Jackson Durant's life was a lot simpler until he got involved with mobsters. Society snubs Durant after he saves Tony Gazotti from the executioner. His law firm boots him; his girl says good-bye; even the newspapers, who were very confident in preparing the headline "Gazotti Dies," now have a problem with Jackson Durant. Durant crawls into a bottle.
Warner Baxter stars as mouthpiece Durant and Nat Pendleton is object of his affectionate scorn, Gazotti.
After clearing him Durant tells Gazotti, "You're a bad citizen, Tony. Public welfare would be improved if you were rubbed out." Gazotti's henchmen turn from the front of the car to stare down Durant. But good-natured Gazotti just laughs it off and tells "Angel," his pet name for Durant, that he loves him because "You can put the burn up on me and and not only make me take it but like it"
What's all this, you may wonder. Isn't Penthouse a Myrna Loy movie? Not until we're over a third of the way in, but yes, once Myrna Loy arrives she really lights things up. Penthouse was from a script by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and directed by W.S. "Woody" Van Dyke. They would all be back on another project together with the classic The Thin Man the following year.
According to Loy, in her autobiography Being and Becoming written with James Kotsilibas-Davis, it was on Penthouse that Van Dyke declared "This girl's going to be a big star!" (83). Van Dyke would work next with Loy in The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933) before Manhattan Melodrama (1934) would introduce the final key component, William Powell, to the, pardon me, perfectly blended mix.
Nat Pendleton, another future Thin Man co-star, achieves some of his finest work in Penthouse. Pendleton, a former Silver medalist Olympian and later professional wrestler, typically played tough guys and crooks. Penthouse is no exception, but his Gazotti is a killer with aspirations towards the good life who has the ability to laugh at himself. Usually Pendleton's characters aren't even smart enough to realize they're being laughed at, so this is a big step!
Gazotti introduces Loy's wonderfully named Gertie Waxted to Durant. But again, it takes over a half hour to meet Gertie, surely something happens in between.
Sure does. After Durant's girl, Sue (Martha Sleeper), jilts him she's all set to carry on full steam ahead with Tom Siddall (Phillips Holmes), a good kid who even realizes he's working against his own interests when he tells Sue that Durant is "a better bet than I am." Sue tells Siddall that she is sure of her decision but suggests he has some loose ends to tie up on his own. Boy, does he!
If you think Loy's Gertie is a kicker of a name, Mae Clarke all but blows her out of the water playing a character named Mimi Montagne. It sounds better than it spells. Clarke is looking particularly gorgeous with a very short cropped haircut but she quickly moves from cheery love doll to woman scorned as Siddall tells her that that they're quits because he's getting married.
"I'll show you you can't give me the runaround like this," Mimi says. She tells Siddall she's always treated him square and that she tossed over what had been a pretty sweet ride to go with him instead. Siddall isn't too impressed by mention of her former flame, Crelliman, a mobster who happens to be Tony Gazotti's chief rival. Rich boy Siddall offers Mimi a payoff but she throws the offer back at him and tells him she's going to make his life miserable. "If you want to make any trouble for me," Siddall tells her, "I warn you. Take care."
Siddall leaves Mimi in a semi-controlled tantrum that she quickly shrugs off to put in a call to Crelliman (C. Henry Gordon). He tells her to come on over.
Crelliman's place is packed with guests as Mimi, all decked out with her hair newly styled, enters. C. Henry Gordon tries to make Crelliman into a tough guy but about the scariest trick he has up his sleeve is blowing cigarette smoke through his nose. His talking low and slow didn't do the trick for me and he has a particularly embarrassing barrage of threats after Baxter's Durant ticks him off later. Still, the shaky acting gives Crelliman a bit of an edge. He seems capable of anything.
Crelliman has invited Siddall over on the pretense that he wants to hear Mimi jilt him so he knows she's really come back to him. Sounds reasonable. He allows the two some privacy sending them out to the roof while he stays inside to have a grand old time dancing with one of the girls. A shot rings out. Party over.
The mystery is really no mystery. We're pretty sure from the start not who's done it, but who pulled the strings to get it done. By the same token there's little doubt as to who didn't do it and that innocent must be cleared. The thrill of Penthouse's mystery is in watching Durant try to connect the dots to an acquittal. Without Durant an injustice will be carried out.
