was in a Broadway play called Lombardi, Ltd. He would marry the star of the play, Winifred Bryson, and this marriage, his second, would last until his death. In the wake of his Broadway success, he made a second attempt in Hollywood. Regarding this next phase of his career, I’d like to quote my friend Laura Wagner, who is an author and a regular contributor to the magazine Films of the Golden Age. Of his early days in Hollywood, she writes,

“He was eventually signed by Paramount in 1924, which was a big break for him. The dapper Baxter, with his pencil-thin moustache, was a heartthrob in his day, with his smoldering eyes and dark good looks. He starred in the hit ALOMA OF THE SOUTH SEAS and was the first actor on film to portray THE GREAT GATSBY. By 1927 he had shed Paramount and started to freelance; he was able to broaden his acting with movies such as WEST OF ZANZIBAR. The role that made him a true star was very atypical, Fox’s 1928 all-talking IN OLD ARIZONA, where he played the Cisco Kid. (Director Raoul Walsh was set for the lead but had lost an eye in an auto accident.) Baxter, usually the serious, drawing room type of actor, was now portraying a Mexican bandit. He won an Academy Award for the role – the second actor and first American to win the Best Actor Oscar. He reprised the Cisco Kid character in THE CISCO KID, the comedy short THE STOLEN JOOLS, and RETURN OF THE CISCO KID, and there were other attempts to ‘recapture’ Cisco’s success with such movies as ROBIN HOOD OF EL DORADO. The film was such a hit that Fox immediately signed Baxter to a contract that eventually lasted until 1940.”

As Laura points out, Baxter was the first American actor to win an Oscar. For those who might’ve been wondering, he followed Emil Jannings, the German actor who had won in 1928 for The Last Command as well as for The Way of All Flesh. One of Baxter’s best performances, one that was certainly Oscar-worthy, was in John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island, in which he played the doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of  President Lincoln. By 1936 Baxter had become one of the highest-paid actors in town. But a leading man cannot go on forever in Hollywoodland. With middle age came acceptance that his career had slipped. He took roles in B-films. After a nervous breakdown in the early 1940s, he signed a contract with Columbia for a series of ten Crime Doctor mystery films. The series ran from 1943 until 1949.

Warner Baxter gave an Oscar-worthy performance as Dr. Samuel Mudd in John Ford’s masterful The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936).
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As with Warren William and Reginald Denny, actors I’ve mentioned in previous weeks, Baxter was inventing when he wasn’t acting. In the mid 1930s he designed a searchlight for a revolver, and in 1940 he came up with a radio device to control traffic signals for emergency vehicles. It makes you wonder where this device is now when so many drivers today are oblivious and continue to drive through green lights even though you can clearly hear an ambulance approaching the intersection.

Sadly, Baxter suffered from crippling arthritis. His condition was so bad that a lobotomy had been performed to reduce the pain. He developed pneumonia shortly after the procedure and died in 1951 at the age of 62.

Also starring in tonight’s film is character actor Nat Pendleton as Tony Gazotti, the good racketeer boss. Pendleton had won a silver medal as a wrestling heavyweight in the 1920 Olympics in Belgium. His fame as an athlete led him to Hollywood where he started out in small roles in films such as Horse Feathers with the Marx Brothers. Nat Pendleton was one of the great character actors of Hollywood. He often played dumb henchmen, which is ironic because in real life he was a Columbia University graduate and could speak four languages. Tonight is one of his best roles because he finally gets to play a take-charge guy with some degree of intelligence.

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In the role of Mimi, whose fate sets the story in motion, is Mae Clarke. It’s hard to talk about Mae Clarke without also mentioning a certain grapefruit she was handed by Jimmy Cagney in The Public Enemy, but she should be remembered for more than just that as she was a terrific actress. Besides her well-known role as Elizabeth in the original Frankenstein, she gave an outstanding performance as a chorus girl in the pre-Code version of Waterloo Bridge, which was directed by James Whale.

Charles Butterworth plays Durant’s butler. Butterworth was a comedic eccentric, mostly portraying timid characters that could never make up their mind. The comedy relief he provides in Penthouse never seems as intrusive as that of other comic actors of the 1930s.

*            *            *            *            *            *            *            *

Jackson: [as they dance] Music is certainly a wonderful thing. I meet you, and five minutes later you’re in my arms.

Gertie: Do you have to have music?

Jackson: I don’t know. Do I?

Gertie: I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may incriminate and degrade me.

This film is a wonderful precursor to The Thin Man. There is a depth to the characters. They have their own scenes and moments that add dimension to the story. The script is loaded with smart, snappy dialogue and pre-Code innuendo. It’s spoken in that fast-paced style of the 1930s. Another reason why I love this film is because the danger in it seems more real—an underworld menace that keeps us involved in the story. MGM was never known for its crime dramas—that was always Warner Brothers territory— but beneath the high society gloss typical of the studio, we see that Penthouse is also an urban gangster film that is handled very intelligently. It’s certainly strange to see blood when characters get shot—something you would never have seen after 1934 when the Production Code was enforced.

Myrna Loy presents W.S. Van Dyke with a birthday cake on the set of Manhattan Melodrama.

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The film has a great pace thanks to director W.S. Van Dyke. He began his career in the silent era where he served as assistant director on D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. He was one of the most efficient filmmakers at MGM and came to be known as “One Take Woody” because of his speed. He directed such classic films as Trader Horn (which was shot mostly in Africa), Tarzan the Ape Man, Manhattan Melodrama, and four of the Thin Man movies. He received the first of his two Best Director nominations for The Thin Man. The other was for San Francisco in 1936.

And finally, we have the wonderful Art Deco sets in glorious black and white. It’s half the treat. The most obvious example is the modern décor seen in Jackson Durant’s penthouse apartment. The credited art direction was by the Polish-born Alexander Toluboff, who had assisted Cedric Gibbons on Grand Hotel. During his career Toluboff was nominated for three Academy Awards for Art Direction including one in 1939 for John Ford’s Stagecoach.

“Thoughtful as well as alluring.”
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NOTE: The preceding entry was in fact the speech for my Penthouse presentation, which was given on 4/12/12. We had 90+ attend our showing. Based on the positive feedback of patrons as they were leaving, this is their favorite film in the series so far.

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