Today I'd like to talk a little bit about that Warner Brothers flick with the famed grapefruit scene:
Sorry, I couldn't resist!
Going Highbrow really has Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler written all over it. Since neither of them are actually in it, Guy Kibbee and ZaSu Pitts rise to top billed status. Rather than Powell and Keeler we get an early appearance from soon tragic Ross Alexander in a pairing with June Martel in her screen debut. Edward Everett Horton is billed right under Kibbee and Pitts and is really the character most of Going Highbrow pivots around.
While Going Highbrow may feel like a Powell-Keeler movie, it's not even a musical. Oh, Ross Alexander breaks into a song a couple of times, but only because he's so deliriously happy and happens to have a piano on hand. Edward Everett Horton winds up assisting him on those comedic tunes. June Martel doesn't sing or dance, but she did a fine enough job with her part, a key and large one, to make me want to know more.
Unfortunately the June Martel file is pretty slim. I couldn't even find an obituary! For the purpose of this article I'll take the IMDb and Wikipedia's word that Miss Martel was born November 19, 1909 in Chicago, IL and that she died November 23, 1978 in Los Angeles, but there isn't a whole lot to go on in between.
Both sites note her 1941 marriage to screenwriter Frank Fenton, but IMDb misses the fact that this is actually her second marriage. Martel had previously been married to Yale graduate Walter J. Klavun for five years, though they had separated after two.
At one time Martel's face even graced the front pages of the papers, well at least the El Paso Herald-Post, after finalizing her quickie divorce from Klavun in Juarez, Mexico in 1938. That same article also informs us that June Martel was born Martha G. Moir. It's no surprise that I could not confirm that information anywhere else, nor did it help in my seeking Moir/Martel's obituary.
Prior to signing with Warner Brothers, June Martel appeared in The Perfumed Lady on Broadway at the Ambassador Theater. It ran for 40 performances in the Spring of 1934 and also featured Brian Donlevy in the cast. Martel was groomed for big things upon arriving in Hollywood. She was one of a half dozen Warner starlets being pushed in the press as the studio's next group of big stars. That list also included Maxine Doyle, Dorothy Dare, Nan Grey, June Grabiner and the biggest hit of the bunch by far, Olivia De Havilland.
June Martel wound up with eleven film credits to her name, drifting to Westerns after the anticipated big breakout never broke. Her final screen appearance was in 1938's Santa Fe Stampede featuring Western trio The Three Mequiteers, a group that included John Wayne at a time just prior to his finally grasping major stardom in John Ford's Stagecoach (1939). After Santa Fe Stampede the only reference I could find of June Martel was that she was to star in a 1939 episode of a radio show. Then the marriage to Fenton. Then obscurity.
I don't think I've seen Front Page Woman, the Bette Davis film she worked in right after Going Highbrow. She only had an unbilled small part in Dr. Socrates, a Paul Muni movie that I have seen, but I can't for the life of me remember her in. So all I have to go on in the case of June Martel is Going Highbrow, where she's effective as a young woman who's left a disappointed marriage and stage pairing behind to work behind the counter of a diner where she meets the just as common, though extremely wealthy, Matt Upshaw, played by Guy Kibbee.
While Matt's wealth resulted from a miscommunication with his broker in 1929 the seeds of fortune aren't really detailed any more than that. There's some talk about the bulls and the bears that result in a bunch of smashed eggs on the diner counter, but that's all. Matt and his wife, Cora (ZaSu Pitts), are staying across the street from the diner at the Waldorf after returning from a trip to Europe where Cora forced their way into the headlines through purchase of a $75,000 painting by Tintoretto. Cora is looking to break into high society; Matt's just looking for a plain meal he can digest.
But Augie Witherspoon (Edward Everett Horton), who manages the ailing Marsh estate, is looking for somebody with money to spend on art! His employer, Mrs. Marsh (Nella Walker), owns a rare collection of paintings. And so he finds his pigeons right on the front page of the paper.
Augie's friend and Marsh heir, Harley (Ross Alexander), a spoiled but likeable enough young man, doesn't put a lot of faith in Augie's ideas by the this point. "It's a wonder to me you haven't put our money towards developing a squirtless grapefruit," Harley tells Augie. The grapefruit, as shown above, would continue to play a role in Going Highbrow.
When Augie arrives at the Waldorf and tries to put the touch on Cora she surprises him with her honesty telling him that the Tintoretto was purchased solely to make a society splash. Since the painting has already served its purpose Augie and her decide that Cora's money would be better spent on Mrs. Marsh directly rather than her paintings. Mrs. Marsh is to receive a $50,000 fee to train Cora and Matt in the ways of wealth and then unveil the common couple from Kansas to them at a social gathering.
The plan is for Cora and Matt to purchase a Long Island estate and use it for their daughter's debut. While Cora agrees there is one big problem. She and Matt have no daughter.
Matt holds the solution to this problem. Why not get Sandy (Martel), the young girl he's taken a liking too at the diner across from the Waldorf, and give her the opportunity to play the part of their daughter. Sandy, who previously thought Matt was a little screwy, is quickly convinced otherwise by his offer and leaves her job behind to be pampered by the Upshaws in anticipation of their society coming out. It's a good bargain for the girl who gets piles of clothes and a sweet room in the Upshaw's newly purchased mansion out of the deal.
During one of her earliest shopping forays Sandy catches her heel in a sewer grate and is immobilized on the busy city street. Who should witness this but, of course, Harley Marsh! Harley manages to break the heel on her shoe in the process of freeing Sandy and while she storms off incensed by the young man, Harley comes away with her shoe in his pocket and her mark on his heart. He returns home to swing on a chandelier and sing a song that Edward Everett Horton reluctantly talks along to.
