Not every fast paced sex and murder movie of the pre-Code era came courtesy of Warner Bros. Midnight Mary is an MGM title every bit as sinful as anything coming out of Warner Bros. and First National.
Midnight Mary reunites three key figures from First National’s Heroes for Sale (1933). Midnight Mary star Loretta Young, director William A. Wellman and cinematographer James Van Trees, were each borrowed from Warners by MGM upon completion of Heroes for Sale. Van Trees had already filmed Young in titles such as Taxi, Life Begins and They Call It Sin (all 1932) and he’d also worked with Wellman prior to Heroes for Sale in Lilly Turner (1933) and even earlier in The Star Witness (1931). Before Heroes for Sale Wellman had directed Young with Edward G. Robinson in The Hatchet Man (1932) and they would work together once more after Midnight Mary at 20th Century in The Call of the Wild (1935).
With that mix of talent it was no accident that Midnight Mary contained a big hint of Warner flavor.
It has what we think of as a Warner Brothers pace, look, and tone though I can’t recall Loretta Young ever looking as glamorous prior to Midnight Mary as famed MGM costume designer Adrian has her appearing by the time she meets the Franchot Tone character. I'm not typically a style minded classic film fan, but that hat Loretta wears in the gambling house is every bit attention grabbing as her own beautiful features that it outlines. MGM’s grand style accompanies Tone, their own contract player, but swathes itself over the visiting Young.
Ricardo Cortez, borrowed from Paramount, and Franchot Tone, fresh off Gabriel Over the White House (1933) for the home studio, are alternating love interests for Young. Who she is with depends upon whether she’s being good or bad, a state dictated by the world around her. Cortez is gangster Leo Darcy, a part not unfamiliar to him and honestly what he’s best at. Young’s Mary finds herself with Leo only when life offers no other choice. Tone, likewise in his own skin as affluent lawyer Tom Mannering, Jr., not only brings out the best in Mary, but offers the downtrodden young woman the only taste of hope she has ever known.
Other major roles were played by Andy Devine, his face then young but his voice already as scratchy and crackling as it will ever be, as Tone’s friend and partner; tough guy Warren Hymer as Cortez’ criminal underling; and bubbly Una Merkel as Loretta Young’s childhood friend and Hymer’s moll.
Lesser parts were played by another vet of Heroes for Sale, perpetual old-timer Charley Grapewin; Ivan F. Simpson as Loretta’s practically drooling superior at the office; our old pal Harold Huber, a gangster yet again; Sandy Roth, the same; yet another copper played by Robert Emmett O’Connor; lovely Martha Sleeper putting on airs as a spoiled socialite, just as she soon will in Penthouse; and, making Midnight Mary one for the buttling Hall of Fame, both Halliwell Hobbes, under Young’s hire, and Robert Greig, serving Tone’s character. Greig breaks out a lighter version of the same tsk-tsking that Robert Barrat used to steal scenes in Wellman's Heroes for Sale; for good measure Louise Beavers flies by a couple of times with just as many lines.
A fist bangs down as a stern voice declares, “Mary Martin has killed a man. The state demands the full penalty for this crime.”
Loretta Young peeks up from a copy of Cosmopolitan, at that time found combined under the same banner as Hearst's International. The magazine regularly carried short and serialized fiction and so it’s no coincidence that we can make out the title of Arthur Somer Roche’s Penthouse on the front cover. Already an MGM property Penthouse will go into production that summer with Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy heading the cast. Penthouse was, no surprise, a Cosmopolitan Production.
The same stern voice adds, “Mary Martin has taken a life. She must pay for it with her own.” It's Frank Conroy as the New York state prosecutor delivering his final argument.
Loretta Young, now twenty and a million miles from the green girl I recently saw in early talkies The Squall (1929) and Loose Ankles (1930), is about to give a great and mostly unheralded performance as Mary Martin, a girl who got none of the breaks. Who despite an absolute certainty that crime should not pay manages to enjoy its spoils when convenient.
