The Classic Film and TV Cafe is hosting the "My Favorite Classic Movie" blogathon in celebration of "National Classic Movie Day," May 16, 2015. The list of posts from other contributors is filled with major classics—I'm talking everything from Citizen Kane and City Lights to Lawrence of Arabia and The Leopard to The Wizard of Oz and Yankee Doodle Dandy and beyond—big movies! And here I come, slipping in with a little Warner Bros. "B" title that's better known today than it was a year after its original release, yet remains somewhat obscure to all but the pre-Code junkies and other hardcore classic movie fans. So is Employees' Entrance really my favorite?
Remember, there is a difference between best and favorite. If memory serves, I first found this one not long after I joined eBay in early 2000 and embarked on a quest to purchase every old movie I could find that had been released to (ergh!) VHS. Employees' Entrance came in a "Forbidden Hollywood" sleeve and at that time served as my introduction to "pre-Code" movies. I'd seen 'em before, never really bothered to learn about or really acknowledge the classification until I found those videos and had something to collect. At that point in my life movies were either old or new, bad or good, but hey, I always did love the oldies that I'd already come to know.
Since that VHS purchase and subsequent bootleg DVD-R copies, back-up home recordings when TCM played it (got to have back ups!), and, finally, Warner Archive's 2013 Forbidden Hollywood Volume 7 release, I've spent the past fifteen years watching Employees' Entrance over and over again, yes, more than any other movie. So I'm comfortable calling it my favorite.
The movie is set mostly inside the great Franklin-Monroe Department Store in its contemporary time, (here it comes) during the depths of the Great Depression. This setting provides plenty of color in the way of vintage metal toys, row upon row of sheet music, a model home and its wax bananas, elevator operators rattling off store contents that range from the familiar to the extinct, Charles Lane popping up to sell shoes, and backroom business meetings where there's action ranging from wrangling over the financial health of the department store with the bankers, to brainstorming the most effective display for men's drawers with the department heads.
Casual fans may be drawn to the movie by Loretta Young's presence, but Employees' Entrance showcases Warren William as the irreplaceable manager of the huge Franklin-Monroe store and its twelve thousand employees. We're introduced to William's Kurt Anderson when the store owner and investment bankers call him into their meeting with plans of calling him on the carpet for lack of growth. Anderson sits smugly listening to them for a few moments before turning the meeting upside-down. He insults them, declares that they need him more than he needs them, and demands they double his salary and grant him absolute power. "My code is smash—or be smashed," says the man who returns to a desk with a bust of Napoleon resting at one corner.
Admittedly, Warren William's Kurt Anderson is a sexist cad, there's no getting around that point, so his behavior may make some modern viewers uncomfortable. It's also 1933, so Anderson's ideas and actions are largely typical of his time. He is upfront and comfortable about his use of women. He despises them as a distraction to work and career, yet he craves them for sex. He uses his power to entice Loretta Young's character, Madeline, to spend the night with him after they've just met. Later, at a party, he gets her drunk and volunteers his hotel room for her to sleep off the booze. Moments after Madeline enters, Anderson follows.
Employees' Entrance was originally marketed around Anderson's predatory nature with Madeline's employment situation held up as a warning to young women to beware such relationships and the trouble they may lead to. What I find interesting about Anderson's caddish behavior is the odd color it paints his character who, despite his sexism, megalomania, and general tyrannical behavior, is the hero of Employees' Entrance.
Sure, we have the love story featuring Madeline and Anderson's right-hand man, Martin (Wallace Ford), to distract and give us more traditional heroes to root for. These newlyweds have to escape the department store before ambitious Martin turns into a younger version of Anderson, a personality Madeline is more intimately familiar with than she ever wants her husband to discover. But William as Anderson is such a titanic presence that he overshadows every other character in the story.
The climax of Employees' Entrance finds Anderson simultaneously attempting to destroy Martin and Madeline's marriage so he can claim Martin as his apprentice, while forming an unlikely alliance with the store owner's dimwitted cousin, Ross (Albert Gran), to race against the clock and secure backing in order to turn back the bankers and retain control of the Franklin-Monroe department store. How unlikely is it for such a modest release of this period to present us with such a complicated character? We're pulling for Anderson on one front, while hissing him for coming in between the two likeable kids on another.
