I came to Lady and Gent backwards, only seeking it out after being impressed by the even more obscure 1939 remake Unmarried. I have to admit that I enjoyed the later movie a little more, largely because it manages to pack everything the original offered into twenty minutes less screen time, partially because of the impressive screen swan song it provides one of my favorites, Helen Twelvetrees, though it turns out she’s got nothing over Wynne Gibson’s performance in the original. Lady and Gent was a critical hit when it released in July 1932, but when there was a complaint it was usually about the 84-minute run-time.
Motion Picture Herald opened their review with the proclamation, “This is the best picture George Bancroft ever made,” while Screenland said, “Miss Gibson is the real star of the piece.” They’re both fantastic. A hard-to-find and underappreciated Paramount rarity today, in its own time Lady and Gent even received an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay by Grover Jones and William Slavens McNutt. They lost out to an even more sentimental fight yarn, The Champ by Frances Marion.
Bancroft plays Slag Bailey, a past his prime prizefighter who drives his manager crazy by disappearing for a few drinks on fight night. James Gleason plays the fight manager, Pin Streaver, who’s in a panic because he’s bet all of his money, plus Slag’s entire end of the purse, on tonight’s battle versus younger opponent Buzz Kinney (John Wayne—Yep, the Duke). Slag is at Puff Rogers’ place flirting with a showgirl (Joyce Compton) to loosen up before his fight. Wynne Gibson plays Puff, a nightclub operator in the Texas Guinan mold, who we first meet singing a tune from her own stage. After Puff’s performance Pin arrives to collect Slag and get him to the arena.
Young Buzz puts a beating on Slag, leaving the old-timer bleeding on his stool in the corner between rounds. “Slag, you can’t lose this,” Pin pleads. “I’ve got a reason.” Slag gets knocked down and then out before the end of the next round. Pin is crushed.
Slag tries to collect an advance on his next fight from fight promoter, Cash Enright (Morgan Wallace), who not only rejects him, but tells Slag that he’s washed up in the fight game. “You’re a has been, the time’s come to bury you,” Cash says.
Next stop, Puff’s place, but Puff can’t stand Pin and isn’t willing to give him one slim dime. Pin leaves, dejected and desperate.
An interesting living arrangement reveals itself after Slag escorts Puff home. They occupy the same floor of a hotel in what turns out to be connected rooms. Slag and Puff each enter their own rooms, but once inside Slag joins Puff in her bedroom where they continue their conversation while undressing for bed. Before the exact sleeping arrangements are made clear the couple are interrupted by a knock at Puff’s door. It’s an acquaintance who’s come to tell Slag that Pin has just tried to recruit him to help rob promoter Enright’s safe at the fight arena. Puff tries to stop Slag from going to help Pin, but it’s just the first of many ultimatums that Slag refuses to heed.
Slag arrives moments after the night watchman puts a slug into Pin to prevent the robbery. Puff helps Slag put over Pin’s death as a suicide, but she’s ripe for them to collect their just due after intercepting a mysterious telegram addressed to the late fight manager. The message is from somebody named Ted and coded with a series of Es and Gs that Puff thinks she’s half figured out. “I get that G stuff,” she says. “It means grand, you sap.” She believes Pin was supposed to meet this Ted at a house in Ironton to collect four thousand dollars, a grand for each G.
The Ironton house is simple little home nestled in the suburbs. It’s about a third of the way through Lady and Gent when Slag and Puff answer the door and meet Ted—a boy of about twelve (Billy Butts)—who explains, “James Streaver’s my father.” The Es and Gs? His school grades. Old Pin was a widower who despite his shady actions was really battling to keep up a nice house and weekend visits to his boy. Ted’s never known his father as Pin and has no idea of his involvement in the fight game. He thinks his dad and Slag are traveling salesman and charms Slag by telling him how much his dad thought of him and Mrs. Bailey. Mrs. Bailey? Well, Pin said his two best friends, Slag and Puff, were married.
It’s all too much for Puff, who just wants Slag to tell the kid that his father’s dead as soon as possible so they can get out of Ironton and back to the city. A night turns into a month and then years as an unlikely family unit forms inside the Ironton home. Slag and Puff pose as husband and wife and proudly raise Ted from boyhood to college age (Charles Starrett takes over the part of Ted as a young man).
The former fighter gets a job at the steel mill, while the night club hostess is flattered into accepting the presidency of the Better Yard and Garden Club. Slag is sold on their situation from the start, happily slipping into the ready made father role and adjusting to a new blue collar life. Puff fights it, but despite her often fiery demeanor she’s just as hooked on Ted as Slag is, and proud of the non-traditional family unit they’ve formed.
Some of the contemporary reviews thought Lady and Gent pushed too far in having the fight angle come full circle, but doing so leads to an original climax that allows Slag to try and save Ted while vanquishing an old enemy and finally cementing his relationship with Puff, who gets to show how much she really cares for the big lug and all he’s done for their makeshift family. Delight Evans of Screenland wrote, “Hokum? Maybe. But the very best hokum.” While Billy Butts, who played young Ted, is no Jackie Cooper, Lady and Gent otherwise holds up as well as the much better remembered, but even hokier, film that topped it for that Academy Award, The Champ.
Lady and Gent was directed by Stephen Roberts during his tenure as a Paramount contract director. It’s the first of three strong consecutive features at the studio for Roberts, who followed with The Night of June 13th (1932) and The Story of Temple Drake (1933). It’s a shame the first two movies aren’t as well known as the notorious third title. During this period Roberts also directed two scenes from If I Had a Million, including the segment featuring Wynne Gibson. He gets strong performances from both of his leads in Lady and Gent with the often larger than life Bancroft underplaying throughout and Gibson making the most of the flashier feminine lead.
As noted at the top of this piece Lady and Gent was remade in 1939 as Unmarried with Helen Twelvetrees in the Gibson role and cowboy star Buck Jones stepping out of his spurs to take on the Bancroft part. Gleason’s real-life pal Robert Armstrong played Pin(s) Streaver in the remake.
Both films were originally Paramount properties now held under lock and key by Universal. While we can hope they eventually make their way to the Vault Series, best bet for now is to search the gray market at FindOldMovies and be happy to see either at all.
- Evans, Delight. “Reviews of the Best Pictures.” Screenland. October 1932, 56.
- Rev. of Lady and Gent. Motion Picture Herald. 9 July 1932, 31.