Loretta Young sacrifices three years of her youth to claim a 1910 date of birth as Mary Martin. She looks back on her life through the dates found on the spines of Court Clerk Charley Grapewin’s record books.
First stop, 1919, where nine year old Mary and bestest pal Bunny, played by Loretta Young and Una Merkel even as little girls, wander amongst the rough terrain of the dumps. American Pickers--not for extra cash but for eating money--sifting the trash alongside grown men until the police come along to tell little Mary that her mother has died.
It’s 1923 and Merkel’s Bunny accidentally drops a purse she was trying to steal leaving Mary to pick up the bag and earn a three year sentence at a house of correction. Little Mary peers over the Judge’s bench as a meaty finger emphasizes her misdoings.
Released to freedom in 1926 Mary decides to go to hell. She meets up with Bunny again and the pair of teenagers are picked up by Ricardo Cortez and Warren Hymer, both very adult in appearance and more than willing to corrupt a minor.
It’s but the blink of an eye but Wellman slips by one of pre-code’s most sinful images as a car races by with Merkel passed out cold and hanging halfway out the passenger side window while from the back seat Loretta’s bare legs dangle out of the car. Inside the car Loretta’s Mary is spread across Leo’s (Cortez) lap and into his arms with her tears in the next scene leaving no doubt as to what happened. “A girl’s gotta live, ain’t she,” says Bunny. “The jury’s still out on that,” modern Mary remarks back in Grapewin’s office.
In 1927 Mary finds herself inadvertently playing lookout for Leo and comes away from the experience feeling too guilty to keep the $50 he rewards her with for being a “good girl.” She breaks from the gang and tramps along the streets. She beats back a nervous breakdown in the unemployment office, settling for hysterics, before New York's neon transforms into signage mocking Mary’s status: “No Jobs To-Day” the lights flash as Mary sees them.
But seventeen year old Mary ain’t that tough, so she soon finds herself back with Bunny and Leo. “Listen, I’m going a long way,” Leo tells her. “I’ve got it all figured out, see. And those that stick with me won’t have a thing to worry about.”
Mary sticks until 1929 when a big job blows up at a gambling house leaving her with plenty to worry about. She flees the scene with Franchot Tone, who begins his courtship by pointing out Mary’s “tasty back” to Andy Devine.
In case you’re wondering if I’ve revealed too much I should add that Mary’s meeting with Tone takes place 23 minutes into Midnight Mary. Everything I’ve already mentioned—and plenty more—has already happened!
Tone’s not playing one of the gang, he’s Tom Mannering, Jr., a young lawyer backed up by a three million dollar trust fund. Tom and Mary soon fall for each other, but just when it seems Mary has completely reformed her past catches up with her and she’s forced to fall on her sword to protect Tom.
She serves additional time and if you thought she had it rough during the 1920s, well, there aren’t too many jobs awaiting a gal with a record in 1933. As Mary stuffs newspaper into a hole in her shoe Leo swoops in to offer a return to the high life.
Back in the gangster’s bed, and doing her best to make the most of the situation, Mary’s life takes one more terrible turn. That’s the one which brings us back to Charley Grapewin’s office where a loud knock at the door signals that the jury has reached their decision in the case of Mary Martin.
You’ll find Midnight Mary a perfect fit alongside the other five Wellman titles included in TCM’s Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume Three. Each of those other movies, including Heroes for Sale, are all Warner Brothers and First National releases. Midnight Mary is the only oddball of the bunch produced at MGM, but you might not even notice if you blink during the opening credits.
On the surface Midnight Mary offers a catalog picturing the torments a young woman faced during the period. While Mary Martin faces her ultimate challenge in a court of law during the lowest moments of the Great Depression it should be noted that the '20s didn't exactly roar for Mary on her way down.
