MGM’s Five and Ten, from a novel by Fannie Hurst, is a well-filmed, well-acted movie about a potentially exciting subject, but ultimately a story that didn’t focus on the topics or characters that I really cared about.
Marion Davies stars as a Barbara Hutton like heiress, in what was being billed as her first wholly dramatic role in a talking picture. Her Jennifer Rarick falls in love at first sight with Berry Rhodes (Leslie Howard), a caddish architect of the established New York society, whose best trait is his honesty about his inability to contain himself around pretty young society women. During their first private meeting together, arranged when Jennifer pays a cab driver (Henry Armetta) to crash into Berry’s car, he appropriately sketches himself as a pig.
The overlong film (89 minutes) spends about two-thirds of its length with its lead attraction, the Davies-Howard romance. The characters and the performances are fine. Davies is every bit as charming as intended and Howard manages to make Berry a likable character, not something to be taken for granted when he’s so open about his indiscretions. Together, they bring a good amount of heat to the screen, especially when Berry bursts into Jennifer’s room at a weekend society party and they can barely keep their hands off of one another. In one of of Five and Ten’s best scenes between its romantic leads, Jennifer pleads for Berry to leave and keep her honor intact, but the tables are turned before Berry can exit her bedroom, leaving him begging Jennifer to let him go.
What keeps Jennifer and Berry from being together? Berry’s fiance, Muriel (Mary Duncan), whose greatest hold over Berry is that they’ve known each other a long time. On screen, Berry and Muriel never seem to be more than acquaintances, even at the altar, and the idea that she can somehow tame the self-admitted philanderer is never believable. The one chance Five and Ten has to keep Jennifer and Berry apart, the idea that Jennifer, whose father’s fortune has bought her way into society, is now trying to buy Berry, comes across as muddled. The characters seem to believe it, and Jennifer even admits a certain guilt, but I didn't find the point so obvious, so all of Five and Ten's romantic difficulties wound up feeling overblown.
While Five and Ten fails to deliver any true tension in its key romance between its two stars, it otherwise excels in dramatizing the same idea across the rest of the Rarick family. In its whole, Five and Ten examines the difficulties the nouveau riche have in adjusting to their new lifestyle, connections, money, and the impact that all of this sudden excess has on their preexisting family unit.
The Raricks are introduced as a loving, playful clan happily making the trip by rail from their native Kansas City to New York’s Fifth Avenue, where patriarch John Rarick (Richard Bennett) is moving the family as he expands his five-and-ten empire.
Inside the spacious new Rarick home, the problems immediately become evident. John Rarick quotes his glories to his biographer, who after taking notes for a long while is startled to only just discover that there’s also a Mrs. Rarick. John Rarick explains that he was married the same day he closed the deal on his first store, and proceeds to gloat over how wonderful his wife is. On this cue, Jenny Rarick (Irene Rich) enters, happy to hear John speak so lovingly of her, yet holding a note from her lover, Ramon (Theodore von Eltz), who wants her to come meet him.
John Rarick is happily ruled by his business. He otherwise worships his wife, but will not make time for her. The old pro Bennett is masterful in showing John Rarick’s near complete devotion to his wife and family, yet utter distraction from them by his business. While Richard Bennett was still considered a major figure in the theatrical world by the time of Five and Ten, he was already becoming better known to movie fans as Joan and Constance’s father. Bennett’s presence in such a role was a big deal in 1931, and he proves himself worthy to the task. In lesser hands John Rarick could have been a very hard character to like, but Bennett manages to detach him from the business in spurts just long enough to convince us that he really believes he will make good on his promises to his Jenny.
But this is impossible. In the case of John Rarick, Five and Ten isn’t about the influence of new money, it’s more about the seduction of newly acquired power, though it wouldn’t be accurate to say that best describes the flaw that keeps him from his family either. It’s as easy to picture Rarick every bit as absorbed by his business when he was starting out in a dingy little back office in Kansas City as he is from his luxurious Fifth Avenue den, where we find him making plans to alter the Manhattan skyline with his new skyscraper. Money is only a tool in this game, and in the case of John Rarick, even the quest for power remains an unstated goal. This is obsession, a total immersion in this thing that he's made, and it’s blinding.
Reality doesn’t come until moments before John Rarick is told he is now the leading merchant in the world. By then, he’s just a few moments past caring.
Irene Rich isn’t an actress I had really noticed much before, but by (lucky) coincidence, I happened to see her a lot this week (also in Manhattan Tower and Down to Earth, both 1932 releases), so she’s now carved a permanent place in my memory. During this recent blitz, Five and Ten was the best of the movies I saw her in.
All her Jenny Rarick wants is for her husband to pay her some attention. Rather than making Jenny into a doormat, or casting her as the unsympathetic cause of her husband’s detachment, Five and Ten allows the character to embark on an affair that she would rather not be involved in. To the best of my recollection, Jenny Rarick and her lover are never shown together on screen, but they are spending a lot of time together off-screen. Putting this distance between Jenny and any actual act of adultery, helps keep the character sympathetic. As good as Richard Bennett is at keeping John Rarick’s foibles human, Rich is every bit as good at showing Jenny’s conflict over stepping out on her husband.