While Anderson exerts outside pressure on the relationship of the newlyweds, in the end he has no control over that situation. It all comes down to Martin's choice: his career or his wife? Neither Anderson or Madeline is willing to let him have both. However, if Martin makes the wrong choice, it's going to be impossible for us to continue rooting for Anderson in the bigger picture.
The bankers are ready to step in and oust Anderson from his position. As foolish as Ross may seem, even he understands that any short-term gains such a move may provide will lead to bankruptcy within a year or so. Anderson is a devil, but he has a track record of success and Ross realizes that nobody cares more about the success of the department store than Anderson. Employees' Entrance is of the time when nobody was more villainous than a banker, and so it is Anderson the hero continuing to smash his way through to defeat the bankers and, for the little corner of the Franklin-Monroe, the Great Depression itself.
Anderson's tactics and statements throughout Employees' Entrance are merciless, but as he states, "This is war." So when he overhears Martin brutally dismissing an artist who's failed to live up to expectations, Anderson consoles his regretful underling: "I used to feel sorry for them too." When another outside contractor who Anderson destroyed shows up at the Franklin-Monroe to work his way up from the bottom, Anderson offers him a stake. "Now you've got the right idea," he says to the new employee who's adapted his own attitudes. His offer is rebuffed. And when he fires a long-time employee who subsequently leaps to his death from inside the Franklin-Monroe, Anderson surmises, "When a man outlives his usefulness, he ought to jump out a window."
Hard times call for hard ideas, but Anderson saves most of his abuse for the bankers, owners, and executives. His fight for the Franklin-Monroe's survival is a fight to keep twelve thousand employees in their jobs. When times first turn hard he calls the executives together and institutes a pay cut among them, expressly so he doesn't have to layoff scores of employees working under them.
He's a complicated man, this Kurt Anderson, and Warren William is perfectly suited to the part, elevating the entire movie through his performance. If the movie had gone another way, if the Loretta Young-Wallace Ford romance stole our attention away from William, rather than vice versa, then this would be just another routine release of the period. Enjoyable, but not at all memorable. William's force of personality makes it both. Very much both.
Other delights of Employees' Entrance that continue to give me a kick: Owner Monroe's (Hale Hamilton) self-importance at the open ("Gentleman, the Trans-Atlantic fliers!"). The idea of the department store dick (Allen Jenkins) paying off that grand piano for the rest of his life. Anderson, letting down his guard with (hungover) Martin in the elevator the morning after the party, then just as suddenly: "The party's over!" Garfinkle's (Frank Reicher) mercenary turn. That damn men's lavatory on the fourth floor! Anderson to Ross: "Beginning to like me? I despise you for that." And, of course, Alice White as Polly, gold digger extraordinaire (Anderson to Polly: "I didn't know you with all your clothes on."), who has her salary doubled simply to tease the harmless Ross and keep him out of Anderson's hair.
As you've probably surmised, I'm a bit obsessive about this title, so this is not the first time I've covered it. You'll find a more standard review on Immortal Ephemera HERE. When I wrote that piece, I also wrote another looking at the movie entirely through the lens of the Anderson character on WarrenWilliam.com HERE. Finally, I combined bits from those two posts and then completely overhauled and revised them for my Employees' Entrance entry in my first eBook, 11 Pre-Code Hollywood Movie Histories, released last Fall.
Employees' Entrance is one of four movies included in Warner Archive's Forbidden Hollywood Volume 7 set. The set also contains another Warren William movie that I fell in love with at the same time, Skyscraper Souls, an MGM loan out that preceded and influenced Employees' Entrance. Also included are The Hatchet Man with Edward G. Robinson (excellent!) and Ex-Lady with Bette Davis (so-so). You can pick up the set from the Warner Bros. Store HERE or Amazon.com HERE.
And again, this appreciation was written for the "My Favorite Classic Movie" blogathon being hosted by the Classic Film and TV Cafe in celebration of "National Classic Movie Day." Be sure to have a look at all of the other favorites HERE.