Loy's Gertie lives in the same building that the murder took place in. Mimi is her roommate, Crelliman her landlord. So when Gazotti introduces Gertie to Durant, despite the extra heat that enters the room, Gertie is pretty sure of what Durant is really after once he gets her back to his apartment. Gertie plants herself on Durant's couch and tells him to bring on the cross-examination since it's obvious "You didn't ask me up here because of my fatal fascination."
That said, there's a bit of a tease around the bedroom as Durant gives Gertie the grand tour. Loy's carrying a pretty naughty gleam in her eye, more leftover from her exotics than anything associated with her coming image as perfect wife.
When Gertie gets tired Durant supplies her with a pair of pajamas and she apologizes for not being much help on the case yet. "I hate to quit on you, but cheer up. Maybe I talk in my sleep," she tells him. But Gertie is surprised and disappointed when Durant wishes her a good night and leaves the bedroom. The next morning Gertie asks him, "Say, are you still in love with someone or are you just decent?"
While there still seems to be a chance that Durant gets back together with Sue--whose portraits litter his apartment--slowly but surely he begins to see Gertie as more than a potential witness.
Gertie is the most sophisticated girl I've ever seen off the wrong side of the tracks, but then again this is Myrna Loy. Whether she's a call girl, party girl or something in between she knows she's out of Durant's class from the start, despite her excellent diction. "I know what your world is and I know I don't belong in it," she tells him, offering an open relationship. What she doesn't know is that Durant is being castigated from that same society she believes he is part of for daring to involve himself in "the troubles of bootleggers, chorus girls and head waiters."
As Penthouse develops Durant even seems to lose most of his disdain for Gazotti, projecting it onto Gazotti's actions instead. He even puts the mobster to use while trying to unravel the case. When telling him of troubles with Crelliman, Gazotti tells Durant, "Say the word and I'll rub him out tonight." Durant scolds as though he were dealing with a misbehaving child rather than a psychopath acting on impulse and only pries some simpler misdemeanors out of his mobster buddy.
From our place in time Penthouse seems like an extremely early prototype of The Thin Man. It doesn't have as much fun as The Thin Man. It's not as silly. It's actually more adult, more sophisticated. Despite some similar elements and a few of the same actors Penthouse, save Myrna Loy, is not nearly as charming as the slightly later classic film from Van Dyke. This is largely the difference between Warner Baxter and William Powell.
Powell could have played Durant and played him like Baxter did had he wanted to. Baxter would have died as Nick Charles.
Penthouse is a pre-Code era film and while it does have its excesses they are done tastefully and in perfect character with the story. There's some violence, there's some sex, but Penthouse only crosses the line in the way that say an It Happened One Night (1934) crossed the line. It doesn't pander to lower elements. It's completely harmless, even by 1933 standards.
The greatest offender would be Loy's Gertie, who is offering herself on a platter to Durant. And it's clear that she has done this before with other men. But Durant's absolute obliviousness to her invitation actually adds a good deal of innocence to the situation.
There is one exchange that probably would have slipped by all but the most perceptive censor even later into the 30's. When Gazotti is preparing Durant to meet Gertie he tells him that, "She's a grand kid. The kind you can take home to dinner and no hard feelings if you don't ask her to stay til breakfast." Durant actually giggles before replying, "And no hard feelings if you do, huh?"
Baxter, once again playing a part he seems a little bit too old for, is otherwise fine as Jackson Durant. He's a bit more lively than I'm used to him being and equally capable of throwing the occasional punch or short quip. He's a likable guy. If anything Baxter makes himself too likable, but it works for Durant.
Loy lights up Penthouse as Gertie. From her eye catching gown by Adrian to her own natural beauty you can't take your eyes off her. Loy may be a bit classy to play a dame like Gertie, but again, it works, leaving you to wonder just how Gertie got to where she is. I certainly have a hard time picturing her getting along with Mae Clarke's Mimi as famously as they supposedly did, but given what we do know of Gertie she certainly liked to cut loose some when she wasn't busy falling in love with a good man like Durant.
Clarke is fantastic, especially spitting wrath at Holmes, who is also quite good as Siddall. He is a quiet, young good looking kid, who you can easily see Sue falling for, especially when held up side by side with the already droopy Baxter.
