An innocent and unemployed chorine is stranded when robbed of her Chicago train fare by a carnival hustler’s shill. The shill splits with his partner, who doesn’t ask too many questions after a poor night’s take. Heading off to make a night of it, the hustler spots the pretty young chorine and does his best to make a date with her. She’s already in a huff after rejecting an offer from the lecherous carny bosses to join the show as a cooch dancer, so she’s quick to smack the persistent pick-up artist. He takes it well enough, and she eventually takes him up on his offer to buy her dinner.
Neither of them are yet aware that he’s sprung for that meal on her own dime.
She cools him off by making up a story about a rough and protective policeman brother and they soon go their separate ways. She returns to the carny boss to take the cooch dancer gig after he’s promised her she won’t come to any great disgrace working the blow off. She makes a narrow escape from the boss’s pawing and groping to stumble into the compartment where all of the wild animals are kept. The next day the boss has his revenge by pushing her towards the stage to shake her stuff with the other dancers, but a raid sweeps her up before anybody can see her. The hustler she’d been out with the night before takes pity, especially after he figures out that he’d been spending her money. He puts his shill back to work grabbing her bail money from the carny till.
The judge frees her on the condition she leave town. No problem, except by the time she joins the rest of the performers on the Chicago bound train the boss knows where her bail money came from and he tosses her off. Her benefactor soon follows, leaping from the moving train and ducking for cover to avoid the boss’s gunfire.
She signs into a hotel under an assumed name and they meet again later that night when he trails behind and takes the room next to hers after hearing that there’s a new skirt staying there. He comes clean about her money and vows to earn enough to get her on that train to Chicago.
Unfortunately, Good Dame now leaves the colorful carnival setting and the rest of its sleazy employees behind for good to concentrate on the romance between stars Fredric March and Sylvia Sidney. Ordinarily that would be fine, but that loss of atmosphere can’t help being a bit of let down, as is the disappearance of Bradley Page, who plays the legal adjustor, and, especially, the carny manager played by Jack La Rue. Also gone is Kathleen Burke, best known as the Panther Woman from The Island of Lost Souls, underused in just a couple of scenes as an animal handler who March briefly flirts with.
One half of the starring duo, Sylvia Sidney, is cast in her most familiar type role at that time, virtuous and adorable young woman, toughened up by hard knocks, but still a sweet and romantic kid. The other half, Fredric March, is a bit out of his element as a petty criminal and ignorant lout, but he’s a strong enough actor to carry off a part that’s more reminiscent of the type of roles Spencer Tracy was playing at Fox during this time.
As Mace Townsley, March is always on the make but, given the class of woman he usually goes for, he doesn’t quite know what to make of Sidney’s virtue as Lillie. The second time they meet, after he’s learned she’s actually a chorus girl, he suspects she’s been putting him on by acting innocent. “C’mon, baby, take ‘em off,” he says, giving her a scare. “Take what off?” she asks. “The wings.”
But Mace soon figures out that Lillie was telling him the truth, she actually is a good dame, so he does his best to restrain his typical come on. He mentions there being one thing he’s never done, stopping himself from doing it now by taking a deep breath and returning to his room with a farewell of, “Good bye, innocent.” But Lillie has him all worked up, so without pausing a moment Mace grabs a bottle of liquor and heads across the hall to the arms of welcoming townie Puff Warner (Noel Francis), the same woman he’d slept with the night before. Mace and Puff polish off that bottle and make plans to go out, but she insists he change his shirt. In what begins as a bit of unintended sabotage, Lillie has absconded with all of his clothes to spend the evening washing and repairing them. When Mace confronts her, Lillie takes the opportunity to tear his one decent shirt and burn another with an iron. She forces his hand and gets Mace to stay the evening to talk to her.
“I’m sick of you calling me good,” Lillian tells him, after they begin to bicker anew. She adds, “I’m sick of being good.” Mace spends the night with her.