While we might take sides, and more likely Jenny’s side, Jenny and John’s problems are realistic enough to leave us rooting for them to get back together, rather than rooting for one character over another. Richard Bennett and Irene Rich are a highlight of Five and Ten.
But the revelation of Five and Ten is Kent Douglass as Avery, son and heir to the Rarick power and position. I recently wrote about Douglass playing Walter Huston’s son in the impressive A House Divided from a little later in 1931, but he’s best known on screen for his Laurie in Little Women, a couple of years later. By that time he was acting under the name of Douglass Montgomery.
While Douglass is around during the early portion of Five and Ten, we don’t get to see him do very much. In the opening scene in the train compartment he gets to put Marion Davies over his knee and spank her, so I’m sure William Randolph Hearst noticed him more than most! Otherwise he is slowly revealed as the most even-keeled member of the Rarick family. He’s a potential rock for them to lay their troubles on, as sister Jennifer will, but he’s too young for his parents—especially his father—to pay much attention to.
As Five and Ten plods along focusing on the Marion Davies-Leslie Howard romance, I found myself thinking how dreadfully underused Kent Douglass was. That changes once he discovers that the Rarick women have rebelled against their past domesticities and have fallen under the spell of big city temptation.
John Rarick is too self-absorbed to notice and he doesn’t put much stock in Avery’s appraisal of the household when his son comes to him to explain how much everybody has changed in New York. “I know they’ve found new interests, Dad, but, oh gee, I’m not so sure they’re the right kind,” he says of his sister and mother. He begs his father to stop piling up money and take the family away. John Rarick thinks this is a pretty good idea. “Next fall,” he agrees, after the Tower is completed.
Avery then intercepts his father’s evening brandy from the Rarick butler, Hopkins (Halliwell Hobbes, who else), and gets smashed. The baby-faced Douglass is glorious playing drunk, summoning the courage from the bottle to put words to his disgust over what the Raricks have become, even if it’s only to the hired help. By the time his sister, Jennifer, arrives home, Avery is a limp mess in her arms.
The morning after the Tower’s opening, the household doesn’t seem to notice that young Jennifer has been out all night. But Avery notices. He corners Jennifer and accuses her of, “Sneaking in the morning after, like a common—” She interrupts him, but it’s too late. Avery runs to his mother, hoping she will understand his plea for a return to their old values, but by this point he is left without anybody to explain himself to. His family has abandoned him, though Avery is more upset that they’ve abandoned themselves.
Five and Ten goes a bit off the rails in its resolution. Avery’s solution is telegraphed, yet I really hoped that his character wouldn’t proceed along the most obvious trail at this point. Well, he does, and the details are so extreme that the scene almost feels like a clip inserted from an entirely different movie. Avery’s fix is so out of context compared to what Five and Ten has been to this point, that I found myself laughing at this most inappropriate time of the entire movie.
The failures of Five and Ten are obvious: All of its elements work, except for the Davies-Howard romance, which was unfortunately supposed to be the prime attraction. Instead, it’s a distraction in a movie that could have better accomplished it’s goals through the characters played by Richard Bennett, Irene Rich, and Kent Douglass. Marion Davies and Leslie Howard don’t do anything wrong, they just don’t fit into Five and Ten, at least not as the primary attraction.
In its review, Photoplay says, “The story adheres a little too strictly to the Fannie Hurst novel for movie purposes.” I can’t speak to that, not having read the book, but am in full agreement with their next statement: “It takes in so much that the first half is jerky. The heavy drama of the last half is better.”
Film Daily also saw much of what I saw. “Very mild comedy drama enhanced by fine performances. Story prime weakness,” and furthermore, “The story is generally dull and the dialogue, inclined toward playfulness and satire, is bright.”Five and Ten is a smart movie and given its MGM origins it’s a pretty movie to look at. Robert Z. Leonard directed, but is uncredited. He did his job, the problem originated further back with either Hurst's novel or A.P. Younger, who adapted her story. Beyond those weaknesses, Five and Ten is a more accomplished overall production than generally expected from a 1931 release (June 13 premiere).
Five and Ten tries to be a star vehicle for Davies, and to a lesser extent Howard, but would have been more entertaining and interesting had it more equally divvied up the four Rarick roles to become more of an ensemble piece. If that was never going to happen with a Marion Davies movie, and it wasn’t, then MGM should have gone with a different lead.
Five and Ten has recently been released as a manufactured-on-demand DVD-R by Warner Archive. Many thanks to them for providing a review copy for this piece. Recommended overall because of what the supporting Rarick family members add to the film, but good luck making it through the first half of the movie.
- Review of Five and Ten. Film Daily. 12 July 1931: 10.
- “The Shadow Stage.” Photoplay. August 1931. 59.