Man Wanted. It’s one of those titles that makes me wish I kept a film diary simply because it’s so generic and familiar. Writing about it here should keep it fresh in my mind.
I found Man Wanted on a disc I had made containing a few other titles, one of which being the one I had originally intended to watch upon settling in that night. But that title bugged me (had I seen it already or not?) and the 1932 release date intrigued me (I’ve probably written about more movies from 1932 than any other year), so I figured I’d at least check the credits and see if they made Man Wanted more familiar to me.
Kay Francis. David Manners. Una Merkel, Andy Devine and, ooh, Claire Dodd. I couldn’t recall seeing this combo together in anything. So I forgot about the other movie and just let this one play.
(By the way, Robert Greig isn't actually in Man Wanted. IMDb states that his scenes were deleted.)
The movie opens in the offices of an exclusive magazine called the 400. Kay Francis is the editor and Andy Devine is trying to get into her office to sell her a rowing machine. By appointment.
Character actress Elizabeth Patterson (I Love Lucy’s Mrs. Trumble if you need a face) plays Kay’s secretary. Devine doesn’t get past the outer office.
He heads back to the shop and talks over the experience with co-worker and roommate David Manners. Their boss, Edward Van Sloan, enters and, in a moment about as far from Dracula (1931) as you can get, hands the 400 sales job over to Manners. Manners is soon exchanging flirty glances with Kay in her office. Well, it’s all Patterson can stand, she walks out and hard-nosed Kay tells her she can pick up her pay in the morning and then be on her way for good. Manners volunteers that he knows some shorthand and is soon taking notes for Kay.
Man Wanted is soon ringing a bell after Francis takes Manners on full time. With this hire a good deal of sexual tension comes to the office. Francis does her best to work through these sparks because she is already hitched to an amiable polo playing playboy husband (Kenneth Thomson), though he spends his time palling around with Claire Dodd at every turn. This is never good for any pre-Code marriage. Shed no tears for Manners because he has his own hands full outside of the office in the form of Una Merkel’s nagging daddy’s girl.
During Manners' first day at the 400 he takes a call from Merkel at Francis’ desk. Kay politely scolds him for receiving the personal call and suddenly it is no longer just the general situation of Man Wanted that feels familiar. I’ve seen this same scene play out before, quite recently in a movie I wrote about on the site, The Office Wife (1930), starring Lewis Stone and Dorothy Mackaill.
Man Wanted was based on a story by Robert Lord that was adapted by Charles Kenyon and directed by William Dieterle. The Office Wife had its roots in a Faith Baldwin story that was adapted by Charles Kenyon and directed by Lloyd Bacon. If there actually was any story by Lord then I imagine a rowing machine figured prominently, but after that it appears that Kenyon decided to rewrite the script he’d created from the Baldwin story.
Kenyon was a former playwright who scored with 1911’s Kindling starring Margaret Illington. He started writing for the movies just a few years later with his best known silent era credits including scripts for The Penalty starring Lon Chaney (1920) and John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924), which was adapted from an original story that he co-wrote. He spiced up the dialogue for William Wellman’s Night Nurse (1931) and with Delmer Daves he co-wrote the script when Warner’s brought The Petrified Forest (1936) to the screen. He remained an active screenwriter through 1946. Charles Kenyon died in 1961, age 80.
In 1917 the New York Times published a brief autobiographical piece that Charles Kenyon had written in response to a request from one of his Broadway producers. Kenyon wrote:
Born ‘80, San Fran. Trinity School, Stanford University, Calif. Arizona three years, then egg business; failed. Actor, bad. Reporter one month, fired; dramatic critic one night, disgusted. Wrote ‘The Operator,’ ‘Kindling,’ ‘Husband and Wife.’ My youth saves you another dollar.
The last line refers to the brevity of Kenyon’s response: the producer had asked him to wire 300 words about himself.
What follows isn’t Kenyon’s sharpest bit of dialogue and it’s not racy like some of his other lines, but it made me laugh both times I watched Man Wanted. It comes when Merkel’s Ruth phones Manners at the office. His secretary answers:
“Hello. Who’s calling? Who?” The secretary turns to Manners: “A Miss Ruth, uh—”
“Conference,” Manners says, hoping to blow her off.
“Oh, Mr. Sherman’s in conference, could I take the message? No, I’m sorry.” She rises from her desk, getting irritated. “No, there’s no way I can—”
“All right, I’ll take it,” says Manners who comes and takes the phone. “Hello,” he says. A pause to listen before his exasperated reply: “Oh, she thought you were Babe Ruth. Yes, he’s writing some stories for us.”
We finally see Merkel, who replies, “I didn’t think you’d refuse to talk to me.”
Man Wanted is not a strict remake of The Office Wife but the two stories do converge just after the twenty minute mark. It is at this point that Man Wanted begins to borrow several specific incidents from the earlier First National film, which had featured Lewis Stone in the Kay Francis role and Dorothy Mackaill in the Manners part.
(I’m going to stick to referring to the actors by their actual names rather than those of their characters because this could otherwise become very confusing when comparing scenes.)