Martha Sleeper, who I really only know from Midnight Mary (1933), has a list of credits that seem filled with parts like "Party Girl," "Chorus Girl," "Show Girl," even "Fish Girl" (Hey, it was Madam Satan (1930), what do you expect?). Sleeper manages a credible "Society Girl" as Sue Leonard in Penthouse. She has one extremely effective scene with Baxter when after asking him a favor is astounded by the bite of Baxter's reply.
See above for Nat Pendleton. In short, to my memory his Gazotti is the best I've ever seen him.
The only problem with Charles Butterworth, as Durant's servant Layton, is that we could have used more of him. Practically every line he has earns a chuckle, his best coming when a hungover Durant quizzes him about the party the night before. After Durant finds out he passed out on his guests he says, "Well, I hope you took over my duties as host, Layton." Layton replies, "Yes, I took the big blonde home." Durant's off-camera cough tries to obscure Layton's answer but seems to call even more attention to it.
Others include George E. Stone doing his snively best in the small part as Murtoch; Robert Emmett O'Connor playing a lawman as usual, this time in plain clothes as Stevens. He just has to show up to make me smile. Raymond Hatton and Arthur Belasco are great as a pair of Gazotti's stone faced henchmen whose orders are to protect Durant whether he wants protection or not.
This fine cast helps Penthouse out a lot as the story is far from perfect. It's a bit of a mess until we meet Loy and everything starts coming together. Until then it feels like we're being introduced to our line-up of characters in a series of loosely related vignettes. The movie seems to be about Durant and Gazotti, then no, it's Durant and Sue. Durant disappears and it's all Sue and Siddall and then Siddall goes off to see Mimi, and wait, Mae Clarke is in this? What happened to Warner Baxter? And wasn't Myrna Loy billed?
And while there's very little mystery the fantastic dialogue delivered by a group of likable pros each cast in well developed parts makes the journey to the solution of how done it a most enjoyable one.
For an another view of Penthouse please see Laura's Miscellaneous Musings.
Love this write-up! And thanks so much for the link. My tape of this is currently on loan to my dad, but I’ve got a yen to see it again so I’ve got the DVR set! 🙂
Great line about Powell could have played the Baxter part, but Baxter couldn’t have done Nick Charles. 🙂
Cliff Aliperti says
Thanks, Laura! Yes, be sure to record it then!
I see Baxter and Warren William as very similar and each a poor man’s version of Powell. I think Adolphe Menjou works as a similar actor as well, but more versatile than Baxter or even Warren. A lot of times I can picture any of these four playing a particular part and in Penthouse I could see any one of them handling it!
That said, I thought Baxter was fine here.
I agree — they all worked in some roles but there were some that needed a lightness of touch that could only come from Powell.
I agree Baxter was fine — I think Wiliam would have worked well in this role, also.
Cliff Aliperti says
Oh, I absolutely agree with that. Didn’t mean to imply that any of the other three were on Powell’s level … though he does have a few pre-Thin Man titles I could see Warren handling (Philo Vance, Lawyer Man, etc.). Once Powell rounded fully into the Powell we best remember though, no, he can’t be replaced.
Actually I’d keep Baxter in this one. But I’d have loved to have seen Warren as Julian Marsh!
I’m ashamed to say it, but I haven’t seen this one! I’m a huge Myrna fan but this one has slipped through. I DVR’d it, so I’ll try to sit down and watch soon.
Thanks for this wonderful piece.
Cliff Aliperti says
No shame over this one, Jill, despite it’s growing reputation with pre-code fans it’s still not one of her better known ones. It’s really a Warner Baxter movie. Hope you enjoy it when you get to it (I’ve got a ton of those piling up myself this month!)
Judy Geater says
I saw this recently and really enjoyed it – must agree that the great dialogue shows the way forward to ‘The Thin Man’. I’m a fan of Warner Baxter and enjoyed seeing him play a lighter role than some of the others I’ve seen – Myrna Loy is also great, of course.
Cliff Aliperti says
Warner Baxter, who I like a lot but will admit is a bit stiff sometimes, is very good indeed here. He did seem a little lighter than usual. Looked like he was having fun too … especially in his scenes with Charles Butterworth!