If you're thinking Cinderella, don't worry, so were they. The fairy tale is mentioned by name several times throughout and is at heart the basis of the story. Speaking of story, Going Highbrow is an actuality based upon Social Pirates by Ralph Spence, which seems to imply a focus on the Guy Kibbee and ZaSu Pitts characters rather than the June Martel Cinderella story. I didn't see it that. By the way, Social Pirates is one of those mysterious works of fiction I can't find reference to in book or short form, so I'm left to assume it was a story directly commissioned by Warner Brothers.
Edward Everett Horton makes the biggest impression among the cast of Going Highbrow as he busies himself among all the cast members and is key to both inciting and resolving the obstacles to romance between Harley and Sandy when he meets with Sandy's returning husband, Sam Long (Gordon Westcott), and brings him along to the ball.
While Going Highbrow has its enjoyable moments it also has its share of painful scenes. I'm sorry to say most of these do result from Edward Everett Horton, but that's only because he probably has twice as many lines as everyone else. Notice I said lines, not actual screen time: Augie is a motor mouth and if you listen he more than makes up for his few clunkers! He's too good to be the worst thing about the movie.
Guy Kibbee and ZaSu Pitts both do their thing and even if that's not necessarily your thing they take enough of a back seat to Horton and the younger stars once Going Highbrow gets going that they're not going to bother you too much. If you're a fan you'll probably be left wanting a little more, especially of ZaSu. Her part was first considered for Aline MacMahon and Joan Blondell, either of whom I'd assume would need a little more to work with than ZaSu Pitts had here.
In Going Highbrow ZaSu is more of a toned down version of the character I'm used to seeing her play, though that's still a bit over the top when compared to anyone else. But sedate by ZaSu standards. Kibbee is likeable playing his typical none too bright everyman. He takes a backseat to Pitts as his wife, has a few cute scenes with Martel, but doesn't really register when with the more energetic actors like Horton or Alexander.
The overeager Ross Alexander got on my nerves, but he's no doubt handsome and has a heck of a voice so I can understand the appeal. June Martel's character actually summed up his Going Highbrow performance quite well when she says to Alexander's Harley Marsh, "Well, do something. Don't just stand there like a laughing hyena." She stole my line.
While it was less than two years later, January 2, 1937, that the tortured Alexander would take his own life, he was not the first Going Highbrow cast member to meet tragedy. Gordon Westcott, who plays Sandy's husband Sam Long in the film, actually died later in 1935, the same year as Going Highbrow's release.
Just 31 years old, Westcott fell from his horse during a polo game and was kicked in the head by the animal. He died of a basal skull fracture just four days later, October 30, 1935. Westcott's daughter was the better remembered Helen Westcott, who played some extra roles as a child before seeing her career really get going in the late 1940's opposite Gregory Peck in The Gunfighter (1950).
Also appearing in Going Highbrow is Judy Canova in only her second feature as Sandy's co-worker at the diner, Annie. There's a brief appearance by Arthur Treacher as a waiter who has an uncomfortable few moments with Edward Everett Horton. Guy Kibbee's younger brother, Milton, makes an uncredited appearance as a reporter during the opening scene of the movie.
Guy Kibbee is one of those overnight sensations who brewed a good 20 years before getting there. He had played over twenty years in stock companies west of the Mississippi before making his Broadway debut in 1930's Torch Song at the Plymouth Theater. He was 44. Torch Song ran for 87 performances and Kibbee was described by several sources as the hit of the Broadway season. After Torch Song Kibbee's appeared in a second play on Broadway, Marseilles, but it quickly closed.
He then returned West, but this time to Hollywood, and impressed with a small part as a police commissioner in the Nancy Carroll film Stolen Heaven (1931) at Paramount. Kibbee's rise on film was just as sudden as his discovery in theater as he next played supporting roles in the William Powell-Carole Lombard drama Man of the World and was Sylvia Sidney's father, Pop Cooley, in the hit City Streets (1931), which still plays well today.
After that he reprised his Torch Song role of Cass Wheeler in MGM's adaptation Laughing Sinners (1931) starring Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. Soon Kibbee would sign with Warner Brothers as a featured contract player and the very busy actor we know from so many films of the period, like Going Highbrow, began to get really busy!
Going Highbrow isn't a movie that you're going to cling to and remember. One of several B-movies directed by Robert Florey for Warner Brothers, it's extremely average. Thus according to tastes you're likely going to either like or dislike it a little more than your average movie. You won't love it and you shouldn't hate it. For myself it was an enjoyable 68 minutes that I could have burned on far worse movies, and I know I have!
I was pleased to meet June Martel through Going Highbrow, thinking she was a bit of a treat. By the way, there seems to be a somewhat repeated assertion that Judy Canova's Annie was the girl that the Upshaws took into their home. She's not. It's Martel.
Fans of Edward Everett Horton will enjoy Going Highbrow and while he wasn't my taste I'd imagine Ross Alexander fans will want to see this one as well.
A sweet, somewhat screwy comedy featuring three very familiar faces along with three others that, for various reasons, I wish we got to know better.
- "Actress June Martel Gets Juarez Divorce." El-Paso Herald-Post 17 June 1938: 1.
- "Gordon Westcott, Salt Lake Actor, Dies of Injuries." The Salt Lake Tribune. 31 October 1935: 22
- "Gordon Westcott, Film Player, Dies." Evening Gazette [Xenia, Ohio] 31 October 1935: 1
- "Hollywood Roundup." Huntingdon Daily News 2 April 1935: 3.
- "Manhattan Movies" Woodland Daily Democrat 23 September 1930: 3.
- Parsons, Louella O. "Robert Donat in Sabatini Play." San Antonio Light 7 December 1934: 17.
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