Through it all Loretta Young alternates between controlling her lust for the Ricardo Cortez character and falling in love with Franchot Tone's. Her body needs Cortez, but her heart craves Tone weaving together a pretty complicated woman on screen for 1933. Midnight Mary is all at once a sex story and a love story elevated by one of Young's finest performances.
It has its trashy moments, perhaps none lower than not one but two bouts of domestic violence. While Cortez’ beating of Loretta Young is the much more vicious attack, it is a required part of the story. When Una Merkel insults Warren Hymer and is greeted by a loud single smack across the face it’s treated as a humorous moment. Hymer aplogizes, but his blow served its purpose with Merkel cooing sweet nothings to him before the scene ends.
A shocking and uncomfortable moment, it is saved by Young who deadpans, “Aw, now there’s nothing left but marriage.” Mary gets it. And it isn't right. It's as low as a man could go, even then, and to Wellman's credit he's always willing to show us man's lowest moments.
Hollywood Reporter saw Loretta Young's performance as I did, stating “She turns in one of the surprise performances of the year. She hits a high level in the very first scenes and never drops for a moment.”
But others, including MGM's own Irving Thalberg, had reservations over Midnight Mary and movies like it.
Much to producer Thalberg’s consternation Loew’s President Nicholas M. Schenck, the money and power behind MGM, was a fan of Warner’s business model and presumably the resulting product that emerged out of the rival studio. Thalberg pled his case for quality at a time when Schenck and Louis B. Mayer had successfully reduced the ailing producer’s power at MGM.
Thalberg criticized the Warner product in a letter to Schenck noting that “since their gangster pictures, (Warners) had only one picture, ‘I Am a Fugitive,’ in the big money class. Many of their pictures have been distasteful, crude, a type of thing that only appeals in centers of large population, possesses very little entertainment value, and is very often in bad taste” (Vieira 227-228). He argued that “The picture business can only exist on the basis of real entertainment, glamour, good taste, and stars. Without these it will go the way of legitimate theater and vaudeville” (228).
According to Thalberg biographer Mark A. Vieira “Thalberg had seen the films recently released by the studio—Midnight Mary, Dinner at Eight, Penthouse, Beauty for Sale, Solitaire Man, Night Flight, and Bombshell. With the exception of the two Selznick films (Dinner at Eight and Night Flight) and Bombshell, he thought them ‘juvenile, immature, uninspired, and lacking that finish that characterized our product for so many years’” (241).
That doesn’t speak well for our Midnight Mary but don’t despair because other than Dinner at Eight my own favorites on that list also include Penthouse and The Solitaire Man. We’re not running a studio for profits here; we just like good solid entertainment. Midnight Mary scores big on that count!
In a June 2, 1933 review Hollywood Reporter called Midnight Mary, or Lady of the Night as it was then titled, “hokum, pure and unadulterated,” but hokum that “breezes along with a fine, tense speed, and it will bury under a good deal of dramatic dust most of the films that have a more up-to-date story.”
Andre Sennwald of the New York Times was not nearly as kind writing that it was “just possible to stifle the tremendous yawn which is always threatening to interrupt the recital of Mary’s sufferings.” Sennwald then more or less savages Midnight Mary in his details before generously concluding that it “is an average specimen of its type.”
Stifling a yawn? Midnight Mary is movie caffeine if nothing else is. 74 minutes that will keep the droopiest eyes open.
I can understand Thalberg’s worries over taste and public perception, especially when backed up with well reasoned business sense and experience; I can only assume Sennwald was in need of a good rest if Midnight Mary threatened to lull him to sleep!
Chalk it up to different tastes. And call Joe Breen the eventual winner.
- Vieira, Mark A. Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince. Berkeley, University of California Press: 2010.
- For a few alternate views of Midnight Mary be sure to check out past posts from other bloggers such as Laura at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings, Danny at Pre-Code.com, and Karen at shadowsandsatin.
- Also see the Midnight Mary IMDb page HERE and info on TCM.com HERE.
- And buy it on Amazon HERE ... or click the case to the right.