When Manners volunteers to help Kay catch up on some extra work during a poolside party, Una Merkel is impatiently waiting on the other side of a hedge to give him a ride home. After Manners catches up to Merkel, Francis tries to reach him to tell him something she had previously forgotten. Manners never sees her; Merkel does. She makes eye contact with Francis as she and Manners drive away leaving Francis staring after them. Walter Merrill, as boyfriend of the Mackaill character in The Office Wife, handled the situation exactly the same when Stone tried to chase down Mackaill from his party in the earlier movie.
Later in Man Wanted, Francis calls Manners out to join her on a working vacation. Kenneth Thomson, as Kay’s husband, is on the scene canoodling with Dodd in the dance hall, while Francis dictates to Manners in a hotel room above.
Just as Natalie Moorhead and Brooks Benedict do in The Office Wife, the partying pair listen to the clatter of the typewriter from ground level and comment about the office duo being all work and no play. When Thomson escorts a practically panting Dodd back to her hotel room she slips him her key so he can come back to her later. Francis winds up spotting the key before poor Thomson can ever use it.
This is exactly what led to the Stone-Moorhead breakup in The Office Wife and soon does the trick in Man Wanted as well. In writing about The Office Wife I had commented that Stone and Moorhead hashed out one of the most sophisticated splits I’d ever seen. Francis and Thomson follow suit in a later scene which winds up with Thomson soon bound for Europe to secure a divorce.
When Francis ended the work day by inviting her husband to her bedroom, Manners was sent home for the evening. Just prior Manners had sneaked a kiss from Kay while she was taking a moment to rest her eyes, so he leaves in a huff and is on the next train home to propose to Merkel. He gives notice at the office the next morning and is soon on the beach with Merkel where he acts withdrawn while she tries to be romantic. The scene even involves a flask that serves little purpose except to match props with The Office Wife.
Manners winds up staying late on his final day of work and Merkel and Devine soon join him in Francis’ office for a big showdown leading us into our happy ending. While it was a phone call from from Mackaill’s sister (Joan Blondell in the Andy Devine part) that cleared the hurdles to romance in The Office Wife, both movies wind towards the same result with Man Wanted employing a more effective face-to-face confrontation to get there.
While The Office Wife was an entertaining early talkie, Man Wanted is better cast with even sharper dialogue and better overall pace. Man Wanted runs three minutes longer than the earlier movie, clocking in at 62 minutes.
Most of the borrowed scenes described above play better in the remake though the earlier film can boast superior dialogue in the break-up scene after Stone discovers the damning hotel key. Despite the slightly more sophisticated conversation the scene plays with a bit more of a stagey feel in the earlier movie.
The swapping of the sexes is the most interesting element to compare between the two.
Mackaill’s secretary in The Office Wife was more submissive than Manners is in basically the same role. On her first day of work she strategically raises her skirt above her knees to catch Stone’s attention. The Mackaill character arranges events to attract Stone while Manners is allowed to be more direct in his flirtations with Francis. Each character has a fall back option for marriage, but Mackaill’s boyfriend is a life preserver: It’s 1930 and a girl has to have a husband. Manners doesn’t retreat to Merkel because of general standards. The only reason he appears inclined to marry is because even in a pre-Code film the heroes have to be married in order to have regular sex without retribution.
There was little question of Mackaill giving her notice to Stone in The Office Wife. She was to be married and Merrill's 1930 male was not going to allow to his wife to continue working. Standard convention doesn't force Manners to give his notice to Francis in Man Wanted, but Merkel's monied father demanding Manners enter the family business is what forces him to type his resignation.
If there is a villain in Man Wanted it is somehow not Claire Dodd, who remains cordial with the Francis character despite the almost open relationship she’s carrying on with Kay’s husband. No, we’re rooting against Una Merkel this time. Merkel’s character isn’t at all devious, but she’s a nag from a spoiled background. She’s annoying. We don’t want her weighing Manners down, not when he has a true love match with Francis.
The beginning of Man Wanted feels a bit forced. Rowing machine salesmen? By appointment? It shows the lengths a business would go to in order to make a sale during the Great Depression, but still, how bizarre!
But once Manners signs on as Kay’s private secretary and the movie turns into an updated version of The Office Wife it winds up being good fun and an improvement upon the original. My first impression probably serve as a wider overview: generic and familiar, but familiar like an old friend. The recipe works!
Man Wanted is part of Warner Archive's Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume 4, which also includes Francis in Jewel Robbery, Manners in They Call It Sin. Man Wanted's Claire Dodd plays a small role in the fourth film in the collection, Lawyer Man. The Office Wife is also available from Warner Archive on a Dorothy Mackaill double feature with Party Husband.
All of these films also make appearances on Turner Classic Movies from time to time.
Some of my favorite bloggers have long beat me to Man Wanted. If you'd like to read more about this title I recommend you check out Danny's post at Pre-Code.com; Dawn spices her look with some Kay Francis biography at Noir and Chick Flicks; Will grades it high in his look at the Forbidden Hollywood Collections 4 and 5 at Cinematically Insane; For a less positive look at Man Wanted be sure to check out Shadowplay.