The following morning she plans to surprise him with breakfast, but Mace says there’s plenty of time for breakfasts in the future. “Here I am, a guy who thinks he knows his groceries, and what happens?” Now I got to carry them home every night.” It’s a marriage proposal and an offer to settle down, but one made with such a lack of romance that Lillian rebuffs him. From now on, they vow to stick to business. He’s picked up work as a door-to-door salesman with an eye towards earning her fare to Chicago. She tags along as a sort of caddy, helping him get past hotel signs warning against solicitation by posing as somebody interested in renting a room in order to distract the clerks.
Their routine works well and after a month of business only they’re just three bucks away from earning her fare to Chicago. That’s when the plan goes awry, but without their knowing it the time that Mace and Lillie have spent together has brought them closer together than they’d ever suspected. The climax plays out in a courtroom where Mace faces charges of assault and burglary and Lillian, rushing to his rescue, is recognized by the two cops who took her in on lewdness charges earlier in the movie.
If you like Sylvia Sidney, Good Dame is going to work for you. It’s her fifth of six pre-Code era films made under the direction of Marion Gering, which accounts for just over one-third of his total directorial output. I wrote a little about Gering’s career arc in my post about 24 Hours (1931), one of just eleven non-Sidney features he directed (as is Devil and the Deep). Sidney had also previously worked with co-star Fredric March in Merrily We Got to Hell (1932), though they both ranked a bit higher in society in that more sophisticated sex drama.
Good Dame will be a harder sell for March fans, though it shows his ability to handle a character much cruder than his usual sophisticates. He begins as a dimwitted shirt chaser who’s tamed over the course of the movie by Sidney’s character. It’s a performance that’s grown on me as March makes it clear from the start that beyond the larceny of Mace there’s always a small flicker of decency. Beyond either of the stars the highlight of Good Dame is the wild slang in the dialogue they dish back and forth to each other which, not surprisingly, sounds a lot more natural rolling off of Miss Sidney’s Bronx-bred tongue.
“I’ll give you one for Ripley, wisey,” she says to him, before explaining she’s never had a boyfriend. “I’ve had so much experience wrestling fellas, I bet I could throw Zbyszko.”
My favorite exchange is probably this one:
“Oh, stop calling me baby,” Lillian says.
“I call all dames baby.”
“All right, wisey.”
“Don’t call me wisey,” he says. “I don’t like it.”
“And I don’t like baby.”
Take that, wisey.
Good Dame is a small movie with big stars offering a tiny slice of romance for the down and out. While it’s great to see the young lovers escape the carnival life, it’s a shame that the show couldn’t have at least stayed in town with them.
Good Dame has never had a home video release. Gray market copies can be found through the FindOldMovies search engine. Good luck finding a better one than I had (sorry about those screen captures!).
* Note —
The IMDb has the wrong release date for this title. A February 16 release date was mentioned for several weeks in advance and is likely based on Good Dame’s inclusion in Motion Picture Herald’s “Theatre Receipts” report for the week ended February 17, 1934 (it had already been playing in Indianapolis by then). The March 17 release date listed on the IMDb is actually the date that Film Daily reviewed Good Dame—I’ve seen this same type of error a few times now.
Mace Townsley. What a name.
This is one of the few March films I haven’t seen. I just obtained a copy of it, and after a quick check, it looks about like this one. A shame.
Great write-up, Cliff.
Cliff Aliperti says
Since you’re the first friend I think of when I think Fredric March, I’ll be especially curious to hear what you thought of this performance after you get to watch it.
It’s definitely not a familiar characterization for March compared to the titles I’ve taken in, so I’m wondering if there’s another that you’d compare it to. I was a little crossed-up the first time I watched, but by the time I wrote this I’d watched the movie 3-4 times over the past year and he grew on me every time.
As for Sylvia Sidney, well, I love her in everything and this is more of the same, at least the same as she was doing during this period.